This video attempts to show and explain aspects of Information Design and Data Visualisation as explored by the Postgraduate Certificate and Diploma Design for Visual Communication courses at the London College of Communication. The purpose of designing the visual representations of information is to make the communication more accessible, understandable and useable. This often means dealing with complexity and attempting to clarify meaning. It could be said that information is dead until it is read. A balance between clear communication and a visually engaging design needs to be struck.
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The Oxford English Dictionary defines hierarchy as a ranking system ordered according to status or authority. A hierarchy often refers to the echelons of a hierarchical system such as The Church, Government or the Army. These institutions denote relative importance through the naming of ranks or positions. Hierarchy is a value system and dependent on who is making the judgement and what the criteria is. The creation of a hierarchy within information is a fundamental method of organising and imparting data. It is the H within the LATCH theory.
Typography has a dual purpose, on the one hand it attracts attention through the impact of its dynamic form, on the other it must impart critical information with clarity. Information designers analyse the text and investigate the means of articulating the information, assigning relative importance through typographic techniques. The intention of performing such a task is to encourage people to read information in a pre-conceived order. Emphasis is given through contrast in: size, weight, position and colour of type (including tints). The use of capitals, small capitals and italics are often used to denote specific meaning. Use of typographic devices such as rules or reversing type white out of a solid colour can also be considered. Care needs to be taken however, as too many shifts in emphasis will defeat the original purpose of communicating information with clarity. Typefaces such as Univers and Helvetica, which have a systematised range of weights and simplicity of form, are particularly suitable for gaining emphasis and imparting information effectively. The sequence in which information is organised influences hierarchy. The medium of print lends itself to linear narratives and commonly employs covers, contents pages, section dividers and chapters to guide us through sequential information. The ability to change the size, weight, colour and percentage tint of a typeface allows designers to create implied depth. The overlapping of type implies one thing is in front of another and denotes relative importance ie the top layer exerts dominance over the bottom layer. The important concept to be grasped is that a hierarchy is gained through contrast. Slight shifts in contrast are less dramatic than greater shifts in emphasis for example the difference between 9-point type and 10-point type will be less detectable to the human eye than 9-point and 18-point. Changes in weight should also be distinct. The design work of 8vo demonstrates how the use of one typeface such as Unica, Helvetica or Futura can be used to create successful hierarchies using dramatic but controlled changes in weight and size.
Website architecture, information hierarchy and navigation
Information hierarchy within websites is often determined by the structure of the site. Navigation is key to the user’s understanding of their location within the hierarchy. Menus, site maps, navigation panels and digital breadcrumb trails all demonstrate the information hierarchy. Most websites are a series of pages connected by hyperlinks within a network. The considered structuring of information into categories and hierarchies forms the information architecture. The designer considers how this information will be accessed and in what order. Offering limitless and random choice can be a disorientating and frustrating experience. A tree structure is often adopted to organise information into a clear hierarchy. Tree structures are composed of key navigational pages known as parent pages with a distinct series of descendant pages. A combination of a tree structure with the looser structure of a network affords the viewer a choice in establishing their own information needs and sense of hierarchy. Html text formatting is more limited than print and therefore the amount and complexity of text-based information needs to be carefully considered in order to maintain clear typographic hierarchies on individual pages. A website doesn’t exist in isolation, it not only has links within itself but extends out and makes connections to other sites. The visitor navigating through various sites is taking a non-linear path. This has led internet commentators and psychologists to suggest that the brain operates in a more associative manner when scanning potentially vast amounts of information. In the programme, The Virtual Revolution: Homo Interneticus, Dr Aleks Krotoski questions whether the web is ‘overloading and distracting our brains’. As with exhibition navigation the amount of time spent with each exhibit or webpage can be fleeting. Some argue that books allow a much deeper interaction with information and a clearer locked down hierarchy. Nick James, editor of Sight and Sound Magazine, goes further and encourages written contributions that offer more detail than their competitors. With the growth of online information and supporting hardware devices such as the I-pad, the future of print publishing is predicted to become niche. Chris Brawn, art director of Sight and Sound, suggested at a recent LCC lecture (17.02.10) that as a publication’s circulation decreases, its membership becomes more specialised and the potential for higher quality production values increases. This suggests that media coexists in a symbiotic relationship rather than one form superseding another. An animated information visualisation of the hierarchy of importance within social network sites can be seen here.
