Diagrams vs. Info Visualization

Color Wheel (Moses Harris, 1766)  Moses Harris's chart was the first full-color circle. The 18 colors of his wheel were derived from what he then called the three 'primitive' colors: red, yellow and blue. At the center of the wheel, Harris showed that black is formed by the superimposition of these colors.

Color Wheel (Moses Harris, 1766)
Moses Harris’s chart was the first full-color circle. The 18 colors of his wheel were derived from what he then called the three ‘primitive’ colors: red, yellow and blue. At the center of the wheel, Harris showed that black is formed by the superimposition of these colors.

I was poking around on Brain Pickings today, when I ran across a really interesting post entitled “100 Diagrams that Changed the World.” I immediately wanted to share this cool find, but as I was scrolling through pictures of the Rosetta Stone and da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, I began to doubt whether diagrams actually count as information visualizations. Here’s the argument:

Cons:

  • Diagrams have existed for thousands of years and information visualization is a newly emerging field
  • Many of the diagrams featured are textually based and include no numerical data
  • Some diagrams listed here are entirely conceptual and don’t have any scientific basis
  • Most diagrams don’t incorporate huge data sets

Pros:

  • Both encode information and make it more understandable through visual principles
  • Mathematical graphs are often called diagrams, and many of the drawings featured in the post represent mathematical and scientific ideas.
  • Both diagrams and information visualizations have the power to alter world views

Ultimately, I’d argue that diagrams should count under the header of information visualization. This brings me back to our first class, when we were asked to define the word and to determine whether each picture in a series should count as a visualization, or not. At the end of class, we reached agreement that all of the images we viewed should, indeed count, though some were more effective than others. If  information visualization is about interpreting data and finding relationships that might not otherwise be perceivable, than yes, all of theses diagrams should count. Even a completely qualitative diagram like the Rosetta Stone reveals a pattern without which we’d not be able to read Egyptian hieroglyphic.

Finally, Scott Christianson, author of 100 Diagrams that Changed the World writes that,

It appears that no great diagram is solely authored by its creator. Most of those described here were the culmination of centuries of accumulated knowledge. Most arose from collaboration (and oftentimes in competition) with others. Each was a product and a reflection of its unique cultural, historical and political environment. 

[…]

The great diagrams depicted in the book form the basis for many fields — art, astronomy, cartography, chemistry, mathematics, engineering, history, communications, particle physics, and space travel among others. More often than not, however, their creators — mostly known, but many lost to time — were polymaths who are creating new technologies or breakthroughs by drawing from a potent combination of disciplines. By applying trigonometric methods to the heavens, or by harnessing the movement of the sun and the planets to keep time, they were forging powerful new tools; their diagrams were imbued with synergy.

This brings us full circle to the other topic of our first class: Steve Johnson’s TED Talk “Where do good ideas come from?” and reinforces the idea that ideas are generated from networks, not in a vacuum. Like ideas, information visualization is a ‘new’ field that grew from the seeds sewed by those hand-drawn diagrams, produced hundreds of years ago; diagrams are one of the fundamentals of this field.

What do you think: do diagrams count?

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