A seminal data visualisation paper, “Graphical Perception: Theory, Experimentation, and Application to the Development of Graphical Methods” by Cleveland and McGill, begins by naming and defining nine different elementary perceptual tasks and eleven different kinds of graphs. The perceptual tasks include: position common scale, position non-aligned scales, length, direction, angle, area, volume, curvature and shading. The graphs include: sample distribution function plot, bar charts, pie charts, divided bar charts, statistical maps with shading, curve-difference charts, Cartesian graphs, triple-scatter plots, volume charts and juxtaposed Cartesian graphs. The key premise of the paper is that graphs are interpreted according to basic perceptual tasks, and graphs which appeal to these more accurately performed tasks are likely to be more successful in conveying the desired information than others.
A couple of the graphs catalogued in the first section immediately stand out as more visually interesting than the others: the statistical map with shading, which depicts murder rates specific to each state on a map of the United States, and William Playfair’s curve-difference chart showing exports and imports to and from the East Indies between 1700 and 1780. These graphs include particularly rich and familiar visual information connected to periods and places associated with their creation. I wonder at the different position, scale and shape of the many states, and the exotic irregularities in the reproduction of Playfair’s hand-drawn map that are not of this time. These incidental pleasures don’t contribute directly to an understanding of the data, the quantitative information they convey, but support the more curious elements drawn from the world that support imaginary journeys.
Sydney-based designers Zoe Sadokierski and Kate Sweetapple similarly employ these curiosity-inducing elements to create visually distinctive works that engage the imagination. Their work for a joint project called Unlikely Avian Taxonomies (2011–12) exploring the visual potential of bird names draws on this vital curiosity that informs the classificatory work, redeploying this impulse according to systematic yet unscientific ends. The result is reminiscent of the fantastical taxonomy of Jorge Luis Borges’ Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. While Borges divides the world up into phenomena ranging from “stray dogs” to “those that look like flies from a long way off,” the distinctive illustrations and visual design of Sadokierski and Sweetapple make a persuasive case for reclassifying birds according to the abundant potential for expression and character contained in their names.
After reading through the 31,500-plus names in the International Ornithological Committee World Bird List, the designers decided on five new ways of ordering the avian world, including: Birds by Pattern, such as spots and stripes; Birds by Colour, using a range graphic devices to present their own bodged-together spectrum; and birds grouped according to the kind of antisocial behaviour expressed by their names. According to this regimen, Plain Swifts and Common Jerys are boring, Bare-faced Go-away-birds and Firethroats are abusive, Solitary Snipes and Bearded Mountaineers are reclusive. Then there are the Birds with Smutty Names, like Masked Boobies and Red Knobbed Coots, Birds Incognito, which features birds with names referring to potential facial disguises such as masks, beards and moustaches, and so on...
In addition to seeing the visual and expressive potential at a linguistic level, Sadokierski and Sweetapple use their aptitude for design with what the anthropologist Jack Goody called “non-syntactical” kinds of writing. Non-syntactical writing is the name Goody gives to forms of meaning that operate as distinct from and alongside linguistic meaning or meaning at the level of the sentence. This includes the entire repertoire of elements employed in the discipline of visual communication: spacing, graphic forms, fonts, images, numbering, layout, colour, illustration, page orientation, formats and so on. A classic example of this is the nested hierarchical or tree model which is used to articulate the relationships between different classificatory strata. A numbered list indexing illustrations is another example. It is tempting to regard these graphic devices as incidental to the knowledge forms they help illustrate. But as the historian of science Reviel Netz persuasively argues in his cognitive history of deduction in Greek mathematics, diagrams were a crucial way of “tapping human visual cognitive resources.” They played an important role in the development of this particular form of reasoning, just like laboratories do for modern experimental science.
These works aren’t concerned with data-driven imperatives as ends in themselves. Rather, Sadokierski and Sweetapple appeal to the sentiments and the humour of calculating beings, who can’t seem to help dismantling the world only to put it back together again as an alternative set of rules, a new discipline or branch of logic. This particular brand of graphic visualisation might be described as an example of what Steven Connor describes as “the quantical.” That is, the “kinds of adjustment … primarily non-mathematical persons are having to make to the world of measurable quantities and calculable ratios.” Connor describes the quantical as a sensitivity to “tonalities,” culling examples from literature, art and philosophy that make up the many and varied mathematical phenomena that comprise the fabric of modernity. Unlikely Avian Taxonomies seems a well-developed example of the kinds of adjustment Connor mentions, whereby new notations of human sensory and emotional experiences emerge from the impulse to quantify.
- ^ W. S Cleveland and R. McGill, “Graphical Perception: Theory, Experimentation, and Application to the Development of Graphical Methods”, Journal of the American Statistical Association, vol. 79, no. 387 (September 1984): 531–54.
- ^ See Jack Goody, The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
- ^ See Netz Reviel. The Shaping of Deduction in Greek Mathematics: A Study in Cognitive History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
- ^ See Steven Connor, “Quantality: The Mathematical Futures of the Humanities”, a paper given at the University of Exeter, 8 May 2015. Available from: http://stevenconnor.com/quantality.html.
Thomas Lee is a design theorist and course director of the Masters of Design in the
Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building at the University of Technology, Sydney.