Radio and television programmes typically start with an opening sequence establishing the personality of the programme in much the same way as an introductory web page does or a front cover does with a magazine or book. The key stories forming the programme are outlined in a few sentences at the beginning and act as an equivalent of a contents page with detailed information being expanded upon throughout the programme. The urgency and sense of importance was famously sent up by the programme The Day Today.
Information hierarchy within three-dimensional environments is related to the sequence of information encountered from entry to exit. Museums, department stores and business premises will often employ a directory to inform the visitor where they are in relation to where they want to go. Maps and guides supplement such systems to enable the visitor to gain a permanent view of where they are within a sequence of encounters. The architecture of a building will determine a hierarchy of usage. Once immersed within the three-dimensional information environment, signage in the form of type, directional symbols and informational icons on walls and floors indicate the visitor’s current position within the organised system. Exhibitions will often employ various levels of information hierarchy from main headings to captions enabling a flexible method of navigation.
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I would like to preface this entry by explaining that I am not a theory expert. This post is a work in progress that hopefully others, more knowledgeable than myself, will contribute ideas to a growing collection of design-related theories.
A theory is a set of speculative ideas that attempt to describe and explain the practices of a particular subject. The theories surrounding visual communication are many and varied and beyond the scope of this blog. What follows is a brief overview of the significant ideas that have shaped visual communication practice. As my colleague Teal Triggs reminds me, knowledge of these theories will not guarantee you success as a designer but will ensure that you are a more informed practitioner. I would also urge students not to become too embroiled in theory at the expense of practice but to see the relationship between the two. Don’t be too fazed by theory either, eventually it becomes something in the background that underpins your practice. You don’t consciously need to invoke theories to design. My colleague Ian Noble has commented that it is not the ‘practice of theory but the theory of practice’. Which ever way around you wish to see it there is a symbiotic relationship between theory and practice. Theory often describes the many conditions in which practice exists. Develop your practice, but know about where it will ultimately be situated, who will be looking at it, and from what perspective. You need to know a bit about say colour theory in order to function but you don’t need to be expounding about colour saturation to impress your peers. Let them see your understanding in practice.
Communication theory is an attempt to describe how meaning is shared and understood between people, primarily through visual and aural information transferred through various media/channels.
Humans make signs and symbols to communicate meaning. We convey our feelings through verbal and facial expressions. We gesticulate with our hands and arms to give emphasis to our utterances. Emotions are represented through laughter, anger or crying. To create permanent representations of communication we make images that embody concepts. Language is a method of associating sounds with symbols. These symbols developed into letters and words and were captured on stone then paper and now stored digitally. The digital realm allows for information to be recorded, compressed, stored and transmitted in a common form.
Words are a method of encoding language just as musical notation is the way in which music is encoded. To understand information it is necessary for us to understand the code. The code of language is geographically and culturally specific, if we do not understand all of the world’s languages then for us those codes will fail. The three stages for the transmission of information are: firstly the message is encoded; it is then transmitted through a communication channel; finally it is decoded on reception.
Claude Elwood Shannon and Warren Weaver, two engineers working at Bell Laboratories, evolved a prototype theory of information in 1948 based on the technology of the times (telephone, radar and radio). Their proposed model was encapsulated in the flow diagram: information source > transmitter signal > noise source > received signal > receiver > destination. The theory was based on how information is sent, transported and received and not on how it is interpreted for meaning and understanding. The theory was known as ‘The Mathematical Theory of Information’. As a student at MIT in 1937, Shannon had previously taken the binary system of ones and zeros and applied it to electrical impulses derived from switching an electrical source on and off. This insight is credited with initiating the digital revolution and the birth of the computer. This breakthrough identified the method by which information, in the form of words and numbers, could be structured and converted to what Shannon called ‘bits’. Information could be translated in terms of ones and zeros (binary code) and transmitted.
The growth of information transmission through telecommunications has been phenomenal. In 1950 the most advanced communications cable could transfer 1800 conversations. By 1975 this had increased to nearly a quarter of a million. At the start of this new millennium Lucent’s WaveStar™ optical fibre can accommodate over six million conversations. This has been likened to transmitting nearly one hundred thousand encyclopedias a second.
