Information Design Watch

January 21, 2012, 11:23 am

Metadata in Action

By Henry Woodbury

Doing a comparative analysis of search functionality, I came across an interesting interactive diagram at the National Archives of Australia. Using simple rollovers the diagram explains the metadata hierarchy used within the Commonwealth Record Series (CRS) System. To see the diagram, start at the Search the Collection page, click “Search as Guest”, then click the “RecordSearch – Advanced search” tab. Here’s a screenshot:

Commonwealth Record Series Metadata Diagram

Compare this to the boxes-and-arrows diagram used in the 4700-word CRS Manual.

Commonwealth Record Series Structure

What gives the interactive chart its punch is the use of verbs to describe the connections between the elements. Verbs like “contain”, “create”, “perform” are contrasted with “are part of”, “are created by”, “are performed by”. These words identify the relationship between subjects and objects in a much more informative way than lines with arrowheads.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Diagrams, Information Architecture, Information Design, Language

October 15, 2011, 4:54 pm

The Life of &

By Henry Woodbury

The ampersand’s job is to let type designers cut loose. It’s supposed to stand out, you see.

Jacob Gube offers a splendid appreciation of this splendid character covering history, styling, encoding, and what not to do:

Jacob Gube's Visual Guide to the Ampersand, Excerpt

(Apologies to our Facebook fans, who are getting this twice.)

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

May 31, 2011, 9:37 am

Twitter vs. the Academy

By Henry Woodbury

For some reason I was looking for examples of 19th century correspondent abbreviations. A search for “yr obt svt” called up an entertaining essay by Len Cassamas  titled, fittingly, “Yr Obt Svt”. This essay is a year old and hinges on a piece of old news (are folks still arguing about an Academy of English?) but speaks to the molding of language by media that is always current. Cassamas writes:

Much of the [Academy of English] fiasco seems to have been inspired by the various abbreviations that people use while texting or tweeting.  “You” becomes “u.”  “To” and “too” become “2.”  (We will assume that “two” becoming “2″ is acceptable to all.)  Now, I am speaking as someone who quite purposely avoids such abbreviations.  I also avoid using emoticons in the hope that the person on the other end of the communication can understand when I intend to be humorous or something of a scamp simply from the way that I string words together.  Perhaps I am deluding myself or overestimating my abilities, but I am willing to live with the consequences involved.

But, Cassamas adds, “the making of abbreviations is nothing new”. Here he brings up yr obt svt. And he links to a video clip of Stephen Fry talking about language with Craig Ferguson. Link through to view it.

By the way, Cassamas tweets at @rudyvalue.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Language, Technology

May 13, 2011, 3:50 pm

Let’s Go British

By Henry Woodbury

United States’ grammarians place commas and periods inside quote marks. The British style is to place them outside. The British have it right. According to Ben Yagoda at Slate, the practice is spreading:

…in copy-editor-free zones—the Web and emails, student papers, business memos—with increasing frequency, commas and periods find themselves on the outside of quotation marks, looking in. A punctuation paradigm is shifting.

Yagoda isn’t ready to credit the internet for this shift. He writes, “I spotlight the Web not because it brings out any special proclivities but because it displays in a clear light the way we write now.” But he does point out several ways in which the digital age affects usage. One that is embedded in my psyche is the logic of computer programming and markup language authoring. You don’t let stray characters inside your quotation marks. Period.

Another is the logic of international readership:

By far the biggest fount of logical punctuation today is Wikipedia, which was started by two Americans but whose English-language edition is by and for all English-speaking countries.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Language, Technology

February 22, 2011, 10:46 am

Want to See My Etchings? Visualizing “Language as a Window into Human Nature”

By Tim Roy

RSA Animate has produced another wonderful visualization, this time animating a lecture by Steven Pinker deconstructing the manner in which language can be used to create meaning.

