For everything that is right about this stunning blend of visualization techniques I cannot look past the glaring cock up of not labeling the axes properly.

Still, there is so much to learn from bringing together different approaches to visualization. In this video we have innovative mapping techniques1 that by themselves blur the boundary between photography (or cinematography in this case) and data visualization. We have layers of information that work in unison to convey an overarching theme. Quantitative information of accumulation over time is superimposed on the mapping visualization. We have a narrative structure provided by the voiceover that brings yet another stream of data to the piece.

The next step in the evolution of visualization as I see it would be to make the choices that seem artistically motivated and somewhat arbitrary in this video a matter of conscious translation from raw data into accessible representations of complex knowledge structures. We have yet to find a robust methodical solution to the question just how much information may be simultaneously conveyed through the visual and the acoustic channel. Furthermore we need to establish which kind of data should be directed where, when we are trying to create rich visualizations. As ever, we are faced with fighting complexity.

I find this video quite reminiscent of the kinds of solutions that augmented reality affords us with when trying to overlay information inputs. Referring back to the fine line between photography and data visualization, we will need to reassess our ideas about visualization when our tools start mimicking reality in the way they present us data about it2.


  1. The author of the original rendering of the globe that went into the video did various map experiments to illustrate the Anthropocene, showing several features of our global civilization: cities, built environment, transmission lines, pipelines, main paved and unpaved roads and railways. http://vimeo.com/27891029 

  2. To make no mention of how to incorporate narrative structures as meaningful elements into visualizations. That topic is even more imminent and warrants some in depth consideration. Hopefully I’ll get around to it soon. 

The video of Jer Thorp speaking about visualization at TEDxVancouver has been making the rounds among data visualization people. Jer demonstrates quite aptly what a lot of people in visualization strive to achieve: create a narrative structure that amplifies the cognitive efficacy of data, or in other words, helps human find meaning in data. That’s what “data in a human context” is all about.

I’d like to point you to two angles on this talk that at first glance seem only remotely related to visualization, yet deserve some recognition of their own:

  1. The reference to HyperCard is perhaps one of the single most useful pieces of inspiration to creators of meaning out there. There has not been a product quite like it ever since it was expelled from the walled garden of Apple and yet this part of the history of modern communication technology is easily overlooked because it no longer matches people’s perception of how to use computers. No longer does the average user feel that she can tinker with a device to make it solve computational problems for which no app exists. Hypercards addressed a fundamental problem of how we can create a pathway to make knowledge accessible. Much of it came down to the way it incorporated explorability and reduced complexity into a framework where you could create your own tools without having to study programming first. Bereft of such an experience in the post-PC world (sic!) where will a new generation of users find the inspiration to be creators?

  2. Meaning, not just in this talk but also in visualization in general, is created through finding connective patterns for pieces of information. The adhesive structure that links nodes of knowledge to each other is actually not just a byproduct of certain visualizations. It is the very structure by which knowledge is organized in our minds. Frames is a concept that you should familiarize yourself with, if you really mean to create content that is structured to amplify cognition. And I’m not saying that because I have a soft spot for connectionism.

(via just about everyone in my twitterstream)

Periodic Table of Storytelling by *ComputerSherpa

Skeuomorphism continues to be a topic in IxD and web design circles. I think this merits revisiting the phenomenon, if only briefly, to discuss how it applies to visualization. In my previous article I defined the phenomenon thusly:


  Skeuomorphism in its essence is a design cue or pattern that is nonessential for the functionality of a design. However, it is reminiscent of a former design, where it originally was essential.


Now, instead of furniture or web apps, I’d like to consider how such patterns translate into a visualization context. The example of the periodic table seems a great fit for a quick demonstration.

The structure and alignment of the elements in this periodic table about story tropes tells us nothing about their relation to each other. Both the position of the groups from and the position of the elements within each group are arbitrary. Hence the paradigm in which the information is arranged is nonfunctional when we compare it to the periodic table of elements. There we can infer the atomic number of elements from their position within the paradigm. The original table shows us the properties of chemical elements and the relations between those properties.

In our example about story tropes the structure is merely a decorative element. It is a lot of fun, though. The table has appeal that it would not have, were it not for the skeuomorphic reference to the iconic original.

Is it possible to make a functional appropriation of the periodic table? Alessio Corti says yes. There at least should be a periodic table of mathematical shapes. But that’s besides the point.

The lesson for visualization in its broad sense, encompassing data crunching as well as explanatory diagrams, is that even nonfunctional elements can be meaningful. They enrich the data with a frame of reference. You can communicate the atomic properties of narratives through the metaphor that the periodic table invokes. Create molecular narrative structures out of the elements. Thus, the decoration becomes a narrative of its own to guide your exploration of data.

(via Speakersjourney)

Periodic Table of Storytelling by *ComputerSherpa

Skeuomorphism continues to be a topic in IxD and web design circles. I think this merits revisiting the phenomenon, if only briefly, to discuss how it applies to visualization. In my previous article I defined the phenomenon thusly:

Skeuomorphism in its essence is a design cue or pattern that is nonessential for the functionality of a design. However, it is reminiscent of a former design, where it originally was essential.

Now, instead of furniture or web apps, I’d like to consider how such patterns translate into a visualization context. The example of the periodic table seems a great fit for a quick demonstration.

The structure and alignment of the elements in this periodic table about story tropes tells us nothing about their relation to each other. Both the position of the groups from and the position of the elements within each group are arbitrary. Hence the paradigm in which the information is arranged is nonfunctional when we compare it to the periodic table of elements. There we can infer the atomic number of elements from their position within the paradigm. The original table shows us the properties of chemical elements and the relations between those properties.

In our example about story tropes the structure is merely a decorative element. It is a lot of fun, though. The table has appeal that it would not have, were it not for the skeuomorphic reference to the iconic original.

Is it possible to make a functional appropriation of the periodic table? Alessio Corti says yes. There at least should be a periodic table of mathematical shapes. But that’s besides the point.

The lesson for visualization in its broad sense, encompassing data crunching as well as explanatory diagrams, is that even nonfunctional elements can be meaningful. They enrich the data with a frame of reference. You can communicate the atomic properties of narratives through the metaphor that the periodic table invokes. Create molecular narrative structures out of the elements. Thus, the decoration becomes a narrative of its own to guide your exploration of data.

(via Speakersjourney)