Steve Holtzman, a leading commentator on digital developments, describes the concept of designers and artists working in the digital medium as ‘sculpting in ones and zeros’. Holtzman continues ‘…information is now, in this information age, taking its rightful place beside energy and matter as a fundamental shaper of the world we live in. Of the three, only information is at the heart of who and what we are. It is a manifestation of our humanity that, in digital form, is sculpting new worlds’.
Other fields of enquiry
Shannon and Weaver’s work described the mechanics of how information is transferred. Their theories do not address all aspects of communication. To gain a more complete picture it is necessary to look to other fields of enquiry such as linguistics, sociology and psychology.
Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and their relationship to what they represent in the physical world. Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce are both credited with separately pioneering study into this field. Saussure’s approach focused on the structure of language whilst Peirce concentrated on how meaning was derived by a reader. Letters represent sounds. Combinations of letters represent words. Words represent objects. A word is a ‘signifier’ and signifies the relationship to the object which is known as the ‘signified’. The word ‘cup’ for example in English is a signifier for the object we drink out of. Different languages have different words for objects for example in France a ‘cup’ is known as ‘tasse’. These are learnt codes. This means that words and their associated sounds have no inherent relation to the things they represent. A word-based language requires a common understanding and agreement amongst a community that the symbol of a word represents a particular object. Words and sounds are information but if they can’t be translated and understood there will be no communication.
Peirce suggested that a sign and the object it represented could be subject to multiple meanings depending on the individual’s prior experiences. He termed this interpretation of meaning ‘semiosis’. Peirce also categorised signs into three groups. Iconic signs look like the thing they represent. Indexical signs indicate the relationship to the thing they correspond to such as smoke to fire. Symbolic signs are those where there is no recognisable connection to what they stand for and are reliant on readers making the association, for example a green cross represents a chemist. Information designers are often charged with determining the most appropriate method of representation (monogram, logotype, symbol, lettering).
The word semantic relates to a branch of linguistics concerned with meaning. This could apply to a word, sentence, phrase or text. Signs and symbols give form to ideas and in turn can influence the meaning that is conveyed. Graphic designers working with typography have attempted to enhance the meaning of words through their designed appearance. Design educator, Wolfgang Weingart has lectured widely on the semantic dimension in typography. Weingart talks in terms of ‘activating the part of typography dealing with the meaning of the design elements’ and states that ‘graphic modifications in typography, or lettering can intensify the semantic quality of typography as a means of communication’. Recognising the visual characteristics of typographic signs such as the Coca-cola logo allows us the same association when the logo is created in another language. The illustration ‘falling’ below shows how a simple typographic modification helps express the meaning of the word.
Typographic syntax is concerned with the arrangement of words and phrases within a chosen medium and format. The mechanics of typography such as: letter, word and line spacing; symmetrical and asymmetrical layout on a specific format; and choice of weight or size all influence typographic syntax.
There are a number of principles belonging to this branch of visual perception.
These include the principles of similarity, proximity and continuity.
The principle of similarity
The principle of similarity is a branch of Gestalt theory, which states that objects sharing the same visual characteristics will be perceived as belonging together. This notion has been exploited by artists and designers, such as Malevich and Seurat, within their compositions. This is often made manifest in angles or elements being repeated throughout the composition to enhance a sense of harmony. The left side illustration shows a grid of squares. Two squares have been rotated 45 degrees. The eyes see the change in pattern and makes the connection between the two angled squares. The illustration on the right shows elements repeating themselves for example the vertical black line repeats the right edge of the red square.
The principle of proximity
This principle states that those objects that appear closer together will be perceived as belonging together.
The principle of continuity
This principle relates to the belief that humans attempt to simplify complex visual propositions. A plus sign is perceived as two lines crossing each other rather than four lines meeting at a centre. In the example below most people will see the form as two overlapping squares as opposed to an eight-sided shape. This conforms more readily to our visual expectations or making sense of what we see.
Colour can be described in terms of its physiological, psychological and socio-cultural effects. Colour theory covers aspects such as: hue (primary, secondary and tertiary colours); saturation; tone; complimentary colours; temperature; advancing and receding colours; vibrancy; and harmony. Students of design will often undertake many different colour exercises in order to experiment with and understand the effects of colour. It is also important to understand how colour changes through different lighting conditions and media such as print and screen. I have written in more detail about colour in a previous post.
