March 21 ­– What is Visualization and What is Good Visualization?

///March 21 ­– What is Visualization and What is Good Visualization?
March 21 ­– What is Visualization and What is Good Visualization? 2018-01-04T16:07:51-05:00


Rosenberg, Daniel, and Anthony Grafton. Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline. 1st ed. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010. (skim whole book)

Staley, David J. “Chap 2: Visualization As an Alternative to Prose” and “Chap. 3: Visual Secondary Sources” in Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2014. pp. 29-89.

Tufte, Edward R. “Chapter 1: Images and Quantities, Chapter 2: Visual and Statistical Thinking, Chapter 7: Visual Confections” In Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. Cheshire, Conn: Graphics Press, 1997.

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Hand-Drawn Infographics of African-American Life (1900).” The Public Domain Review. Accessed February 7, 2017.


Find two web sites that use visualizations in interesting ways and post them below. One should be just downright good and the other should be relevant to your semester project.

Visualization Postings

Name: Shoshanah Tarkow

  3. (Also interesting:

Name: Phyllis Plitch

    (interesting visualization)
    (The map in particular relates to my project. With credit to Leah Yale Potter, who offered up the site as an exemplary historical visualization in NYU’s Creating Digital History fall 2016 semester class.)

Name: Hannah Katz

  1. – this isn’t super high tech, but I think it’s really cool to be able to see everything that the New Deal impacted in this geographic way, especially with the current administration.
  2. – this is interesting mapping, not what I would call just a great site, but interesting and relevant.

Name: Jane Excell


Name: Whitney Davis

  1. Rhythm of Food
  2. Selfiexploritory
  3. Stereotropes **possible connection to final project

Name: Alfo G. Aguado

  1. Big Architecture
  2. Big Time Barcelona
  3. Roads to Rome

Name: John Petinos

  1. How Lego Licensed the Universe
  2. Also good: How Much is Left for Me
  3. The Largest Vocabulary in Hip Hop

Name: Cat Coyle

  1. We Feel Fine
  2. 10×10
  3. The Cork Memory Map (if We Feel Fine is still acting weird)
  4. Also, this isn’t relevant for today, but I stumbled across an awesome use of TEI.

Name:Lauren Cipicchio

  1.  Cause of death :
  2. Communities of Online –

website to mention are 538 , brain pickings, xkcd ,


  1. First
  2. Second


  1. phyllis plitch March 21, 2017 at 7:11 am

    Hi all. Does anyone have a working link to Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative?

    • Jane Excell March 21, 2017 at 12:37 pm

      I do not, and wish I did…

      • Kimon March 21, 2017 at 12:54 pm

        If you cannot access the Tufte reading from the link (which I am having no problem with, make sure you are logged in to the NYU system first) go into NYU Classes and under Resources download the Tufte Visual Explanations.pdf

  2. Sarah March 21, 2017 at 11:01 am

    Check out this “Layer Cake Mapping” that was created by the MIT archivists!!
    Prototype of Layer Cake, a 3-axes mapping tool that enables users to build maps layering narrative, time, and space simultaneously.

    2)Seeing Theory: A visual introduction to probability and statistics

    3) One Dataset, Visualized 25 Ways
    “Let the data speak” they say. But what happens when the data rambles on and on?

    4) Data storytelling with a Chord Diagram – Visual Cinnamon
    See how a Chord diagram can be explained by using a data Storytelling approach in this case about Phone brand switching – created with D3

    5) Map of vacant storefronts in Manhattan built from public datasets (and all open source tools):

  3. Jane Excell March 21, 2017 at 12:39 pm

    Staley acknowledges that “because of this greater freedom of arrangement, visual syntax is more difficult to formalize than written syntax” (44). Couldn’t this lead to a higher chance of misinterpretation or misrepresentation of ideas through visualization rather than words? Would this be a potential issue in using visualizations to clearly convey complex ideas?

    Staley’s article thoroughly persuaded me of the potential value of abstracting information into a visual format when it comes to data such as the Periodic Table of Elements, but I wanted more concrete examples of how one might apply this same kind of analysis to less scientific topics. How might this kind of abstract visualization be applied to, say, a literary study, specifically?

    In the first chapter of Cartographies of Time, Rosenberg observes that chronologies are generally regarded as inferior to other types of study, and given low status. However, he cexplains that this was not always the case, and that, “from the classical period to the Renaissance in Europe, chronology was among the most revered of scholarly pursuits” (10). Why did chronology come to be viewed as only a rudimentary form of study?

