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  • Tony Pritchard 10:48 am on August 12, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Data Visualisation, , , , , , , Richard Saul Wurman, Timeline, , ,   

    Information Design and Data Visualisation 

    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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    • Carina Marano 8:53 am on October 15, 2014 Permalink | Reply

      This independence of the coursework for the Postgraduate Certificate Design for Visual Communication at the London College of Communication makes it ideal for an online program. Is there any possibility it would become available online, specifically for students studying abroad?

      • Tony Pritchard 4:27 pm on October 18, 2014 Permalink | Reply

        That’s an interesting proposition which I raised with my programme leader at college. How would you see it working for you? Set projects? Video demonstrations/tutorials? Skype? Do you have any examples of practice you could point me in the direction of?

        • Carina Marano 11:28 pm on December 26, 2014 Permalink

          Two programs I’ve had experience with are Brandman University https://www.brandman.edu/ and Academy of Art University http://www.academyart.edu/. Brandman uses the Blackboard online system in which course work is divided by weeks and comprises of discussion threads, set projects, readings, and multimedia instructional aids such as videos. Academy of Art has an additional feature in their discussion threads that allows for marking and commenting on uploaded artwork for critiques.

          In addition, meeting features such as using Adobe Connect or Go To Meeting are helpful to discuss larger projects and facilitate small group work. I’ve seen this utilized every two weeks for 8 week courses to great effect.

          For a program like Visual Communication, I would recommend set projects with independent readings and video introductions, along with discussion forums to post to while the projects are in progress, and live meetings for critiques and follow up questions. There could be also be more live, but perhaps less formal interactions in the beginning and throughout the projects, such as video Skype office hours, or scheduled live chat sessions.

          The most successful online programs usually breakdown the coursework into smaller milestones throughout the class in order to assess that students are on track and are understanding each step of the process. This is in lieu of regular face to face meetings where the instructor can visually see the progression of work.

    • Tony Pritchard 8:11 am on December 29, 2014 Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for taking the time to write this. My DVC course (http://www.arts.ac.uk/lcc/courses/postgraduate/pg-dip-design-visual-communication/) uses Moodle as essentially an information repository for things like projects, handbooks, handouts, etc. We compliment this with a group blog where thoughts, images, movies, etc can be posted and discussed. We are still very much a face to face course though.

    • daniele 10:18 am on February 12, 2015 Permalink | Reply

      Very well done on this set of new videos!! They are amazing!

      • Tony Pritchard 11:27 am on February 12, 2015 Permalink | Reply

        Thanks Daniele – just visited your site and am impressed by the Typographic Hierarchy poster. I’ll post on my Twitter page

        • daniele 11:41 am on February 12, 2015 Permalink

          Oh wow! Thanks for visiting and for posting! Honoured to be featured alongside all that great work!

  • Tony Pritchard 9:53 am on April 3, 2010 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Ben Shneiderman, , , Claude Shannon, , , , , , Hans Christian von Baeyer, Information Visualisation, Interactive Tree of Life, Map of the Market, Munsell, Nico Macdonald, , Polar Diagram, Richard Saul Wurman, Science, Steve Holtzman, Steven Rose   

    The Science of Information Visualisation: a provocation 

    What is a Science?
    Taking the broadest definition, a science can be described as the systematic organisation of a body of knowledge that describes the physical world. Knowledge evolves and is established through the collation and testing of data with measurable outcomes. This becomes integrated into existing information or corrects previous assumptions. The number of Bachelor and Master of Science courses related to the field of information study pay testament to the notion that the design and visualisation of information straddles the boundaries between art and science. Information visualisation is not the mere decoration of factual information. It is elemental to the construction of meaning and how it is perceived. It’s what Richard Saul Wurman calls ‘the design of understanding’.
    Image: Viral Blocks by Diego Baca is an interactive program, which was created to inform users about the subject of genetics and viruses. It presents this visual information as 3D animations, making it easier to understand abstract concepts and promoting learning through an engaging and enjoyable experience. The program utilises Processing language and Lego’s computer brick.

