Information Design Watch

November 30, 2010, 10:01 am

The Very Small, in Added Color

By Henry Woodbury

The scanning electronic microscope (SEM) does not produce images in color. What it does produce are images of almost crystalline focus. In this gallery of pollen grains by scientist Martin Oeggerli the detail is original; the color is added:

The clarity of the image derives from the technology, wherein ”the electron beam is shifted little by little over a rectangular area. Thereby, the area is literally ‘scanned’ from one pixel to the next.” Analysis of secondary electron emissions allows scientists to map the specimen’s surface:

Unlike pictures captured with a camera, SEM scans are based on particle emission rather than light – they don’t show colors and brightness depends from the characteristics of the sample surface: while dark areas mark low secondary electron emission, bright areas are the result of high secondary electron emission. Thus, an SEM scan could be seen as a topographic image with very close resemblance to a black-and-white photograph.

Oeggerli adds the color later. Here, he explains his technique:

Most importantly, you need to understand how nature works to create authentic effects. My images need a color-costume, which combines natural perfection with imperfection, to mimic the often very subtle individual variations provided by the raw material for natural selection.

But nature doesn’t exactly work the way Oeggerli records. His “nature”, like that of Dutch pronkstilleven or Pixar movies, is brighter and more chromatic than reality.

The images are really precise — but not really real.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Color, Technology

November 25, 2010, 1:39 pm

A Thanksgiving Visualization

By Tim Roy

For our readers who celebrate Thanksgiving, a visualization of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” seemed the perfect post. Have a great holiday!

and, Part 2 (it’s a long song…):

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Illustration, Visual Explanation

November 22, 2010, 5:06 pm

Nightingale’s Serendipity

By Henry Woodbury

In the BBC News Magazine, mathematician and author Marcus du Sautoy extols the power of diagrams. The cliche that a picture is worth a thousand words misses the point, he explains. A scientific diagram has the power to transcend language, to “create a whole new visual language to navigate a scientific idea” or even show the impossible. “Words” is the wrong unit of measure.

Among other scientists and thinkers, du Sautoy draws examples from Copernicus, Newton, and Florence Nightingale. In that last case, he links to our recreation of Nightingale’s Rose, the circular set of charts that Nightingale created to show relative causes of death of soldiers during the Crimean war.

du Sautoy’s television series, The Beauty of Diagrams, is offered on BBC Four.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Diagrams, Dynamic Diagrams News, Information Design, Visual Explanation

November 22, 2010, 10:51 am

If an Infographic Tastes Light is it Less Filling?

By Lisa Agustin

There’s the  “The Gray Lady”, and then there’s her wittier, spunkier cousin.  CR Blog posted a mini-tribute to New York Magazine’s infographics, which are sometimes based on data (see the neighborhood news visualized), and sometimes not (as in the Approval Matrix, a “deliberately oversimplified guide to who falls where on our taste hierarchies”).  Not necessarily a lot to ponder, but attention-grabbing and fun nonetheless.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Information Design, Visual Explanation

November 19, 2010, 11:26 am

Two-fer Friday: Science Visualizations Way Small and Way Big

By Lisa Agustin

There’s never a shortage of science to visualize.  Molecular animations were the focus of a recent article in the New York Times, and one such animator, Dr. Drew Berry, was recently recognized as a genius (above:  a still from Dr. Berry’s “Apoptosis” animation).   The Times article raises the interesting question of whether it’s acceptable for animators to take liberties with their depictions:

Indeed, while enthusiasm runs high among those directly involved in the field, others in the scientific community are uncertain about the value of these animations for actual scientific research. While acknowledging the potential to help refine a hypothesis, for example, some scientists say that visualizations can quickly veer into fiction….Dr. [Gael] McGill [chief executive of Digizyme] acknowledges that showing cellular processes can involve a significant dose of conjecture. Animators take liberty with color and space, among other qualities, in order to highlight a particular function or part of the cell.

That said, the fact is that these animated visualizations represent such a vast improvement in explaining complex phenomena that were previously bogged down in text and textbooks, that taking such liberties at this time is acceptable if it helps understanding.

On the (way) bigger side of things,  SciencePunk steered us toward Colin Douglas Howell’s gallery of dinosaur size comparison charts, a fun peek at how your favorites stack up to the average adult man or young girl.   My only issue on these is lack of a scale for the human-sized figures– should we assume six feet (1.83 m) for the unsuspecting fellow about to get trampled (above)?

And finally, the results are in on Cosmic Variance’s survey: “What is the one concept in science that you really think should be explained better to a wide audience?”  Results for “big” concepts include:

  • Evolution (IIIIIIIIII)
  • Entropy/Second Law (IIIIII)
  • Quantum mechanics (IIII)
  • Time (IIII)
  • Gravity (IIII)
  • Genetics (III)
  • Supply and demand
  • Energy
  • Climate change
  • Math
  • Cognition
  • Complexity
  • Emergence
  • Quantum field theory

I’m not sure how many of these can be explained in a visual explanation; the results for “specific” concepts might fare better.