    • Shoshanah March 21, 2017 at 2:18 pm

      In response to your first point… Yes! I agree 100% about the ease of misinterpreting visual data. I think a great example of this potential for mis-reading visualized data can be found in the site shared by Sarah “One dataset visualized 25 ways.” I think the pitfall is that people tend to think a visualization is a replacement for textual explanation, rather than supplementary or additional to.

  4. Hannah March 21, 2017 at 1:58 pm

    I’m just generally interested in the W.E.B Dubois graphs, I think it shows how much you can do without technology. Of course technology at times, might give you more flexibility or a sleeker look.

    Staley says two thing that I was generally interested in – he says, “By “visualization.” I mean the organization of meaningful information in spatial form intended to further a systematic inquiry.” It sort of another exploration of what the digital humanities are. To an extent, everything is “visual” when put on a computer screen for viewing. So, there has to be something more here than just throwing things up on a computer screen.

    Staley also says, “Historians recognize, however, that while the medium might enable certain fancy visually appealing techniques those techniques must serve some sort of useful purpose. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot with my own project – just a note, still mulling it over.

  5. Whitney March 21, 2017 at 2:45 pm

    1. Call me old fashioned, but I don’t know if I mind the Enlightenment’s idea of time being “regular and knowable”, as Rosenberg and Grafton posit; situating time as past/present/future and denoting that it is continually moving forward at a constant rate makes my brain happy. Rosenberg and Grafton clearly see the representation of time along a timeline as limiting, but I don’t really agree with this because I see the linear timeline as more of a foundational starting point than a fixed medium. Does anyone disagree with this and would rather have a more Interstellar-esque visual representation of time passing?

    2. The chapters read from “Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past” was a really interesting juxtaposition to Rosenberg and Grafton. In Chapter 2, Staley notes that “every medium constrains our thinking” – but that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I actually really like the idea that we have the option of choosing how to communicate thoughts and that our chosen form of communication will in-turn shape the thoughts themselves; am I too far off in seeing a parallel between this and the concept of defining different types of intelligences? (i.e., the way athletes approach a problem vs an artist)

    3. Also from Chapter 2, Staley discusses attitudes toward visualization and mentions education specialist William Draves’ saying that “we are living in an age of sensory simulation, and being able to keep people’s attention is helped by giving them different kinds of sensory stimulation.” Ah, yes! This came up so much in my undergraduate education classes. It seems totally antithetical for educators to preach that computer skills are *so* important and then not devote a significant amount of time to developing visual skills after elementary education. So, I’m definitely stealing Stanley’s question: “If visual skills were recognized as core competencies and given as much attention and status as verbal and mathematical skill, might more historians welcome the idea of visualization as an alternative to prose?”

  6. phyllis plitch March 21, 2017 at 3:40 pm

    1. On page 86 and 87 in Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past, David Staley outlines rules of thumb for composing and evaluating visual secondary sources, many of which are very practical, helpful and seemingly irrefutable. But they don’t take into account that the educator or historian will be presenting her visual to an audience of some sort — whether academic peer review, students or mainstream audiences. Should there also be rules of thumb tied to the experience of the reader or student who will be trying to glean information from the presentation?

    2. Staley also outlines various reasons that historians or educators might be more partial to text than images, including the belief in some cases that visuals are just a condiment “to the meatier, if unpalatable, words.” And he’s making a case for how visuals can be just as meaty — even more so than words in certain situations — if done correctly. Is this way of thinking tied to particular times in history? For example, as we saw in Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline, there were many periods over the course of history where visuals were essentially seen as a necessary and important part of capturing, recording and archiving historical events.

    3. On page 52, Staley offers up his view of what makes a “beautiful” visualization. He points to many attributes, none of which describe the most common definition of visually beautiful, and that’s his point. Would W. E. B. Du Bois’ Hand-Drawn Infographics of African-American Life pass Staley’s “beautiful” test?

  7. Cat March 21, 2017 at 4:28 pm

    1. Staley says, “A visualization is beautiful when it elegantly and appropriately makes the viewer think about the information organized in the visual display. A visualization is beautiful when it allows the viewer to gain insight and understanding into the information. especially when that information was not appreciated in some other form, such as written prose.” I wonder what he would think of our use of emojis today?
    2. Staley says, “…the rest of the historical profession is becoming increasingly comfortable with visual primary sources. Will the profession similarly become comfortable with visual secondary sources?” This was written in 2002. Have any tangible shifts happened?
    3. I find it interesting that Dr. John Snow was successful in finally figuring out the cause behind Cholera because, as Tufte says, he started with a good idea. He also used a good method to prove his theory, but I find it interesting that he came in with an idea and found success. We have been talking about not ruining research/inquiry, or even use of a certain software, by coming in with too much of a bias. It is important, and difficult, to find the balance between coming to a project with a good idea, and coming in with enough of a clean slate to allow your project to fluctuate as necessary.