    The Art and Science of Visual Representation
    Art and science are often seen as being polar extremes requiring affiliation to one or the other. This is a false dichotomy. The Information Design Café, a place on the Internet for the exchange of views, values both as integral partners and regards information design and visualisation as ‘the art and science of presenting information so that it is understandable and easy to use: effective, efficient and attractive’.

    From Philosophy to Physics
    Jef Raskin, who created the Macintosh project at Apple, states ‘the founder of information theory, Claude Shannon, moved information from the realm of philosophers to that of physicists by showing that the term could be given a clear definition’. Shannon quantified what information was and qualified the means by which information was encoded, transmitted and decoded. This is not to sever the philosophical roots of communication or to suggest that this is the complete picture, but to acknowledge information study as a science as well as an art.

    Scientists need Vision
    When scientists fail to explain a particular phenomenon of the natural world through laboratory experiments, they have to look to other methods. They have to turn off the Bunsen burner, take off their goggles and white coats to employ visualisation as a method of understanding what they encounter. Unfortunately this is not always an innate skill amongst scientists. There is an argument that information visualisation techniques should be part of the core curricula, not only for all university subjects, but also as part of a child’s education at school. We have arrived at the point where visual literacy is an essential skill in an increasingly visual age. Interestingly vision is the word used as a metaphor when a shift in paradigm is required. Not that surprising though as scientists themselves tell us that sight has 85% dominance over the other senses. What is surprising is that successive British governments fail to acknowledge visual methods as intrinsic to solving many of the challenges facing society. They pay lip service to design as the gloss on the surface that momentarily deludes the public. They see subject disciplines as separate and unrelated and fund accordingly. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) describe the ‘strategically important subjects’ as science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the so-called STEM subjects. Science is a label, albeit one with current cachet. It shouldn’t be important, but it is, that we equally label aspects of visual communication as a science for it to be taken as a serious and ‘strategically important’ subject. There is some hope – US President Obama has appointed Edward Tufte as a special adviser to the White House. Who would the next British Prime Minister appoint? What examples can we offer our politicians of the importance of the visual to scientific methods? Who were those pioneers who dared to cross the borders, to and fro, to understand and explain the perplexing phenomena facing them?

    Is there a Doctor in the House?
    During the first two weeks of September 1854 an epidemic broke out in central London that claimed 500 lives. A number of the deaths were located at the junction between Broad Street and Cambridge Street. This was also the site of a public well where people would draw up water. Dr John Snow acquired the records of 83 deaths in the area and plotted them on a map. By doing so Snow had taken quantitative data and made it visible. By visualising information Snow revealed that all but 10 of the 83 deaths were within close vicinity of the Broad Street pump. He then set about explaining the anomalies. Snow alerted the authorities, who intervened by removing the pump handle thus disabling its function. Some have attributed this act as the decisive moment in the termination of the epidemic. Snow had established the link between the transmission of the epidemic and impure water.
    Image: The Cholera Map by Dr John Snow shows the geographic distribution of death by Cholera.

    ‘Nursing is an Art…the Finest of Fine Arts’
    This heading is a quote by Florence Nightingale, an English nurse with a talent for mathematics. She plotted the daily loss of life during the winter months of the Crimean War on her own invention – the polar diagram. Nightingale presented this visual information to the Ministry of War as evidence of soldiers dying due to disease and poor nursing and not as a result of their immediate battle wounds. Charts, diagrams and graphs are seen as the domain of the mathematician but, in terms of visual communication, are owned in equal measure by the information designer.
    Image: The Polar Diagram by Florence Nightingale shows preventable death represented by the blue wedges, deaths resulting from wounds in red, and death due to other causes in black.

    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’.
    Image: The Periodic Table by Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleyev demonstrates the strength of visual cross referencing.