Visual language and grammar
Visual language is comprised of simple fundamental components such as dots, lines, circles, squares and triangles. Colour, texture and space are also basic elements of visual language. Certain shapes have become connected with deeper psychological associations we have as humans and our existential experiences. Circles have strong meaning in terms of our knowledge of the universe. Our planet, the sun and moon are circular and this has a particular resonance with us. Squares are solid and stable. We use these associations when making compositions in the abstract to represent our concrete (real) world. Visual language can be manipulated to express, represent and communicate understandable concepts such as rhythm; speed (fast/slow); distance (near/far); movement (direction – up/ down, forward/backward, left/right); denseness; space; weight (heavy/light), force (strong/weak); impact; light/dark; proximity (close/apart); and structure (regular/irregular). Please also see my previous post on visual language and grammar.
The theory of data graphics
In the Visual Display of Quantitative Information Edward Tufte devotes the second part of this seminal book to detailing his theory of data graphics. The section begins with a clear statement of his view; ‘data graphics should draw the viewer’s attention to the sense and substance of the data, not to something else’. The theory encompasses the idea that in printed design the maximum amount of ink used in a data graphic should be dedicated to representing the information. The challenge for the designer is to analyse the ratio between redundant and non-redundant visual elements. In other words what can be erased without loss of information. The designer’s motivation for designing is very much called into question. Are we genuinely interested in conveying information for the purpose of communication or in demonstrating our graphic skills and aesthetic judgment to our peers? In terms of screen-based design, such as with I-Phone applications, Tufte implores designers to remove admin debris and clutter as they provide barricades to communication. These visual impediments to communication are what Shannon and Weaver would have called the ‘noise’ or interference.
LATCH is an acronym coined by Richard Saul Wurman, which stands for Location, Alphabet, Time, Category and Hierarchy. This theory proposes that these are the five ways to organise information. Please see my previous post on methods of organising information for a more in-depth post on this theory.
Edward de Bono is a name most would associate with the term lateral thinking. Lateral thinking aims to make a break from ‘logical’ reasoning by employing less obvious methods to develop ideas and solve problems. Edward de Bono has written extensively about creative thinking and ideas generation. Six thinking caps is a well know tool for developing six different perspectives on a particular focal point.
Denotation and connotation
Denotation can be defined as the specific intended meaning of a word or image whereas connotation refers to the possible interpretations that can be placed upon words and images. This is an important concept for designers to grasp as often they are in the position of distilling specific meaning into designed communications and conveying this to users who may bring their own interpretation to the intended message.
Post-structuralism embodies theories that explore the relationship and distinctions between the spoken and written word and how it is received and interpreted. During the 1960s post-structural thinkers such as Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard began to question the validity of Saussure’s assertions that words were neutral. They challenged the idea of absolutes in communication.
Deconstruction is the critical analysis of language to expose alternative readings of a message and its meaning. This approach questions the assumption that communication occurs in a singular objective fashion. The philosopher Jacques Derrida expounded upon the relationship of writing and speech seeing them as the co-creators of meaning. The reader or receiver of a message places an interpretation of meaning on the communication, bringing his or her own experiences and ideas as an influence. This meant that the domain of meaning was no longer the sole ownership of the author. Information designers acknowledge that users of information bring a multiplicity of interpretation to communications. By understanding this they can ascertain the ways in which designed communication may be interpreted and account for this through user research and testing.
Modernism encompasses a number of art and design movements of the twentieth century. The movement within graphic design can be characterised by what were perceived to be a rational and functional approach embodied within the maxim ‘form follows function’. This approach manifest itself through the use of asymmetric layout; sans-serif typography; and grid structures. Although the philosophical premise of modernism has now been questioned, information designers acknowledge the continuing importance of key concepts such as structure as a device to order complex information.
This movement rejected modernist ideas as dogmatic and lacking in intuition and expression. Many of the key protagonists eschewed rationalised order in favour of the vernacular and a referencing of eclectic styles. The lesson for information designers is that communication has many forms, and that information has no inherent meaning other than that which we ascribe to it.
Visual rhetoric is the use of words and images to persuade or influence users of information.
Ethnography is primarily a social science qualitative research method. It is the study of a particular culture through situated participation such as observation, interviews and questionnaires. For graphic designers this involves immersing yourself within the culture under observation.
This is a stage within cultivation theory, which analyses the content of subject matter and its effect on perception.