The piece, which runs almost 11 minutes, “breaks” the commonly-held belief about the ideal duration of online video (2-3 minutes tops) and is a solid example of an exception to the rule.  The combination of the engaging style of Pinker’s narration, complete with examples from Fargo, When Harry Met Sally, and James Thurber, and the visual rendering of his words, held my attention effortlessly.  It is an apt demonstration of how words and images can combine to create immersive experiences.

For those interested in the substance as well as the form, there is much to digest.  Pinker’s views on the tension between relationship models, actions, and use of language are important facets to consider when presenting information.  We have always been told that words are important; this piece provides solid insight into why.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Language, Visual Explanation

February 2, 2011, 1:25 pm

Demotic Internet

By Henry Woodbury

I’ve been reading Jacques Barzun’s magisterial history of western culture, From Dawn to Decadence. His final chapter on the late 20th century is titled “Demotic Life and Times,” “demotic” being a word that means “of the people” even if it happens to sound like “demonic.” Of the internet, Barzun writes:

That a user had “the whole world of knowledge at his disposal” was one of those absurdities like the belief that ultimately computers would think–it will be time to say so when a computer makes an ironic answer. “The whole world of knowledge” could be at one’s disposal only if one already knew a great deal and wanted further information to turn into knowledge after gauging its value.

Information isn’t knowledge. This fact points to a certain friction in the terms we use in our practice. Most often, an information architect really is concerned with information. The goal is to help individuals locate information in a context that helps them gauge its value. An information designer, however, is more focused on knowledge. The designer seeks to communicate ideas within a dataset. I wouldn’t advocate a change in terms. Knowledge designer sounds hopelessly pretentious. But the distinction between the two practices is important.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Information Architecture, Information Design, Language, Technology

October 6, 2010, 4:44 pm

Place as Idea

By Tim Roy

For New England readers of Information Design Watch, the Worcester Art Museum has a new exhibit opening on October 9, 2010: Place as Idea.

David Maisel, Terminal Mirage #215-9-4, 2003, Chromogenic print, Gift of Edward Osowski in honor of the photographer and the Eliza S. Paine Fund, 2005.102

Its focus will be on the role place plays in visualizing abstract concepts such as time and memory and will feature works by a series of contemporary artists employing a variety of mediums.  Of particular interest is a collection of pieces in which the traditional bounds of photography are challenged as the canonical record of architectural experience.

I plan to visit the exhibit in the coming weeks and will post images and reactions.  It will be on display through February 13, 2011.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Current Events, Language, User Experience

July 27, 2010, 3:05 pm

The Asynchronous Barista

By Henry Woodbury

Say you’re a software engineer trying to explain asynchronous processing to people with a general interest in software. You might use Starbucks as an example. Over to you, Gregor Hohpe:

Starbucks, like most other businesses is primarily interested in maximizing throughput of orders. More orders equals more revenue. As a result they use asynchronous processing. When you place your order the cashier marks a coffee cup with your order and places it into the queue. The queue is quite literally a queue of coffee cups lined up on top of the espresso machine. This queue decouples cashier and barista and allows the cashier to keep taking orders even if the barista is backed up for a moment. It allows them to deploy multiple baristas in a Competing Consumer scenario if the store gets busy.

This is a quirky article that introduces a number of programming concepts in an accessible and entertaining way. Hohpe throws in the occasional deep dive — as with the “Competing Consumer” link in the quote — but even there the analogy helps you guess where such a link might take you.

Analogy speaks to shared experience. It provides a way — one way — to turn abstract concepts into visual explanation. I can almost see the coffee cups lined up in front of me.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Creativity, Implementation, Language, Technology

February 2, 2010, 1:21 pm

Easy = True

By Henry Woodbury

An interesting article on “cognitive fluency” offers this great (ironic) infographic:

Easy = True

Reporter Drake Bennett leads with the fact that “shares in companies with easy-to-pronounce names do indeed significantly outperform those with hard-to-pronounce names.” He continues:

Other studies have shown that when presenting people with a factual statement, manipulations that make the statement easier to mentally process – even totally nonsubstantive changes like writing it in a cleaner font or making it rhyme or simply repeating it – can alter people’s judgment of the truth of the statement, along with their evaluation of the intelligence of the statement’s author (my emphasis).

