1932 + 1933

Posted: January 30th, 2009 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized | 7 Comments »

I usually don’t like to brag about a particular acquisition, but in this case I will make an exception. I was completely over the moon when I finally held in my hands the original Harry Beck London Underground foldout map from 1933. But I was even more thrilled to get hold of the preceding version of the map from 1932, clearly based on geographical location. London is undoubtedly an amazing place for someone interested in antique maps and books…

The two maps on the top are only a few months apart; however, they are separated by a drastic shift in mindset. The one on the left is the foldout map from 1932, still trying to conform to the geographical accuracy of its many stations. The one on the right, from 1933, was the brainchild of engineering draftsman Harry Beck, who decided to disregard geography for sake of legibility and understanding, leading to an irreversible path to abstraction that reached its peak with Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 map of the New York City Subway system. Beck’s contribution ended up becoming a major landmark of Information/Graphic Design and one of the most important maps of all time.

He believed that passengers riding the trains weren’t too bothered about the geographical accuracy, but were more interested in how to get from one station to another, and where to change. Thus he drew his famous diagram, looking more like an electrical schematic than a true map, on which all the stations were more or less equally spaced.

This path to abstraction started a few years before, in 1920 to be precise, with MacDonald Gill’s version, where he removed all the background detail (roads, parks, etc) that had been included in most of the previous designs. But it was Harry Beck who took the decisive step forward.

The Underground management was a little unsure of how the public would react to such a revolutionary change in the design, and in this original trial run from 1933 you can read a note on the front cover inviting people to send their comments to the Publicity Manager. The new map would end up being extremely well received, and becoming a major influence to all underground (subway) maps in the world.

It’s only when you see the two maps side-by-side (before and after) that you really understand the challenge and achievement of Harry Beck. This is the main reason why I’m having them framed together, to allow for an easy comparison between the two. What’s so impressive about Beck’s design, apart from its historical significance, is that it looks as modern and fresh today as it did in 1933. Follow this link for an extended history of the London Underground map.


Call for submissions to PJIM

Posted: January 29th, 2009 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

On January 19th the Parsons Institute for Information Mapping (PIIM) launched the inaugural issue of their new academic journal and online forum – the Parsons Journal for Information Mapping (PJIM). PJIM focuses on both the theoretical and practical aspects of information visualization. With each issue, the Journal aims to present novel ideas and approaches that advance the field of Knowledge Visualization through visual, engineering, and cognitive methods.

They are interested in publishing original essays, academic manuscripts, interactive and non-interactive projects, and project documentation that address representation, processing, and communication of information. PJIM encourages interdisciplinary thinking and approaches.

PIIM is a great research institution that has been at the forefront of Information Design/Visualization for many years. I was fortunate to be part of the team back in 2004 and it was a perfect breeding ground for many early ideas leading to birth of VisualComplexity.com.

For more information and submission guidelines, visit http://piim.newschool.edu/journal/submissions


Brain + Universe

Posted: January 27th, 2009 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized | 10 Comments »

I usually end up most of my presentations with the teaser “Is there a universal structure?”, immediately followed by these two images:

I will not expand too much on the significance of this comparison, since I rather have people making their own judgment, but the similitude is nonetheless quite thought-provoking.

The image on the left shows a mouse’s neuronal network, with a prominent neuron and a set of branching axons. “Brains are gorgeous at the right magnification”, says Mark Miller, author of the image and a self-described intracellular recording artist. On his “neuro” flickr set, Mark has roughly 35 amazing images showing different aspects of neuronal networks - well worth your time.

The image on the right depicts the “evolution of the matter distribution in a cubic region of the Universe over 2 billion light-years”, in the most realistic simulation ever of the growth of cosmic structure and the formation of galaxies and quasars. In a paper published in Nature, in June 02, 2005, an international group of astrophysicists from the UK, Germany, Japan, Canada and the USA, showed how comparing such simulated data to large observational surveys can reveal the physical processes underlying the build-up of real galaxies and black holes. It kept the principal supercomputer at the Max Planck Society’s Supercomputing Centre in Garching, Germany, occupied for more than a month in applying sophisticated modeling techniques to the 25 Terabytes (25 million Megabytes) of stored output, allowing scientists to recreate evolutionary histories for approximately 20 million galaxies.

