Sunday, 12 March 2017

Scientiae conference 2017 @AcadScientiae

In April I shall have the pleasure of participating in the 2017 Scientiae conference at the University of Padua.

My presentation is:
‘Plain truth and common sense’ in Joseph Priestley’s 1765 Chart of Biography
Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) contributed significantly to visual historiography, developing forms of information visualisation in which events in time are organised diagrammatically in preference to textual tables or metaphoric figures. The emerging aesthetic was one of mechanisation, mathematisation and – influenced by geography and cartography – an increasing tendency to treat time as though it were directly analogous to space.  Abstemious presentations of events in a temporal space were preferred to rhetorical, metaphorical presentations of the shape of history.  This raises the question: why did Priestley’s 1765 Chart of Biography take the form it did?  The paper will trace answers through contemporary changes in visual and intellectual culture and by examining Priestley's personal disposition – informed as it was by a mix of his non-conformist religious convictions, his suspicion of rhetoric (‘sooner would I teach the art of poisoning than that of sophistry’1), and his beliefs concerning the nature of human knowledge. The paper will investigate the roots of Priestley’s optimism when he anticipated that ‘plain truth’ if presented to our ‘common sense’ would lead inevitably to right understanding.2  He assumed that if knowledge is presented through ‘the language of the naked facts’ then they ‘cannot but be understood wherever they are known.’3 The argument will be articulated through analysis of the visual artefacts created by Priestley and his contemporaries, together with texts authored by Priestley in a range of disciplines including biblical exegesis, pedagogy and natural philosophy.

1. Joseph Priestley. 1777. A Course of Lectures on Oratory and Criticism. London: Johnson. Page 54.
2. Joseph Priestley. 1782. A History of the Corruptions of Christianity. London: Johnson. Vol.1. Page 171.
3. op. cit. p.114

Link to the conference pages

Friday, 3 February 2017

Another copy of Barbeu-Dubourg's Carte Chronographique

I was lucky recently to buy a copy of what seems almost certainly to be Barbeu-Dubourg's Carte Chronographique (see this post from 2009).  Sadly the 35 copper-engraved printed plates are mounted in a book, not in the 'machine chronologique' that the Princeton University Library has, but that would be too much to ask.

There are many small points of difference from the Princeton edition which I hope eventually to document. In the meantime, here are some preliminary rough photographs...

Barbeu-Dubourg's Carte Chronographique. The chart begins with God, Adam and Eve. The symbols next to the names are not the same as those in the Princeton copy. Collection and photo: Stephen Boyd Davis.

Barbeu-Dubourg's Carte Chronographique. A detail of the last entries including the Battle of Culloden 1746 and the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle 1748. Collection and photo: Stephen Boyd Davis.

Barbeu-Dubourg's Carte Chronographique. A detail of entries modified (in rather ugly handwriting) by a previous owner. Collection and photo: Stephen Boyd Davis.

Monday, 2 January 2017

John Berger 1926-2017

In memory of John Berger.

About Time.  Channel Four, 1985.


Friday, 2 December 2016

Information Design: research and practice. Important new book

Information Design: research and practice published by Routledge
I have a chapter in this substantial and important book. My chapter focuses on the visualization of historical time, illustrated by key examples from the eighteenth century when the modern timeline was invented. We are fortunate in having not only surviving examples of printed timelines from the period but also explanations written by their makers, revealing the ambitions they had for visualisation. An important divergence is evident, between those who want to use rhetorical visual metaphors to tell a graphical story, and those who prefer to let the data ‘speak for itself’, allowing patterns to emerge from the distribution of data points across a surface. I trace this history through to modern debates about the role of rhetoric in visualisation. Does data talk, or do we need to talk on its behalf?

Weigel, Christoph. 1720. Discus chronologicus. Nuremberg. 51cm × 49cm (detail). Collection and photo: Stephen Boyd Davis.