This is a branch of linguistics concerned with the analysis of written and spoken language.
Iconography relates to the meaning of symbols and images within the visual arts.
This theory represents the idea that people experience and think about things in different ways.
Marxism derives its name from the thoughts of Karl Marx. It is a theory based on the relationship between social classes. The view is that our perception is manufactured and controlled by dominant forces such as prevailing political and media ideologies. The book Visual Communication by Jonathan Baldwin and Lucienne Roberts provides a more articulate description of the relationship of Marxism to visual communication.
This theory attempts to describe the essential differences in gender perception. It provides an understanding of how lived experiences shape our view of the world.
This theory was established by Sigmund Freud and aims to provide an understanding of the conscious and sub-conscious mind. A Freudian slip refers to an idea that something said by mistake reveals what we might truly be thinking.
This theory relates to writing describing those counties that had previously been colonised. It challenges the assumptions and perceptions brought by the colonising powers.
In writing this article I realise the confines of my own knowledge of the theories relating to design practice. Some of my observations as a consequence are a little naive and superficial. If I have inadvertently stated anything incorrectly please let me know. It also occurs to me that design related theories are perhaps limitless. There are growing theories relating to online interaction and usability such as Ben Schneiderman’s Principles of Interface Design or Don Norman’s ideas on the psychology of product design. There are however limits to a weblog post and I’ve reached that point.
Information Anxiety 2, Richard Saul Wurman
Graphic Design Theory, Helen Armstrong
Visual Research, Ian Noble and Russell Bestley
Visible Signs, David Crow
Typography, Wolfgang Weingart
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward Tufte
Type and Typography, Phil Baines and Andy Haslam
Universal Principles of Design, Jill Butler, Kritina Holden, and Will Lidwell
Information Design, Robert Jacobson
Visual Grammar, Christian Leborg
Visual Communication, Jonathan Baldwin and Lucienne Roberts
Thanks to my colleagues Ian Noble, Dr Russell Bestley, Dr Teal Triggs, Dr Alison Prendiville, Dr Ian Horton and Dr Nicky Ryan at the London College of Communication for their contributions to this list.
In my previous posts on information design I have given my personal definition and outlined a possible historical timeline. In this post I discuss the methods of organising information.
In the book Information Architects, Richard Saul Wurman proposes that there are five main ways of organising information. To facilitate easy memory of this system he devised the acronym LATCH. L is for Location: maps organise information so that locations may be perceived by their geographical relationship to each other. A represents Alphabet: dictionaries, encyclopaedias and telephone directories use this system to organise words, concepts and names. T is for Time: museums often organise their exhibitions chronologically using timelines. C represents Category: this is a method often employed by department stores and supermarkets. H is for Hierarchy: hierarchy is a value system that places things in relative importance to one another. The image below is Wim Crouwel’s radical redesign of the Dutch telephone directory. The number comes first followed by the surname making for easy referencing. This image is from: http://www.2×4.org/_txt/reading_5.html
In his essay ‘Information Interaction Design: A Unified Field Theory of Design’, Nathan Shedroff suggests that there are seven ways to organise anything: alphabet, location, time, continuum, number, category and randomness. Continuum and number extends Wurman’s notion of hierarchy with randomness a proposed addition. Numbering systems such as the Dewey decimal approach is primarily a method of strengthening the hierarchical structure of headings. Top ten numerical lists are another method of indicating the hierarchical value of things within a continuum. Shedroff suggests that randomness be included as a viable method of organising information. A preconceived pattern of information might not always be a desirable outcome. Allowing the individual user to identify their own sense of order within information may on occasion be more beneficial to them. If a challenge is involved, for example an interactive device presenting options within an exhibition environment or a game, then a clear organisation of information might defeat the purpose.
The transformation of data into a meaningful form begins with the selection and analysis of the relevant data required to perform a communication task. How things are organised effect the way they are perceived. Testing the alternative methods of organising data is a necessary prerequisite to the design of information. What to highlight, and how something is to be retrieved, will often be key in determining the most suitable and effective method of organisation. If you wished to travel between one location and another, a map rather than an alphabetic index would be the most appropriate form of organising the information.
