Observations on the Manifesto

Posted: September 3rd, 2009 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized | 5 Comments »

* These are a series of observations on the original Information Visualization Manifesto. I will occasionally reiterate my points, from the manifesto and subsequent comments, for the sake of argument *

It has been great reading all the different reactions to the manifesto and witnessing the open debate within our community. I feel it’s extremely healthy and invigorating. As said before, if nothing else, I hope this will result in a positive introspection of our discipline.

The manifesto has been circulating a lot over the past few days, but I was particularly pleased to read the supportive posts from Robert Kosara (eagereyes.org), and Patricia McDonald (BBH Labs).

The manifesto introduced two different propositions: (1) a list of ten guidelines or principles, that has been for the most part consented by everyone; (2) a more controversial proposal for a stronger divide between Information Visualization and Information Art. I will therefore address these two parts separately.

The List

The list of considerations has been praised and well received by most people, but the following points have raised some concerns:

Form Follows Function

Some questioned this old maxim and considered that in the case of Information Visualization it should be rephrased to: Form follows Data. I do oppose to this interpretation. As explained in the manifesto: “Form doesn’t follow data. Data is incongruent by nature. Form follows a purpose, and in the case of Information Visualization, Form follows Revelation.” I provided the wooden chair analogy, but in a reply to one of the comments I provided a second metaphor. I think of data as the unwrapping of a recently purchased piece of IKEA furniture. Looking at all the components scattered across the floor, you cannot avoid but feeling slightly puzzled on what to do next. You can either look at the paper or embrace your creativity and generate an alternative object. But in both cases what will determine the form/shape/layout of the final piece will be the intent. Therefore, many derivations can result from this view, Form follows Intent, Form follows Purpose, etc. I simply decided to go for the most worn out, yet explicit statement - Form follows Function.

Interactivity is Key

This principle merits the reflection of us all. Jerome Cukier and David McCandless challenged the need for interactivity in Information Visualization. In a broader definition of Visualization I would certainly agree with this notion: Information can be successfully conveyed in either static or interactive mediums. However, we have to question what really sets us apart from other parallel fields such as Information Design or Information Graphics. I do believe one of the crucial benefits of Information Visualization is interactivity – which also explains why this area emerged from Computer Science and HCI. It’s this “computer-supported, interactive” visual representation of data that truly makes us different. And this unique offering “becomes imperative as the degree of complexity of the portrayed system increases”. The representation of complex networks is just an instance where interactivity should be mandatory.

The Power of Narrative

This point in particular, should have been read as a consideration, rather than a strict guideline. Nevertheless, “the question of narrative seems to lie at the heart of this Manifesto; the need to pose a specific question of the data and to weave coherent themes and stories from it.” explains Patricia McDonald. Kim Rees and Moritz Stefaner disputed well this prerequisite on every execution, particularly the type of self-made narrative that emerges from exploratory executions. And since we’re talking about analytical tools, this will be a recurrent occurrence. I like to compare this practice to a game designer who lays out an intended context, rules and narrative for the game, but then has this moment of delight when users engender their own narrative, their own path. This is intrinsic to the conception of Information Visualization as a discovery tool.

Look for Relevancy, Aspire for Knowledge, Avoid gratuitous visualizations

As Moritz Stefaner pointed out, these three principles could have easily been merged into one, since there’s a strong overlap between them. However, I do feel they’re individually significant and assertive to merit their own independent call.

Don’t Glorify Aesthetics

This principle has been very debated and since it relates closely to the second part “The Divide”, I will address it in that context.

The Divide

The proposed divide between Information Visualization and Information Art was by far the most contentious issue on the manifesto. It quickly derailed to a debate on Aesthetics versus Function and Art versus Science, and we all know how slippery these domains can be. Aesthetics is not the easiest term to define, and neither is Art. I do however look at aesthetics from a functional point of view, and to that extent I also do not appreciate the occasional discredit by the scientific community. If we decompose some of its tangible elements – color, shape, composition, symmetry – we can immediately perceive how aesthetics is an integral element in the usability and legibility of any execution in the realm of Information Visualization. But it’s not the only one.

One of the greatest qualities of Information Visualization, and certainly the main reason why I became interested in the field, is its diversity. It’s able to bring in people from all sorts of disciplines and backgrounds in a remarkably cohesive manner. I look at our practice as a dense voronoi treemap (I could not avoid using this metaphor), where many branches of knowledge come together for the common goal of revelation. This setup works well, when all elements of the equation operate in a sensible way, but when one escalates in detriment of the others, then we have a problem. And lately one end of the spectrum has been pulled in a much more sturdily way. The fallacy of Information Visualization being a conveyor of “pretty pictures” is drastically threatening the field, by undermining its goals and expectations. “We have to fight that or risk the trivialization and marginalization of visualization as an analytic tool”, asserts Robert Kosara on a recent review of the manifesto.

So what do we do at this stage? We either try to restore the balance or we acknowledge a clearer divide. I do not think we can have a convoluted multipurpose all-encompassing practice. This will be detrimental to us all.

As I stated in the manifesto, I think Information Visualization and Information Art can and should coexist, by learning from each other and cross-pollinating ideas, methods and techniques. In fact, I believe this separation is beneficial for both areas, since it frees them from inadequate concerns and aspirations. Information Art can really push the creative limits of data and in the process generate new techniques and algorithms, but also spark public discourse – one of the great qualities of Art. On the other hand, Information Visualization can mature as an analytical tool, providing a reliable and critical source of insight to many future challenges we are still to face.

We have observed a similar symbiotic process between Art and Cartography for many centuries. Several authors have written on this subject and David Woodward, in his Art & Cartography, published in 1987, describes in detail how numerous artists were influenced by cartography, and how maps themselves were hanged in walls as pieces of art. Nevertheless, both fields have always kept their independent paths and individual aspirations.

The divide between Information Visualization and Information Art is not clear-cut and there’s certainly space for a thriving middle ground. Labels can also be changed. Kosara even suggests we start using the term “Visual Analysis” as a substitute for Visualization. This is something we can certainly discuss as a community, and there are many benefits to do so. Once we all agree on what we do, it will be easier for others to recognize the goals and boundaries of our growing discipline.

* You’re welcomed to continue the discussion here, or add your comment to the original post on the manifesto *