This paralellism can lead to many philosophical arguments, from the omnipresence of networks, to the structural resamblance at opposing ends of human scale. Regardeless of how fortuitious this alikeness might seem, it still provides us with a stimulating topic for a compelling debate.


The Brain Unmasked

Posted: January 22nd, 2009 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

In case you haven’t followed the latest addition to the VC database, here are some more spectacular images of the brain using a new imaging technology that provides an unprece­dented view of ­its complex neural structures. You can see more images and videos on a related article in MIT Technology Review.


See Conference

Posted: January 22nd, 2009 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

The See Conference (see#4) is back again. In 2009 the conference will again bring together fields like design, art, new media and architecture, exploring “new approaches that are being developed to confront the flood of information and transform it into useful knowledge”. The first four speakers for see#4 are already lined up: Aaron Koblin of Google Creative Lab, the software artist Julian Oliver, Sebastian Oschatz from MESO Digital Interiors, Frankfurt and Eric Rodenbeck from Stamen Design. The see conference #4 will take place on April 18th 2009 at the historic Caligari Theatre in Wiesbaden, Germany.

You can see many other related conferences happening throughout the globe in 2009 by going to the Conferences page on VC blog.


Generative Art in VC

Posted: January 21st, 2009 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

Within the VC database there are only 7 projects that are genuine generative art pieces. To those who are not familiar with the term, and in order to clarify any misunderstanding, Wikipedia describes generative art as “art that has been generated, composed, or constructed in an algorithmic manner through the use of systems defined by computer software algorithms, or similar mathematical, mechanical or randomized autonomous processes”.

There are dozens of other projects in VC that reveal a similar visual output, and share an analogous execution process, however, there’s still a pivotal difference between them. All digital projects featured under Art are always fed by a specific data type (e.g. electrical signals from plants, cellphone traffic migration, rss feeds, images, URLs, or even barcodes). In opposition, these 7 projects are not dependent on any dataset. They were created by a specific algorithm that purely makes different “agents”, or “particles”, move through the screen in a semi-controlled way, leaving behind a rich trail of color and intricacy.

So why include these abstract pieces in VC? Because there’s an undeniable bond between Generative Art and VisualComplexity.com. A conceptual bond that embraces various scientific theories, such as Complexity, Chaos, Emergence and Information Theory, and relies on the philosophical notion of Rhizome, developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari on their groundbreaking book A Thousand Plateaus. Rhizome is a rich philosophical context for a collective mindset on “organized complexity”, which certainly influences many of us. This legitimate fascination is shared amongst many generative artists and is best exemplified in the words of Marius Watz: “I believe that the scientific principle of complexity is a crucial influence on the current scene, providing a departure from a reductionist understanding of the world”.

In order of appearance (left-right, top-down):


Asao Tokolo - Master of Pattern Design

Posted: January 16th, 2009 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Japanese Architect Asao Tokolo has been working in a wide range of fields, but he’s best known for his original graphic motifs called Tokolo Patterns. One of the many applications of his motifs has been on mosaics of captivating fridge magnets:

You could stick Tokolo Pattern Magnets on your refrigerator door, but the temptation to rotate them into endlessly new shapes — and the magic of the fact that every edge will always match every other, whatever’s happening in the tangled center of each tile — might make you forget why you came into the kitchen in the first place.

These patterns are extremely compelling for its flexible nature, leading to endless outcomes. They also provide interesting mathematical challenges that have been explored by other authors/researchers:

Scholarly papers have been dedicated to the ingenious ways these patterns can be generated and made to interlock and repeat — the fractal geometries of form. What interested Tokolo, though, was the way each tile could have a completely unique shape, and yet be made to link harmoniously to all the others — an unexpected harmony, perhaps, between Western individualism and Eastern collectivism.

Read more on Tokolo Patterns here and here.


Great animation in Berlin

Posted: January 13th, 2009 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

The last time I was in Berlin to give a talk at VizThink Europe, in October 2008, I saw an outstanding animation at the entrance hall of the German Historical Museum (Deutsches Historisches Museum) documenting the spreading of different hominid species from Africa to the rest of the World, all the way to modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) and the year 1 BC. The animation included a timeline on the bottom and two counters on the top (year and overall population). Different colors, representing each hominid species, were shown expanding through the globe as the timeline moved forward, even showing the advance and retreat of the Ice Age glaciers, and its impact on the different living species, in particular on European Neanderthals. The animation was in a flat (roughly 40″) screen in a pedestal next to a massive (4×4m) map of Europe showcasing the boundaries of Germany over the past millennium.