A location is a particular place or position, often expressed in terms of co-ordinates on a map. A map is a diagrammatic representation of a physical area showing the relationship of one thing to another. A map guides a reader in travelling from A to B, aiding navigation between points on the map. Maps usually, although not always, transcribe the real world at a reduced scale. A pictorial language has evolved to notate physical reality onto what Edward Tufte describes as the ‘flatlands’ of print. Maps can be used to represent social, physical, political and economic divisions. The writer William Owen has said that ‘maps give their makers the power to define the territory in their terms and write a singular vision onto the landscape’. Maps purport to be a reliable, accurate and true representation of the world and influence our perception of reality. The north orientation of maps is a convention that has been followed by cartographers since its inception by Ptolemy. Underground maps tend to organise stations in a modular, diagrammatic form rather than how they actually appear geographically. Paul Mijksenaar in his book Visual Function observes that ‘when reality is highly schematised, the link with that reality is quickly lost’. A research group at Delft University embarked on a study of the London Underground map. They proposed a compromise alternative that involved combining the strengths of different concepts. The Delft model rendered the central London area topographically and included key landmarks that enabled visitors to relate to the reality of what lay above them. Outer London remained represented diagrammatically as most visitors would travel through these outlying areas underground to get to the central London attractions. The map below was produced at Delft University in 1983 by Paul Mijksenaar. The image is from: http://rodcorp.typepad.com/photos/variousthings/mijksenaar_delft_tube2_smal.html
The alphabet is an arbitrary sequence of symbols that is a learnt convention, which has been taught and reinforced through our lives. Most books have an alphabetic index. Often we know what we are looking for but don’t know where to find it. An alphabetic index provides us with a reference for locating the information we are seeking. Websites with dense information might equally employ an alphabetic indexing system to enable access to information without having to scroll around pages or following endless links between pages. Alphabetic indexing isn’t always the most appropriate method of organising information as there are many situations where the initial letter of a word has no particular significance. Occasionally ergonomics or mechanical requirements are factors that override the proposed LATCH system. Most people are familiar with the traditional layout of a qwerty keyboard. Charles Latham Sholes established this standard in 1867. Why aren’t the letters organised alphabetically? To understand the seemingly random arrangement of letters one must examine the evolution of the keyboard. The mechanical operation of the original keyboard required a key to be pressed down which operated a lever containing the letter to move up and make contact with a carbon impregnated ribbon which printed the letter on a piece of paper. With the original configuration of letters the levers would collide and become jammed together when an operator was typing at a fast speed. The solution was to move letters that were commonly typed in succession further apart, for example the letters ’i’ and ‘e’ are common pairs. Although modern keyboards do not face the same mechanical problems as the earlier models, the qwerty convention still remains in operation today. There have been many attempts to reorganise the keyboard but none of the improvements have warranted such a revolution. The layout of a type case used in traditional letterpress printing was not by alphabet. The position and size of each compartment related to the frequency of use in setting and the ease at which a hand had access to the type. Ergonomic human factors in this case decreed the resulting organisation of type in cases.
Time as a method of organising information is used when information is presented in chronological order for example in travel timetables, historic timelines, family trees, cooking instructions, television guides, calendars and diaries.
Categorisation allows things that share similar properties and attributes to be grouped together. Taxonomy is a branch of science that is concerned with classification. Typologies are classifications based on types of things, for example types of dogs. Department stores commonly use categorisation as a method, for example one store may have a shoe department, food department, toys department and sports department. Within each of these departments one can find sub-categorisation, for example within a food department you have a fruit and vegetable section, a soup section, a meat section, a drinks section, and so on.
These systems organise or order things by rank or importance, for example highest to lowest, tallest to shortest, fastest to slowest and biggest to smallest. Rating systems place things in a hierarchy. We consult reviews of movies or musical CDs to ascertain how critics rate them. Hotel experiences are rated by stars and depending on our budget we can choose a four star or a two star experience. Our educational progress is ranked in terms of percentages and grades.