    New Information Landscapes
    Physicist Hans Christian von Baeyer opens his book, ‘Information: The New Language of Science’ with the following: ‘information gently but relentlessly drizzles down on us in an invisible, impalpable electric rain’. Our lives are becoming progressively intricate and the inability to filter complexity is leading to information fatigue and sensory overload. Journalist Nico Macdonald explains that ‘most of us still try to comprehend this glut of data using representations from the era of print – many based on text rather than image. Our ability to present information in a useful and intelligent manner is falling behind our ability to create and distribute the raw data’. We need new innovations to move beyond placing printed information behind glass screens. Information geographers must fashion a new digital landscape and one that can be traversed visually. Macdonald suggests ‘evolution has left humans with brains that are as much visual as they are analytical, able to distinguish and group objects by size, colour, shape and spatial location. Our brains are adept at identifying patterns’. The dilemma for designers is how to present information, retaining its levels of complexity, yet making it accessible. Information visualisation attempts to present vast quantities of data through interfaces that allow information to be filtered and manipulated to the needs of the individual and the moment. Words are exclusive and contingent on an understanding of language; images are inclusive and more widely recognisable and understood. Hugh Dubberly states that ‘when we design things more complex than single objects – systems, sets of elements, interactions and pathways – we need a new approach.’ He believes design ‘needs now to be more about making complex, abstract ideas visible than about creating objects’. Information visualisation uses visual metaphors such as graphic sliders and fish eye lens views to alter the intensity of different aspects of information. This new era of information visualisation could borrow an idea from motorway signage, that of progressive disclosure. We do not need to see the entire database of information rather we need interfaces that provide gradual access to levels of information.
    Image: The Interactive Tree Of Life is an online tool for the display and manipulation of phylogenetic trees. A phylogenetic tree, also known as an evolutionary tree, is a diagram with a complex branch system. The tree demonstrates the connections between biological species based on their genetic characteristics.

    Map of the Market
    Much of the design on the net has focused on graphic navigation systems but once you encounter information it is often in the form of text or graphics that adhere to a print tradition. Map of the Market, an example of a treemap, was created for smartmoney.com. The website features an interface comprised of rectangular subdivisions which resemble an aerial photograph of land use. Each rectangle or ‘field’ represents one of 600 companies organised within industry sector clusters. The size of the rectangle relates to the company’s market capitalisation. Each company’s fortunes are represented by colour. Red indicates a fall and green a rise. Additional rollovers and clickable items provide up to date news stories and in-depth information pertaining to each company.
    Image: The Map of the Market by Martin Wattenberg represents the use of colour and area as powerful visual tools in creating an interface to complex information.

    Film Finder
    Ben Shneiderman at the University of Maryland challenges his students to present vast datasets in visually approachable and useful ways. The Film Finder project required students to propose an interface for accessing information from a database of 10,000 films. Devices such as A-Z range sliders enable information such as film or actor details to be viewed in alphabetical order. This is known as ‘direct manipulation’ of information. The interface features a timeline with film genres colour-coded. Additional buttons allow for films to be viewed by certificated rating and awards.
    Image: Film Finder by Christopher Ahlberg, Staffan Truvé and Ben Shneiderman

    Information Sculpture
    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. Self-expression in digital form is, literally, a process of information design’.
    Image: Colour Volume by Timon Botez utilises the knowledge of physics software specialist Justin Manor. Botez re-imagined Munsell‘s three-dimensional colour system to analyse and disassemble selected works of art into volume representations.

    Colour Science and Theory
    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. Scientists can describe the biology of the eye and the mechanics of the brain but how does this lead us to feel emotion or touch our soul or leave us with a memorable experience? Biologist and neuroscientist Steven Rose explains how information becomes perception and meaningful: ‘…it happens in the visual cortex itself; multiple interconnections link the separate modules, integrating their separate analyses; the flow of signals between them is the mechanism of perception’. Once again we have a scientific explanation but are still wondering how information can be prepared for consumption. What are the attributes of information, its design and visualisation?
    Image: I Feel Pain by Orapan Limbutara provides visual diagnostic tools for determining the type, location and intensity of pain. Limbutara had discovered cases of incorrect diagnosis where spoken language had been a barrier to understanding. Colour is used to represent pain intensity.

