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Monthly Archives: December 2007

Picked up this book the other day, “This means this, this means that: A user’s guide to Semiotics” because I liked the format. With every new concept, the author introduces a work of art or some kind of visual example of the idea he is trying convey. Unfortunately the book is mostly fluff, but it is a really nice format for a text on this subject. Yeah- mostly fluff, but there was one thing that got me thinking:

Language is an arbitrary signifier of an event/instance. If you are trying to communicate the idea of a dog, the four-legged furry man’s-best-friend type, to say or write the word d-o-g is completely arbitrary. The three letters that were assigned to represent “dog” are based on absolutely nothing. It could be p-u-m-p-k-i-n. Or s-k-y. Doesn’t even matter.

On the other hand, a small drawing or other representation of a dog immediately brings to mind the correct creature. Images are not arbitrary, they are physical reflections of a thing.

I’ve also spent some time with Nigel Holmes’s book “Wordless Diagrams” lately. Such a cool book. Every page is another illustration of an activity, some of which are really complex, and none of which include any language (duh, hence the title). Check out his website too for some awesome information graphics/animations.

I’ll go off about the importance of visual communication in contemporary culture in detail in other future posts, theres a lot to say about it. The thing that both of these books really get me stirred up about relates to signage in public libraries. One of the great challenges public libraries face is how to serve all of the different foreign language populations within their service area. It is pretty difficult for people to find their way around a building if they cannot make sense of the directional signs.

Icon signage should be used as much as possible in the public sphere. Look at airports. Look at transit systems (maybe not here in NYC since ours is a bit of a nightmare). If the library is to function as a 3rd space in its community, it needs to be a space that is easily interpreted and navigable for people of all ages from all different backgrounds. Visual signage should replace cryptic dewey decimal numbers on the end of shelves as well as linguistic phrases like “science fiction” or “pets” or “restroom” (I think restrooms are pretty well covered though).

I believe a lot of public libraries have already been doing this. More should. I’m going to try to start compiling good examples and posting them here.

There really isn’t any such thing as a new idea.

Check out this quote from “Magic Motorways”, Bel Geddes, 1940.

“Masses of people can never find a solution to a problem until they are shown the way. Each unit of the mass may have a knowledge of the problem, and each may have his own solution, but until mass opinion is crystallized, brought into focus and made articulate, it amounts to nothing but vague grumbling. One of the best ways to make a solution understandable to everybody is to make it visual, to dramatize it.”

I’ve been pretty excited about data visualization projects for a while now. I’ve followed the Infosthetics blog, attended Tufte’s workshop, and made arguments for the implementation of these theories and aesthetic strategies to my employer, Brooklyn Public Library. All the while I’ve had this feeling like I’m right on the cutting edge of something, like I’m right at the forefront of where art and technology and information science intersect. Ha! While I really do believe that data visualization is the place where art, technology and information intersect, I was reminded by reading a 68 year old book that while the mediation of data visualization may change, the theory and the practice have been around forever.

Norman Bel Geddes was an industrial design pioneer. He is responsible for countless innovations (as well as some truly ridiculous ideas). For the 1939 World Fair Bel Geddes designed the Futurama Pavilion for General Motors. The Futurama Pavilion was one of the fairs greatest successes. The pavilion presented the Automated Highway System as a solution to the congested, confused traffic systems that were becoming rapidly outmoded as the automobile era began. The book that this quote came from, “Magic Motorways”, was visionary in its time.

Bel Geddes was a set designer before he turned to industrial design. It was natural for him to use the theatrical aspects of a World Fair pavilion as his communication tool. He understood that the best way to convince his audience that his vision was the right vision was to build it and show it to them. Statistics about traffic congestion, the average speeds of contemporary vehicles, highway building materials: all of this data was considered and included in the creation of Futurama, but it was made accessible rather than presented as a pile of numbers, jargon, and statistics.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with Google Earth lately. Google Earth is, in my opinion, an awesome product. With it, you can take piles and piles of boring census data and make it come to life on a map. Each file on Google Earth’s KML Gallery really functions the same way that the Futurama pavilion and all of the other World Fair pavilions did way back in 1939. The only difference is that instead of communicating via physical space, Google Earth uses virtual space.

Looking at data visualization projects from a media ecology perspective really helps remove some of the distracting gloss and glamor that always comes with technology. That gloss and glamor is seductive; it is that seduction that drives people and organizations to dump huge sums of money into technological dead ends. That same seduction is used by advertisers and marketers to sell their ideas and projects, whether they are sound or outrageous.

So, thanks to Norman Bel Geddes  and his theater background for the reminder that data visualization has been around helping to pitch projects both good and bad for a very long time.