Playful Visualizations at Work, Working Visualizations at Play

Posts tagged ‘Aesthetics’

Artist Analyst

As we get closer to the end of the academic quarter, and thus the end of the grade-motivated production of our dialogue in our wonderfully exciting, structured seminar, I am reading more and more and feeling more and more excited by the anticipated art of this coming summer and how -fun- and -exhilarating- it will be to work through some of my photoshop/pixelmator frustrations and limitations using my hands and paint and epoxy and physical texts. I’m not anti-technology, and this seminar has certainly encouraged me to learn more and do more with my computer, but I can’t wait to be outside with just my hands and some supplies. I am going to spend one more week playing with pixelmator, but am certainly going to spend the next days, months, and years thinking about a number of ideas generated by our blog. One thought in particular that I want to note today was sparked by Liz’s most recent post in which she wrote:

This brings me back to something I had discussed earlier, which is that our data always seems to be more useful for ourselves than for our readers. This may explain why the scholarly article and book have had such a long life; they don’t simply convey understanding, they enact it as well. Close reading recreates, in the article, the process through which we imbue texts with meaning. The act of applying historical research to a volume of literature mimics the act of research and the flash of understanding that comes when one grasps how a specific historical fact is relevant to the text at hand. Articles are processes, they are a temporal movement towards the end of an argument. Visualizations, however, lack that sense of journey. They are always, already, at the end even when you, the reader, are still at the beginning.

Wow. One issue I’ve always had with writing is I can never quote quite enough of the brilliance I see in other people’s work. Luckily, no one is grading my blog (at least, I hope that my writing skills are not under serious scrutiny here as I rarely read over what I publish), so I get to copy Liz’s paragraph in all its glory. The value of a process versus the product has been a concern of mine for the past few months. I have hopped and skipped and (mostly) stumbled through a wide variety of text analysis tools, all kinds of word generators and algorithms that changed my text input into hilarious explosions of letters. As you have seen in my posts, I also spent quite a bit of time in Microsoft Office.  However, there is no single product of this play that to me says that, here, I’ve found something breathtakingly new and spectacularly beautiful/useful for my greater purposes of understanding David Foster Wallace’s last work. That said, I now have an intimacy with chapter 14 of The Pale King that I have with few other texts on the planet. When I think of other works I know as well, I can only come up with a handful: Julio Cortázar’s “El otro cielo,” Sophocles’ Antigone, Harry Potter books 5-7, and André Gide’s L’Immoraliste. What’s interesting about this list, in terms of what Liz wrote above, is that my closeness to this list of highly varied texts is derived from an equally varied list of practices of reading. Harry Potter I’ve read four to five times. That type of intimacy is easily understood, right? I teach Antigone every year to undergraduates. I wrote one of my senior theses in college on Cortázar’s “cielo.” I painted sections of L’Immoraliste in a similar way to the pictures of a painting I posted recently in the entry entitled “l’art pour l’art.” Liz’s statement, that the visualization lacks a sense of journey, really intrigues me. I think she is right, at least about a lot of types of visualizations. Temporally, writing an essay on Wallace demands more time than copying part of his novel into Many Eyes and seeing what types of visuals can be created from it. Additionally, the process, or the parts of the process we do not edit out of the final product, are more transparent. What I want to know, or to think about, is what the difference might be between the journey depicted in an article or conference presentation, and what one can see in a piece of art. As with a visualization like a graph or word cloud, it is difficult to see a process when looking at one of my paintings. I can see the process, of course, as the artist, but it is not immediately visible to an audience. Our relationship to our own work is, necessarily, so different from what anyone else might be able to take away from it. I like that with an essay, it is easier to trace or unpack the levels of research that have gone into constructing an argument. But, I also like that my art can stand alone, and that there are an infinite number of ways for an audience to evaluate, think about, or create from what I’ve done.

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Being Pretty

I have a confession to make. I think graphs are ugly. I know there are people out there in the world who find nothing more appealing than the freckles of a scatterplot or the smooth curve of a best-fit line. I am not among them. I appreciate their use, but as far as I am concerned, the best a graph can be is inoffensive.

And then there are the graphs that don’t even aspire towards inoffensiveness. Cluttered, colorless, with nearly illegible axes and pages of explanation that speak for the graph, these products of textual analysis may be of great import to their creators, but they are an affront to my sensibilities.

I would love to write a manifesto of visual aesthetics (actually, I think there’s a manifesto generator somewhere on the web that will do it for me), but both time and my own lack of knowledge prohibits me from doing so. You should all be grateful. I will, however, ask all you graphers, mappers and networkers to ask yourself the following questions when you decide to develop a useful and informative graph. (This means that if your goal is to push the limits of pure play or to create an image of beauty that may only be tangentially related to the original data, you are excused. You have other things to do. I am directing this request towards those who seem to feel that aesthetic concerns fade away in the face of simply displaying data.)

Is my visualization telling a story? All visualizations have stories even if the only story is about word usage in a given 19th century novel. But my question is whether the visualization itself is telling the story. Does it need explanatory passages? Does it need its creator standing by its side, helpfully telling you what it can’t articulate. Because if your visualization isn’t speaking for your data, then what is it for? If your purpose is to make something that was hidden become clear, then your data must make it clear. Your graph must speak for itself.

Given the confines of the data and analysis I am dealing with, could this be prettier? The answer is almost always yes. Even if all you do is change the default colors and resize the chart area, you will make a difference. I want to be able to stare at your visualization without feeling as though the fuzzy black dots are about to crawl off the page or as though the fire-engine red and the neon yellow are competing for the coveted prize of loudest shade. Look at your visualization and ask yourself whether, if you saw it on a wall, you would move closer to take a look or back away slowly. If you answer the latter, then please think about making some purely cosmetic changes. Both your data and I will thank you.

I’ll continue to think about this theme of making the useful beautiful as I explore what visualizations are supposed to do and how they do it, but, as they say, I just needed to get this out of my system.