How art can influence info viz.

The role of art on info viz. is a tortuous topic. Frequently, renditions of infographics have clear functional shortcomings as tools to convey quantitative data, but are lauded as beautiful pieces of art in spite of this. Thus the topic gets presented in overtones of function versus aesthetic, and any scientist worried about function would surely not choose something pretty over something obviously more functional (however you define functional). Thus the topic itself has some negative contextual history that impedes its discussion. But this is a false dichotomy; beauty need not impede function.

Here I want to bring to light some examples of how art actually has positive influences on the function of information visualization. I will break up the examples into two topics: the use of color and the rendering of graphics.

Color

The use of color to visualize discrete items in information visualizations is perhaps the most regular, but one of the most arbitrary decisions a designer makes. Here I will point to the work of Sidonie Christophe, who embraces the arbitrariness of using a color palette and uses popular pieces of artwork to create aesthetically pleasing color choices. Christophe makes the presumption that the colors in popular pieces of art provide ample contrast in the colors to effectively visualize different attributes, but are publicly vouched as aesthetically beautiful. Here is an example using a palette from one of Van Gogh’s paintings to apply to a street map (taken from Sidonie’s dissertation);

I won’t make any argument for Van Gogh’s palatte being more functional than other potential ones, but it is better than being guided by nothing (Van Gogh does have the added benefit of being color blind safe.)

Rendering

One example of artistic rendering of information I previously talked about was the logic behind the likability of XKCD graphs. There the motivation is both memorability of graphs and data reduction/simplification. Despite the minimalist straw man often painted of Tufte, in his later books he provides a variety of examples of diagrams that are artistic embellishments (e.g. the cover of Leviathan) but takes them as positive inspiration for GUI design.

Another recent example I came across is the use of curved lines in network diagrams (I have related academics interest in this for visualizing geographic flow data) which have motivation based on the work of Mark Lombardi.

The reason curved lines look nicer is not entirely aesthetic, it has functional values for displacing overlapping lines and (related) making in-bound edges easier to distinguish.

Much ado is made about network layout algorithms, but some interesting work is being done on visualizing the lines themselves. Interesting applications that are often lauded as beautiful are Circos and Hive Plots. Even Ben Shneiderman, creator of the treemap graphic, is getting in on the graphs as art wave.

I’m sure many other examples exist, so feel free to let me know in the comments.