  8. Shoshanah March 21, 2017 at 5:59 pm

    Chapter 2 in David Staley’s ‘Computers, Visualization, and History’ begins: “Written prose is linear, one-dimensional, confined to sequential chains, and […] ill-equipped to represent the multidimensional complexity of thought and experience.” Staley goes on to call written prose: “dull,” “boring,” “slow and cumbersome,” “an inefficient transmitter of information,” “as boring as it might be,” etc…. I can’t wrap my mind around his dismissive discussion of written prose. Written prose is “linear,” really? Always? All written prose throughout time is linear? Written prose is “one-dimensional”? Written prose is “ill-equipped” to represent thought and experience? SERIOUSLY??? So, according to Staley, Hamlet’s speech in Act 2, Scene II (which is written in prose) is ill-equipped to represent the complexity of thought or experience…

    Ham. […] I have of late,—but wherefore I know not,—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though, by your smiling, you seem to say so.

    This binary view of written text and visualization doesn’t allow any room for a multi-modal presentation of information. When Staley does address the combination of visual and textual information, he places the visual as subordinate to the text since it is supplementary or secondary to the written. I adamantly disagree with this measure of value. Something which is supplementary or additional is not inherently less valuable. Just like an art museum supplements the visual art with written historical information and context of the piece; history books supplement their prose with visualizations designed to increase understanding.

    One more thing… In Performance Studies we work with text to subvert the limitations of written prose. What if the text IS the visualization? For example: 1) the poetry of ee cummings:

    than roUnd)float;
    lly &(rOunder than)

    2) Sarah Kane’s play 4.48 Psychosis

    So, not 3 questions really… just a rant. Sorry 🙂

  9. Lauren March 21, 2017 at 6:01 pm

    1) The choices force many pieces of the narrative needing to convey, is there a way to take the option out and still have impressive graphics? If there is a common framework would that help or do you need the uniqueness to make imagery relevant to the narrative?
    2) The idea of beauty is used within Staley argument – what does beauty mean when the objective could be to share information? Does beauty have a realm if you are trying to make an argument? With the current click bait world, how would you value beauty over digital stimulation? This connects to some of Shoshanah work on what is a digital sensation when Staley talks of beauty are he just referencing the sensation we receive from viewing the work. Is beauty necessary? In a world of over stimulations maybe we need beauty or something more extreme to be able to correct understand the essence of the viz, is it right that we need this kind stimulation to appreciate and understand a viz representation.
    3) Does using digital as a medium force you to have lost since it forces you to compress? How does this connect to the idea of archives we focused on last semester, is the digital realm allowing us to save more or forcing our hand to lose even we are unaware that we are doing it.

  10. Alfo March 27, 2017 at 6:30 pm

    1. In the introduction to ‘Cartographies of Time’, by Rosenberg and Grafton state: “In the Renaissance, historians claimed that chronology and geography were the two eyes of history: sources of precise, unquestionable information, which introduced order to the apparent chaos of events”. This idea is fantastic. Can introduce some of this ‘order’ with contemporary digital tools? I have the impression that the digital offers very precise mapping tools and geographical knowledge, but the the chronologies are ever more ephemeral and de-materialized. If this is true, can we still approach history as historians did in the Renaissance?

    2. I find very useful Tufte’s commentary on The Washington Post’s diagram of the Potomac. It combines geographical data, 2/3 dimension information of the river, and a time-line with chronological vignettes; all of which can be read very easily and quick.

    3. I have some issues with Staley’s optimism in his chapter ‘Spaces of Illusion’ (pp. 93-102). As a trained architect, I know how dangerous 3D modelling tools can be. In my former field, these tools, that had been thought as means of representing projected spatial realities, have somehow taken over. Many architectural theorists are acknowledging how nowadays real architecture is somewhat replicating virtual architectures designed with hyper-realist tools, eliminating the fruitful excercise of abstraction that is supposed to be the architectural project.

  11. jpetinos May 18, 2017 at 3:55 pm

    In the context our distracted, attention scarce internet and mobile environment, Staley makes a good case that visualization can be an effective alternative for conveying information. How can we rethink our media environment so that we might replace listicles and very lightly researched ‘journalism’ with more highly detailed visualizations and infographics that convey intricate, essential information? It seems like there’s a real opportunity to do more of what the NYTimes is so good at.

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