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Comments (4) | Filed under: Visual Explanation

November 18, 2010, 4:00 pm

How 529 Plans Work

By Lisa Agustin

I really like that Mint.com aims to make financial concepts accessible, especially through its use of infographics.  The site’s latest offering focuses on how 529 plans work, something I have a personal interest in as a parent trying to save for two college educations.  The title of the infographic suggests that the viewer will get a step-by-step walkthrough of how these college savings plans work, but after looking it over, I feel this infographic isn’t as strong as it could be.  While all of the relevant pieces were there, these were not organized in a way that would necessarily help my decision-making process.  The infographic includes two kinds of information: background information (e.g., who may be a plan beneficiary) and information that helps me decide which 529 is best for me.  It would be great to see these two types of information better delineated.  For example, the piece would be more effective if  the section “Am I eligible?” were moved to the top of the page, so I could decide whether I should continue to learn about the plans.  From there, I’d like to see the Pre-paid vs. Savings options explained in a way clearly illustrating the pros and cons of each, to help me make a decision.  That said, I felt the best areas of the infographic were ones in which the graphics facilitated comparisons, namely the middle section (Pre-paid vs. Savings options side-by-side), and the chart of “The Best 529 Plans” at the bottom.  (It was also reassuring to see one of the plans I’m considering on the list.)

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Illustration, Visual Explanation

November 9, 2010, 4:38 pm

Verbing Nouns with Stephen Fry

By Tim Roy

While working with clients on presenting some of the visual explanations we create, our ongoing mantra is to “not read to the audience!” No matter if it is a PowerPoint deck, a Flash animation, or a simple print diagram, reading the text aloud is an almost guaranteed way to make the audience squirm in their seats.

Why is this? The fact is that people can read silently faster than someone can read aloud. The result: cognitive dissonance as the brain is processing one set of words while hearing the exact same text being spoken with a multi-second delay. It leaves us feeling confused, uncomfortable, and most importantly, unable to process the information being presented.

I came across this wonderful example of how the same words can be both spoken and appear on a screen simultaneously on the Open Culture web site. Matthew Rogers, a freelance graphic artist, animated a 2008 piece from the British author Stephen Fry. The results are well-executed, amusing and insightful. More importantly though, it deftly illustrates the clear connection between what we hear and what we read. Do not underestimate its importance the next time you are preparing for a presentation.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Information Design, PowerPoint, Visual Explanation

November 5, 2010, 9:18 am

Any Questions Mr. Skywalker? No? Good.

By Henry Woodbury

I haven’t linked to Presentation Zen in a while. Having recommended the site to my sister who is teaching business communications, I took a look and came across this gem:

General Jan Dodonna stands and delivers with confidence and brevity.

Who remembers that the destruction of the Death Star (in Star Wars IV) turned on a successful visual presentation? Well no matter. The presentation got results.

Garr Reynolds summarizes:

If you have a large screen, use it to show visuals, not lines of text that remind you what to say. You do not have to use a screen, but if you do, use it to display visual information that illustrates or amplifies your message in the clearest way possible. Stand with your visuals, becoming a clear part of the visual experience from your audience’s point of view.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Diagrams, Information Design, PowerPoint, Visual Explanation

November 3, 2010, 3:42 pm

Shakespeare Diagrammed?

By Tim Roy

It would seem that the idea of visualizing Shakespeare is more wide-spread than I initially thought.  While I blogged on this same subject (Shakespeare Visualized?) last month, other approaches keep appearing.  A friend sent me a link to a print of Hamlet presented as a diagram.  Available for sale on Etsy, this visualization is a hybrid of process flow, genealogical chart, and glyph system.

Multiple views of the Hamlet diagram

This piece works far better than the data analysis previously presented, but I am still not convinced that it does the narrative justice.  For example, the following extract from Act II is, in my opinion, difficult to grasp from a process point of view:

"Process Flow" from Act II

While the glyph system mixes straight-ahead enumeration (use of the letters to abbreviate names) to the iconic (representing players with the masks), I found it confusing.  Other icons in the system include skulls, castles, daggers and poison.

Glyph system from Hamlet diagram

We have never attempted to transform this kind of narrative into a full-fledged visualization, so I do applaud the work for its daring.  Still, I think I would take Olivier or Branagh over this 50 x 79 print every time.

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Comments (7) | Filed under: Diagrams, Information Design

November 3, 2010, 8:44 am

A Good Year for Maps

By Henry Woodbury

The 2010 U.S. election generated the usual maps (for example, here at CNN and here at the Wall Street Journal), but the New York Times superb multimedia team offers some extras (as well as their own version of the same). In an animated set of maps titled A Historic Shift, they show shifts in voting patterns from 2010, 2008, and 2006. Here are screen shots which capture all of the actual data provided by the animations and allow easier comparison than The Times’ slideshow format:

Almost all congressional districts voted more Republican in this election than in 2008.

The shift reversed the Obama-driven wave of 2008...

... and reversed the movement towards Democrats in 2006 when the Iraq war was a top issue.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Information Design, Maps, Visual Explanation