However, the flip side of easy equals true — or “an instinctive preference for the familiar” as Bennett defines the concept — is that to generate reflection or curiosity, you may need to make things less familiar. It’s a good thing we know how to do both.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Cognitive Bias, Information Design, Language, Marketing, Typography

December 22, 2009, 11:18 am

Mashing Up Suggestions

By Henry Woodbury

In The New York Times, IBM scientists Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg have some fun with search engine auto-suggestions. Type in even a single word and you receive “a list of suggested, presumably popular completions.” (In courtroom dramas, this is called leading the witness.)

The fun is seeing how different investigations overlap. Here’s one example:

Popular completions for 'are diets' and 'is chocolate'

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Diagrams, Information Design, Language, Technology

October 15, 2009, 8:23 am

It’s Mysterious in English, Too

By Henry Woodbury

The Wall Street Journal reports that the French are stymied in their attempt to come up with the proper French term for “cloud computing:”

To translate the English term for computing resources that can be accessed on demand on the Internet, a group of French experts had spent 18 months coming up with “informatique en nuage,” which literally means “computing in cloud.”

France’s General Commission of Terminology and Neology — a 17-member group of professors, linguists, scientists and a former ambassador — was gathered in a building overlooking the Louvre to approve the term.

“What? This means nothing to me. I put a ‘cloud’ of milk in my tea!” exclaimed Jean Saint-Geours, a French writer and member of the Terminology Commission.

“Send it back and start again,” ordered Etienne Guyon, a physics professor on the commission.

And so they have.

My brother reports that the Japanese have no such compulsions. By email he writes:

Japanese borrow English terminology with such carefree abandon that at times even I wonder sometimes why they didn’t use the Japanese equivalent. Though there are so many homophones in Japanese that it can be very convenient to have words whose meanings are confined to a specific context. The English “out,” for example, is used widely in sports: an “out” in baseball, a ball that is “out” in tennis, the “out nine” (and “in nine”) of a golf course.

“Cloud computing” in Japanese is “kuroudo konpuutingu”.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Language, Technology

July 9, 2009, 12:46 pm

How Do You Describe a Design?

By Kirsten Robinson

Last week at Dynamic Diagrams we were working on a new exercise to help clients articulate their design personality for web sites. We were brainstorming a bunch of adjective pairs to describe various dimensions, such as warm / cool, simple / sophisticated, industrial / organic.

Then I came across this story in the New York Times, about a whimsical store called Pylones. One paragraph described the design of the store and its merchandise this way:

If you were to secretly dose the celebrated Japanese artist Takashi Murakami with LSD, spin him around in a swivel chair, bounce him on a trampoline, then repeatedly hit him over the head with a piñata, the interior of this store would be his hallucination.

I really liked this description, but I’m not sure how to translate it into an exercise for clients. Mad Libs, maybe?

If you were to secretly dose [famous person] with [controlled substance], [transitive verb] him/her around in a [noun], [transitive verb] him on a [noun], then repeatedly [transitive verb] him/her over the [body part] with a [noun], your web site design would be his/her [type of illusion].

Anyone care to try filling in the blanks?

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Creativity, Design, Language

June 15, 2009, 12:17 pm

Erudition Analytics

By Henry Woodbury

There’s more to data mining than click-through rates and advertising revenues. This Zachary Seward article at the Nieman Journalism Lab (via Althouse) explains how the New York Times examines user behavior as it relates to their style. Using a Web analytics report of words most often looked-up by Times readers, deputy news editor Philip Corbett sent out the memo to reporters and columnists:

Our choice of words should be thoughtful and precise, and we should never talk down to readers. But how often should even a Times reader come across a word like hagiography or antediluvian or peripatetic, especially before breakfast?

