It is interesting to consider how advanced we are at reading symbols. Everyday we make use of them in all kinds of ways; symbols are integral to fast cognitive processing of information, through the use of colour, size and orientation. More importantly, symbolic representations are fundamental to information graphics.
To stress the value of information graphics, let’s consider road signs. Imagine how difficult it would be to drive, if all road signs were black and white written instructions. Road signs incorporate shape, colour and size in order to convey different messages, and as road users, we become familiar with them to the point that our cognition of them is instantaneous.
The signs and symbols, which feature on the road, are largely universal (i.e. red means danger), and thus are a feature of graphical representations of information in all types of fields. The success of visualising information seems to be in the way size, colour, shape and orientation are socially accepted to represent and communicate various things. When thinking about data visualisations however, not only can a graphical representation speed up cognitive reception of data, but it can also enable pattern recognition, that is the ability for us to see things that we couldn’t see before.
A visualisation that does this well is The Scale of the Universe’ produced by Cary and Michael Haung (2012). This interactive visualisation really does reflect the benefit of visualisations over raw data. It is impossible for us to fathom the scale of comparable objects in the universe; however this visualisation affords the user, the ability to zoom through a virtual universe, from the Hubble space field, right through to the size of a Planck length. Effectively this enables an understanding of size through comparison, something numbers on such a scale cannot do justice.
Whilst graphics do afford an ability to grasp information in different ways to raw data, they are often abstract representations. Plato’s dialogue on art and illusion deals with the idea that images are not real but rather an illusion. Images are illusory because they attempt to depict reality, yet in reality they are only pictures. Plato alludes to the fact that art is viewed by the soul. Therefore it could be said that our interpretation of aesthetics is biased because we are being subject to the image not only playing on our conscious senses attempting to analyse meaning and data, but also on our deeper subconscious. My argument is that images are not black and white. Just like artwork in a gallery, different people will interpret what they see differently. The aesthetic component of data visualisations therefore can potentially lead to individuals making sense of information in different ways, identifying different relationships, processes and correlations in data.
This idea is integral to understanding the comprehension of visualisations. To explain, consider the various ‘tools’ implemented in Visualisations in order to represent data graphically. For example, Timo Arnell considers the thickness of a line to represent the strength of relationships between entities. A dotted line, he explains, can be applied to 2D drawings to give a 3D transparent appearance, showing the viewer what exists out of sight. The line is simply what it is; a line, however our interpretation of the line is dependent on our understanding of its symbolic representation.
Arnell, Timo (2006) ‘the dashed line in use’, <http://www.nearfield.org/2006/09/the-dashed-line-in-use>
Haung, C & M (2012) ‘Scale of the Universe; An Interactive Scale of the Universe Tool’ http://www.diigo.com/bookmark/http%3A%2F%2Fprimaxstudio.com%2Fstuff%2Fscale_of_universe?tab=comment
Plato (n.d.) on ‘art and illusion’ in ‘a snippet of a dialogue: Theodorus – Theaetetus – Socrates – an Eleatic stranger’ from Sophist, <http://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/ancient-greece/plato/plato-sophist.asp?pg=34>