    From Information to Visualisation
    Information is comprised of components known as data; these components are things like words, numbers, statistics and facts. Design is the act of conceiving a plan or intention that determines the look and function of something before it is produced. Information design and visualisation is concerned with explaining complexity through visual means to enable understanding. Information design is the selection, organisation and presentation of data in a form that is of most value to an intended user. The primary purpose of information design is to help its users to understand and experience the world better. Giving visual form to information can make it more accessible, usable and enjoyable thereby reducing uncertainty. Information design records our experience of existence and presents this accumulated knowledge through formats such as: books, guides, exhibitions, maps, signage, interfaces, instruction manuals, television and the Internet. Information design has evolved to meet specific human needs and in doing so has contributed to the shaping of civilisation. We encounter information in different environments such as printed matter; three-dimensional spatial contexts; and the screen interface. Each shapes our experience and perception of information.

    Where am I?
    Imagine for a moment a world without directional signs; no maps to guide us from A to B; entering a building that has no signage; being asked to operate something that has no instructions; trying to read a publication without headings; attempting to find the way through a website that has no means of navigation. You are imagining a world without information visualisation or feedback about our environment. It would be a disorientating experience.

    Data, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom
    Information resides in a hierarchy that begins with data: data is transformed into information; information provides knowledge; and wisdom is the ability to apply knowledge. Data alone is of little value; the way data is presented provides its context and builds meaning. Richard Grefé, Executive Director of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), observes that ‘design is the intermediary between information and understanding’. How are we to organise information in order to better understand it?

    LATCH Theory
    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.

    We can’t do it alone
    Information design is a process of making information more useable through a variety of design methodologies and requires an awareness of: instructional design, technical writing, web design, print, publication design, interface design, interactivity, programming, user experience design, information architecture, written and oral communications, human factor concerns, ethnography, cognitive psychology, semantics, syntax, linguistics, semiotics, communication theory, typography, illustration, diagramming, user research and testing. Complex information schemes require multi-, cross- and inter-disciplinary teamwork.

    Isolation or Integration?
    To view science in isolation from other fields of enquiry is to deny the complexity and history of human development. Educational theorists talk in terms of integrative learning – a method that seeks to connect complex and often contradictory perspectives. The ability to integrate knowledge enables holistic views to be made and judgments taken. Seeing only some of the parts and not the sum of the parts allows only a partial view and can lead to less informed decision-making. Ben Shneiderman of the Human Computer Interaction Laboratory (University of Maryland) suggests that ‘the purpose of visualisation is insight, not pictures’. Science can utilise and benefit from insights outside the immediate discipline as much as it can inform human progress and knowledge. Scientists may need artists and designers to draw the pictures for them but true visual insight reveals and enlightens. Scientists can’t always see the data or the meaning behind the data until it has been put into an appropriate visual form. Scientists at NASA required information designer Edward Tufte to re-draw the graph for them. The graph visually explained the data behind the avoidable Challenger disaster of 1986. They had the data, they even tried crude visual representations but they just couldn’t extrapolate meaning without Tufte’s intervention. They could describe but couldn’t interpret. The before and after graphical representations of data can be seen here. By visualising data correctly the disaster as shown on CNN below could have been avoided. Perhaps the top down management decision to launch under known dangerous conditions would not have been taken. Particularly if the visual case for not doing so had been transparently presented to the world. The primacy and the relative unilateralism of the traditional sciences has been questioned and found wanting. The scientists can’t do it alone and nor should they be expected to.

    References
    Information Visualisation, Nico Macdonald, Eye Magazine, Issue 49, 2003
    A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson, Black Swan, 2004
    World Without Words, Michael Evamy, Laurence King, 2003
    Visual Explanations, Edward Tufte, Graphics Press, 1997
    Information Architects, Richard Saul Wurman, Graphis Publications, 1997
    Information Design, Robert Jacobson, The MIT Press, 2000
    Readings in Information Visualisation, Stuart Card, Jock Mackinlay
    Ben Shneiderman, Academic Press, 1999
    The Craft of Information Visualisation, Benjamin Bederson, Ben Shneiderman, Morgan Kaufman Publishers, 2003
    Diego Baca Viral Blocks website
    Interactive Tree of Life website
    Botez website

     
    • Lisa 5:47 am on April 11, 2010 Permalink | Reply

      Your blog has been one of my favorites of all time. … Thanks for writing such a great blog. I always enjoyed reading it,

      • Tony Pritchard 9:59 am on April 11, 2010 Permalink | Reply

        Thanks for taking the time to post a reply – much appreciated. Glad you are enjoying the blog. It’s a good outlet for my thoughts on design and education. Your link takes me to the Nurses E-Learning Center. I’d be interested in hearing more about the links you see between the medical profession and information visualisation or why you are interested in design. I have had people from the medical profession study with me as well as others with a science background such as molecular genetics.