Selecting an appropriate method
The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC contains nearly 60,000 names of the US military personnel who died in the conflict inscribed on two long, highly polished, black granite walls. The walls increase in height from one foot to ten feet from the start to the centre of the memorial where they meet as a corner. The names of the men and women who lost their lives are arranged chronologically. The changing height of the wall represents the death toll as it rose, peaked and then declined as the war came to an end. The original proposal was to have the names organised alphabetically. This would have helped in finding a particular person, however it might have depersonalised the individual’s life and their family’s sense of loss – as Tufte comments: ‘in a list of John Smith’s, which one is yours?’ An alphabetic organisation would have diminished the emotional power of the monument. Categorisation by rank or function would equally reduce the importance of individual life. The physical form of this memorial is directly linked to the message it is conveying. The structure of the wall and the information it contains locates those who died with those they died with. Any other organisation would have altered the meaning and form of the memorial. The image below is from http://www.visitingdc.com/memorial/vietnam-memorial-picture.htm
Often more than one method of organising information is employed for the same information. Large department stores organise their products by categories, but they may also provide store directories that list items both alphabetically and by location. If you know what you are looking for and want to locate it with ease an alphabetic directory is most useful. If you wish to compare a range of items within a specific category (for example vacuum cleaners) then geographical location is of more benefit. Music stores organise music by category first for example Soul, Jazz, Classical or Pop and then alphabetically by artist or group. Book indexes will often have multiple categories such as by subject or by people listed alphabetically. Websites offer the opportunity to view information by different categories for example items might be listed by price and then by category or even by a combination of both within a category. Very quickly you can view all categories and then subcategories, the information reconfigures depending on your choices. The ability to cross-reference information allows the viewer flexibility and richer contexts.
The Periodic Table
Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleyev is credited with devising the arrangement of all known elements into the Periodic Table. Elements had been grouped in two ways previously – either by their atomic weight (hierarchy) or by common properties such as metals or gases (category). Mendeleyev’s discovery was that these two methods could be combined in one table. It has been suggested that Mendeleyev was inspired by the game of patience, in which cards are arranged horizontally in suits and vertically by descending number. Using this concept he arranged the elements into horizontal rows called periods and vertical rows called groups. This visual display of information demonstrated two sets of relationships depending on whether one was reading the table up and down or from side to side. Elements are organised vertically to express chemicals with similar properties for example metals sit one on top of each other. The horizontal rows are organised by the number of protons in their nuclei, known as the atomic number. Hydrogen has one proton and therefore has an atomic number of one and is placed first in the top left corner. Mendeleyev’s invention allows the relationship between elements to be understood through visual means. In the book ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, Bill Bryson describes the Periodic Table as ‘a thing of beauty in the abstract, but for chemists it established an immediate orderliness and clarity that can hardly be overstated’. In the view of Robert E Krebs who wrote ‘The History and Use of Our Earth’s Chemical Elements’ the Periodic Table is ‘the most elegant organisational chart ever devised’. Medeleyev’s scheme was designed to accommodate new elements when they were found. The image below is from: http://knol.google.com/k/richard-pattison/periodic-table-of-the-elements/1hlwuru0osiar/2#
In the book ‘Species of Spaces and Other Pieces’ Georges Perec discusses the many ways in which humans inhabit and organise space. Perec has written about ‘…the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books’. He surmises that a dual problem arises above and beyond the acquisition of a certain quantity of books. There is the dilemma of space to house the collection followed by a means of ordering them. When the quantity of books is so vast how is one to lay one’s hands on a desired volume at will? The solution to the problem begins by making the books visible through the organisation, side-by-side, on bookshelves that eventually become a library. Books might be categorised by room and the function of the room eg cookery books could go in the kitchen. Most books, however, do not necessarily belong to a specific room. Perec suggests that unless one is adopting an anarchic approach there are a number of methods of arranging books. He suggests the following are possible schemes: alphabetically; country of origin; colour; date of acquisition; date of publication; format or size; genre; historical periods; language; priority for future reading; styles of binding; or by series. Perec concludes that none of these systems are in themselves ideal and that most of us resort to a combination of methods which lead to highly personal and unique classifications. In our quest for the ultimate and complete organisational method, Perec remarks that ‘we oscillate between the illusion of perfection and the vertigo of the unattainable’. The world is too complex for simplistic categorisation but this won’t suppress our need to understand through classification. There is very little that can’t be listed, the books of various world records pay testament to this. And if all fails we can always classify under ‘miscellaneous’. The image below is from: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0140189866/ref=sib_rdr_dp
A typology is the study and classification of things according to their characteristics. Things can be organised in many different ways, for example by their usage or function; by shape or colour; alphabetically by name; chronologically by age; or by location where they originate. The information design evangelist, Richard Saul Wurman, coined the term LATCH (Location, Alphabet, Time, Category and Hierarchy) to describe the ways in which things can be ordered.