Book Review: Visual Language for Designers (and Scientists)


Modeling the flight of a bat (click to enlarge)
Dave Willis et. al., Brown University and MIT

Visual complexity is a paradox. On the one hand, complexity is a compelling feature known to capture a viewer's attention and stimulate interest. . . . On the other hand, complexity only arouses curiosity up to a point. When a visual is extremely complex, viewers may tend to avoid it altogether. -- Connie Malamed

I had a great time this weekend devouring Connie Malamed's oversized treasury of data visualization, Visual Language for Designers. The book couldn't be more appealing: it's like someone took the NYT, Wired, GOOD and SciAm, pulled all the pretty infographics, and bound them together.

To create her collection, Malamed contacted 100+ graphic designers and sifted through hundreds more illustrations. The examples she chose span the globe, from English to Spanish to German to Croatian, illustrating that the principles of good design transcend language. (It matters surprisingly little if the text in a graphic of NASA's Cassini-Huygens mission is in Spanish or English.) It's also a great reminder that designers the world over face similar challenges in conveying complex, technical information. Many, if not most, of Malamed's design specimens depict scientific and/or technical concepts - you'll recognize several winners from the AAAS Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, like the bat flight model at the top of the post. Plus, her editorial text adds cognition and psychology to the mix, tying design strategies and elements to the principles of our visual systems, attention, and memory.

Malamed told me that her background in Instructional Design influenced the way she approached the book:

there's a strong cognitive psychology foundation in that field. . . As a learning specialist, I'm interested in how people process visual information and how all types of visual communicators can improve their graphics by understanding the mind. I have a blog which is an extension of the book, where I write about the science behind design. It's Understanding Graphics.

Her editorial commentary is restrained; although every other page includes a few paragraphs on design theory and practice, you don't have to read the text to enjoy the book. But after you browse the design work, I think you'll almost certainly want to go back for a deeper read about the principles at work.

I particularly enjoyed two chapters: "Make the Abstract Concrete" and "Clarify Complexity." For most science topics, these are the biggest challenges - first, to take an abstract figure or concept (like magnetism, global warming, industrial processing, aging, or annual deaths from cancer) and turn it into a recognizable graphic; second, to distill the incredibly complex systems involved down to a few salient points, without misrepresenting the whole shebang.


Many of the striking graphics chosen for these two chapters involve transportation, a particularly tricky subject given the distances involved. The infographic Why Do Freeways Come to a Stop?, by Stephen Beard for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, is a great example of making a single 2-D image convey a series of events. It relies heavily on our real-world familiarity with traffic, though; a similarly packed graphic depicting cellular events would probably be too confusing. Race to the Moon, by Larry Gormley and Dan Greenwald, visualizes a decade of US and Soviet efforts to land the first person on the moon as a series of trajectories from Earth's surface; the graphic uses a logarithmic scale to keep the immense distances involved condensed onto on one poster. Though the shrunken text is unfortunately illegible in the book, the thrust of the poster (pun really not intended, I swear) is still clear: a mark of successful design. Another contributor, John Grimwade, is an especially gifted illustrator of transportation, maps, and urban themes; his information-packed summary of London-Paris travel times and costs by various modes of transport is sharp, minimalist and perfectly readable.

Of course, not all Malamed's selections are scientific - language also gets its fair share of attention. Wanderwort, a map/font mashup by Germany's Golden Section Graphics, depicts the spread of German words into international usage.


Stephanie Posavec's Literary Organism fuses Jack Kerouac's On the Road with the visual conventions we associate with biological phylogenies, resulting in a gingko-like "tree" of literature. Other examples lie at the interface between infographics and art, like Chris Jordan's Barbie Dolls, (2008), which depicts 38,000 dolls - a number Jordan says is equal to the number of elective breast augmentation surgeries performed monthly in the US in 2006:


An entire graphic to represent a single number might seem like an inefficient use of space, but in this case, there's a lot of subtext (and plastic) being conveyed with that number. Compare to Greg Bennett's rape awareness poster, which uses bullet casings as its font: another deceptively simple way of depicting an abstract concept with complex ramifications.

