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Is Visualization Art, or is it Science?

When we look at beautiful hand-drawn pictures of data, carefully composed by talented individuals, we are drawn to the artistic side. In some ways those charts are discouraging; their artistic elegance implies that the creation of good visualizations is not an option for most of us. On the other hand there are books, articles and sites that provide rules and advice on how to draw graphs. Some give general advice, suggesting that such and such is good, but this other is bad. Others give specific advice such as requiring all charts to have a title, or all axes to go to zero, but these are often tied to specific visualizations, and so are not general enough to qualify as scientific principles.

A Little of Both, but Mostly Science

In terms of the art/science split, I want to advance the scientific component;my goal is not simply to be descriptive, but to be prescriptive — to allow people to start with a goal in mind and design a visualization that fulfills that goal clearly, truthfully and actionably. Because I have an essentially scientific direction in mind, I will concentrate on reproducibility. A chart which is wonderful for exactly one data set is of little interest. It can be ap- preciated and enjoyed, but the important question must always be “what can I learn from this graphic that I can apply to other data?”

Working Vis

The title deliberately has two meanings:

  • Visualizations must work; they must convey the information accurately and they must be actionable. Strongly preferred are techniques that are robust — ones that work for diverse forms of data.
  • The emphasis will be on visualizations that do some work; they persuade, they explain, they explore. Beauty is desirable, but I’m not excited in pretty charts that are also pretty useless.

Necessary legal stuff

I work for IBM as the Chief Architect of the RAVE advanced visualization capability. It’s an internal capability that is being introduced across a very wide variety of IBM products, but, as you might expect, I cannot let you know anything about when, where, how or if anything might appear in anything IBM releases.

All views expressed in this site are my own and do not necessarily represent IBM’s point of view.

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