      • Aidan 10:27 am on April 3, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        I found this while searching for some data visualisation I’d seen at The Wellcome Trust museum in London – they ran an exhibition last year called “Dirt” that included a piece on John Snow’s cholera work (and Ghost Map). There was also a wonderful study from the 19th century on monthly death rates plotted against weather (high & low temperature) and (I think) age group that left me in awe of our the calligraphy and illustrative skills of the time. Irritatingly, with photography prohibited in the museum I wasn’t able to capture it, but it impressed me with a) how easy technology can make illustration of data these days and b) how easy that software can make it to produce illustrations that are neither helpful nor elegant in comparison to skills of the past. If you have any ideas on who might have produced the study, or where I could find images of the illustration, I’d be very grateful. Thanks for the blog.

        • Tony Pritchard 10:49 am on April 3, 2012 Permalink

          Thanks for taking the time to write. I can’t identify the piece that your are referring to, but it put me in mind of the Minard Map which Edward Tufte describes as ‘probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn’. The map uses most, if not all, of Tufte’s 7 grand principles of analytical design. It does relate temperature to cause of death. You can find Minard’s Map on Tufte’s website.

      • jenny 3:09 pm on February 23, 2014 Permalink | Reply

        awesome infos here. thanks for sharing it! keep up the good work!

  • Tony Pritchard 7:25 pm on September 20, 2009 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Nathan Shedroff, Perec, , Qwerty, Richard Saul Wurman, Vietnam War Memorial,   

    Methods of organising information 

    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.

    LATCH
    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

    51.phone-book-closeup

    LATCH Extended
    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.

    Transforming data
    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.

    Location
    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

    6a00d8341d0dd353ef00e54f0480e58833-640wi

    Alphabet
    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
    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.

    Categories
    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.

    Hierarchy
    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

    vietnam-memorial-picture

    Combining methods
    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#

    periodic_table_of_elements

    Organising books
    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

    GeorgesPerec

     
    • John Wallett 6:35 pm on February 4, 2010 Permalink | Reply

      (RE QWERTY) Tony do you know Stephen Jay Gould’s lovely essay ‘The Panda’s Thumb’ an excursion into the inevitability of QWERTY and the question of how much technological change (fast, possibly purposeful?) can have any similarity with Darwinian evolution (slow, undesigned) including redundancy?

      • Tony Pritchard 8:57 am on February 5, 2010 Permalink | Reply

        Thanks for posting John and thanks for drawing this text to my attention. I have only just read ‘The Panda’s Thumb’ online a minute ago and my own evolution at 8.43am this morning has taken an unexpected turn. I gave an illustrated talk on 20th century design on Monday which suggested that, far from being a series of grand revolutions, the history of modern design is a continuum of evolutionary development. Even if this was one movement reacting against another I still think there are continuous themes taken over and modified as if we are in a race where one participant hands over the baton of their knowledge to another. Often the so-called original designers are just the best at covering their tracks (their influences). I wrote elsewhere on this blog that restrictions are a designer’s best friend. Far from constraining creativity, restrictions can give birth to unusual ideas. I often wonder about all the great ideas that could have existed if things had been different. I wonder about the undiscovered Einsteins. The world exists as it does, but it could be different and can be different and the unpredictability of life is what makes it eternally suprising and interesting. I think I may have concluded on Monday that students should embrace that unpredictability, not fear it or become frustrated by it, but learn that it is a good thing, a good feeling, because there is where something potentially new may emerge. Well maybe that is my memory of what I said! Do you have a link to an online presence that I can follow?

  • Tony Pritchard 10:40 pm on August 26, 2009 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Richard Saul Wurman,   

    What is a Typology? 

    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.

     
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