One of my favorite graphics is this one, by D.B. Dowd, Mike Costelloe and colleagues. Guess what concept it represents?


It's called Commercial Images: An Evolutionary Scheme, and Costelloe says it depicts "the progression of commercial graphic work from the application of the first commercial graphic technology, the mass-production and reproduction made possible by the printing press, through all of the unique forms and vehicles of graphic work up to the modern era." In other words, it's the evolution of commercial ephemera! How meta! And it looks like stylized kelp. . . seems a lot like bioephemera to me. Ahem.

These are just a handful of the graphics in Visual Language, which would be a sweet eye-candy coffee table (or lab breakroom!) book, and a great gift idea for sci/design/art/dataviz-oriented friends. But I want to make one more point: it's also potentially very useful. In my experience, when you're working with scientists (who generally aren't "design people") it can sometimes be nearly impossible to convey the utility or feasibility of infographics. It's difficult for non-designers to imagine how abstractions could be rendered in a concrete yet simple way; more so if you're excruciatingly familiar with all the ins and outs and caveats of your data! Yet a simple infographic is worth the trouble. An illustration can do more to improve public understanding of science than an hour-long lecture by a Nobel laureate (where would Al Gore have been without his Powerpoints?) I think one of the best potential uses of Melamed's book is as a lookbook or idea book: the examples - especially those that are technical or scientific in nature - can help non-designers envision how design could be useful to them.

Even if a non-artist is sold on the concept of graphic design and willing to work with an artist, they may be nervous about the fuzziness of the design process, unfamiliar with the options they have, and unable to articulate how the design could be better. (Those of you who watch Mad Men know what I mean.) Again, Malamed's book can help to get everyone on the same page. Sure, a professional designer usually has a portfolio to show off, but what if you're not hiring a professional? What if you'd like to jazz up a figure, poster presentation, or lab website with some design elements? With Photoshop, Illustrator, and the plethora of other good graphics programs out there now, anyone can dabble in design. But if you're like me, you find that frequently, you're the one volunteering to make posters, charts, and templates - just because no one else feels comfortable doing it!

For nonprofits, committees, workgroups and labs - any group working with data (whether it's budgets, public health info, demographics, etc.) - it's really helpful to have a collection of examples to flip through and discuss. Reaching consensus on graphics is virtually impossible without some sort of mock-up or starting place. It doesn't have to be this book - in fact, I'd encourage anyone excited about infographics to start bookmarking, collecting, or scrapbooking examples that impress you. Having those examples at hand will help collaborators to understand what you have in mind. And if you are lucky enough to find a professional designer to work with you - perhaps your university has a designer on staff, or you work with a foundation that does its own communications - having examples in hand is like going into the salon with a photo of your ideal haircut. Sure, that cut may be all wrong for your face, or impossible with your hair type, but at least the photo provides a common starting point for discussion. In the end, you're more likely to end up with something you and the stylist are both happy with. That's a process I think Visual Language might help with.

Of course, the shadow of Edward Tufte stretches intimidatingly over any books on this topic. So I asked Connie Malamed how her book was (anxiously?) influenced by the patriarch of data visualization. She said, "He has so much to offer, I love his work. But I didn't include any of his commentary or quotes in my book. He's already quoted ad infinitum and I was trying to bring forth a new perspective."

Tufte's classic books are wonderful. They're ideal for dataviz wonks, who should have them (well-loved and flagged/tabbed/dog-eared) already. Malamed's book, though, seems intended for a broader readership, including people specifically interested in contemporary strategies of communicating science to a popular audience, and those who'd like a more psychological approach to the principles of design. Highly recommended.

Visual Language for Designers at Amazon.
Connie Malamed's Understanding Graphics.

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