I’ve been trying to track down some details on this exhibit across the Web but wasn’t able to find anything. If someone knows who’s behind the work please let me know.


Babylon: Myth and Reality

Posted: January 12th, 2009 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

Last Saturday I went to The British Museum for the well anticipated Babylon exhibition. A lot of work went into the curatorship of the event, where many pieces from a variety of world museums were selected and shown side-by-side for a richer viewing experience. This worked particularly well on the case of the Tower of Babel, where you had a dedicated room with several artistic interpretations on the topic over the last millennium. The exhibition didn’t impress me as much as I was expecting, in part due to management issues. Too many people were let in in very short intervals of 10 minutes. This led to quickly packed rooms and corridors, that would already be very constrained for normal traffic.

Apart from some particularly vivid paintings, and the remarkably interesting cuneiforms (the first writing system in the world created by the Sumerians), what made my day was to finally be able to see up close the oldest known world map. Dated from the 6th century BC, the map, which was reconstructed by Eckhard Unger, shows the city of Babylon on the river Euphrates, surrounded by a circular landmass showing Assyria, Armenia and several cities. The circular landmass is in turn surrounded by a “bitter river” (Oceanus), with eight regions arranged around it so as to form a eight-pointed star. The map itself is small, occupying only two-thirds of the surface of a clay tablet that measures about 125 x 75 mm (5 x 3 in).

The accompanying text mentions eight outer regions beyond the encircling ocean. The descriptions of five of them have survived:

  • the third region is where “the winged bird ends not his flight,” i.e., cannot reach.
  • on the fourth region “the light is brighter than that of sunset or stars”: it lay in the northwest, and after sunset in summer was practically in semi-obscurity.
  • The fifth region, due north, lay in complete darkness, a land “where one sees nothing,” and “the sun is not visible.”
  • the sixth region, “where a horned bull dwells and attacks the newcomer”
  • the seventh region lay in the east and is “where the morning dawns.”

The old Babylonian World Map bears a striking similarity to many medieval T-O maps (see below).

The T-O map represents the physical world as first described by the 7th century scholar Isidore of Seville in his Etymologiae (chapter 14, de terra et partibus):

Orbis a rotunditate circuli dictus, quia sicut rota est [...] Undique enim Oceanus circumfluens eius in circulo ambit fines. Divisus est autem trifarie: e quibus una pars Asia, altera Europa, tertia Africa nuncupatur.

The [inhabitated] mass of solid land is called round after the roundness of a circle, because it is like a wheel [...] Because of this, the Ocean flowing around it is contained in a circular limit, and it is divided in three parts, one part being called Asia, the second Europe, and the third Africa.


History of Visual Communication

Posted: January 11th, 2009 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Artist and Designer Elif Ayiter, who has been previously featured in VC, has put together a great resource on The History of Visual Communication. From cave paintings to modern computer-driven executions made with Processing, this online compendium features a great array of images and insights on the different periods of human visual communication.

via Dynamic Diagrams:  Information Design Watch


Natural Systems in VC

Posted: January 6th, 2009 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized | 5 Comments »

In the growing database of VisualComplexity, currently featuring 640 projects, there are only 7 examples that are not human-generated “subjective” representations of a system, but plain snapshots of Nature. These pictures although involving a human action - through a camera depiction - don’t result in a subsequent human analysis through any sort of knowledge map, which characterizes all the remaining projects on VC. The debate over the representation of a system being (or not) the system itself, can easily drift into an interesting philosophical discussion where Alfred Korzybski’s statement “The map is not the territory” is surely one of many points of view.

Regardless of whether you feel these depictions of Nature are maps in their own right, they are certainly as stimulating as many of the human produced graphs on VC. I’m constantly bewildered by the inspiration Nature provides us in the most apparently insignificant and ordinary element. These 7 examples, featuring either a neural network, a gelatinous porpita porpita, or an exposed human iris, provide great inspiration for anyone dealing with the visualization of complex networks.

In order of appearance (left-right, top-down):