Remember, too, that striking and very specific words can become wan and devalued through overuse. Consider apotheosis, which we’ve somehow managed to use 18 times so far this year. It literally means “deification, transformation into a divinity.” An extended meaning is “a glorified ideal.” But in some of our uses it seems to suggest little more than “a pretty good example.” Most recently, we’ve said critics view the Clinton health-care plan as “the apotheosis of liberal, out-of-control bureaucracy-building,” and we’ve described cut-off shorts as “that apotheosis of laissez-faire wear.”

So what do we say if someone really is transformed into a god?

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Language, Technology, User Experience

April 22, 2009, 8:27 am

Broken on Purpose

By Henry Woodbury

Seth Godin at Gel 2006 explains how This is broken. What is broken? Almost everything.

Including Napoleon’s March to Moscow.

Starting at 17:53, Godin buries Edward Tufte in order to praise him. Note that Godin doesn’t really bother with the graph itself, but rather Tufte’s promotion of it as “the best graph ever made.” Godin responds:

I think he’s completely out of his gourd and totally wrong!

If you need to spend 15 minutes studying a graph you might as well read the text underneath. Godin then backs off. Tufte’s promotion of Napoleon’s March, he says, is an example of something “broken on purpose”:

For the kind of person you want to reach — they want to read a complicated difficult to understand graph and get the satisfaction of figuring it out, because then they get it…. Sometimes the best thing to do is break it for the people you don’t care about and just make it work for the people you do.

Agree?

Watch the rest of the talk as well. It’s a very funny, pointed critique of bad information and product design.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Cognitive Bias, Information Design, Language, Marketing, Visual Explanation

October 8, 2008, 12:44 pm

Political Word Clouds in Color

By Henry Woodbury

Using the Wordle platform, blogger Ann Althouse created a pair of word clouds from last night’s Barack Obama – John McCain U.S. presidential debate.

McCain’s cloud:

McCain word cloud

Obama’s cloud:

Obama word cloud

Althouse makes a profound point:

The most interesting words — like “Jell-O” and “corpse” — were only said once and stay off of their clouds. I’d like a program that makes a graphic of all the words that only appear once. They’re especially… important.

From a design perspective, what’s important is that word color, font, and placement don’t mean anything. Wordle allows you to choose your own colors and fonts for your word cloud and provides a gallery of placement options (horizontal, vertical, half and half, etc.). You can randomize all settings or reposition the words using current settings until you like the way they look.

Althouse is a law professor, but she has an art background and often blogs on art, photography, and the media. She clearly went for an aesthetic result in these two clouds. The McCain cloud looks like the “blue chill” palette, but I think the Obama cloud uses a custom palette, one designed to be different but complementary. Not that that means anything.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Color, Current Events, Language, Typography

September 5, 2008, 10:16 am

Political Word Clouds

By Henry Woodbury

McCain Word Cloud

Both The New York Times and the Belmont Club blog have a feature today on the frequency of certain words in recent political speeches in the U.S. presidential race. Richard Fernandez at Belmont Club compares Sarah Palin’s Republican Convention speech to John McCain’s while the Times compares Democrats to Republicans with an additional breakdown of key words by politician.

The word count analysis reveals a few surprises, such as the fact that the Democrats were more likely to mention their opponent’s name than the Republicans. But word count analysis lacks context. If an opponent’s name is not mentioned, it may be because the opponent is better known, or referenced in other ways. It is, perhaps, the combination of words that matters, as indicators of key themes and rhetorical style.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Information Design, Language

August 20, 2008, 9:33 am

Pop vs. Soda

By Henry Woodbury

My brother sent me a link to the “The Great Pop vs. Soda Controversy” along with this comment:

When I got to BYU I found it funny that one of my Rocky Mountain friends referred to Soda as Pop.  I said, “Pop is what you call your dad!”  He said, “Soda is a cracker.” Apparently some folks mapped out the colloquial use of Soda vs. Pop and it proves that both my friend and I were right!

The Pop vs. Soda site includes an interactive version of the map below, as well as a more sophisticated rendering of the data by county. You can also submit your own data. The most recent map on the site dates back to 2003, but a stats table appears to be updated daily.

Pop vs. Soda

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Language, Maps, Visual Explanation