Citation: ‘To see at one glance all the centuries that have passed’ - early visualisations of historical time. In: Black, A., Luna, P., Lund, O. and Walker, S (eds). Information Design: research and practice. London: Routledge. 3-22.

About the Book

Information Design: research and practice
Edited by Alison Black, Paul Luna, Ole Lund, Sue Walker

750 pages | 314 Color Illustrations

Information Design provides citizens, business and government with a means of presenting and interacting with complex information. It embraces applications from wayfinding and map reading to forms design; from website and screen layout to instruction. Done well it can communicate across languages and cultures, convey complicated instructions, even change behaviours. Information Design offers an authoritative guide to this important multidisciplinary subject. The book weaves design theory and methods with case studies of professional practice from leading information designers across the world. The heavily illustrated text is rigorous yet readable and offers a single, must-have, reference to anyone interested in information design or any of its related disciplines such as interaction design and information architecture, information graphics, document design, universal design, service design, map-making and wayfinding.

Part 1 

Chapter 1. Early visualizations of historical time [my chapter]
Chapter 2. Images of time
Chapter 3. William Playfair and the invention of statistical graphs
Chapter 4. Ship navigation
Chapter 5. Technical and scientific illustration
Chapter 6. The lessons of Isotype for information design
Chapter 7. Marie Neurath: designing information books for young people
Chapter 8. Future, Fortune, and the graphic design of information
Chapter 9. Some documents for a history of information design
Chapter 10. Moral visualizations 

Part 2 

Chapter 11. Graphic literacies for a digital age
Chapter 12. Visual rhetoric in information design
Chapter 13. Multimodality and genre
Chapter 14. Interactive information graphics
Chapter 15. Social and cultural aspects of visual conventions in information
Chapter 16. Textual reading on paper and screens
Chapter 17. Applying science to design 

Part 3 

Chapter 18. Does my symbol sign work?
Chapter 19. Icons as carriers of information
Chapter 20. Warning design
Chapter 21. Diagrams
Chapter 22. Designing static and animated diagrams for modern learning materials
Chapter 23. Designing auditory alarms
Chapter 24. Design challenges in helping older adults use digital tablets
Chapter 25. On-screen colour contrast for visually impaired readers
Chapter 26. Contrast set labelling
Chapter 27. Gestalt principles
Chapter 28. Information design research methods
Chapter 29. Methods for evaluating information design
Chapter 30. Public information documents 

Part 4 

Chapter 31. Choosing type for information design
Chapter 32. Indexing and information design
Chapter 33. When to use numeric tables and why
Chapter 34. Wayfinding perspectives
Chapter 35. Designing for wayfinding
Chapter 36. The problem of ‘straight ahead’ signage
Chapter 37. Park at your peril
Chapter 38. Indoor digital wayfinding
Chapter 39. Visualizing storyworlds
Chapter 40. Exhibitions for learning
Chapter 41. Form follows user follows form
Chapter 42. Information design & value
Chapter 43. The LUNAtic approach to information design
Chapter 44. Information design as a (r)evolutionary educational tool
Chapter 45. Design + medical collaboration
Chapter 46. Developing persuasive health campaign messages
Chapter 47. Information design in medicine package leaflets
Chapter 48. Using animation to help communication in e-PILs in Brazil
Chapter 49. Medical information design and its legislation
Paperback to be published 7 January 2017. Available for pre-order £50.00.

Routledge page about the book.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Olivia at Wellcome Data Week

Olivia Vane, doctoral student in chronographics at the RCA, is working all week at the Wellcome Library.  Data Week is an exploration of the Library’s digital catalogue.  It brings together a multidisciplinary group of researchers, data wranglers and developers in a week-long project to experiment and play with a selection of the Library’s digital data, from medical officer of health reports dating back more than 150 years, to over 3000 AIDS posters.

Throughout the week they are exploring novel forms of research and engagement that the digital can offer. By Friday, there should be several prototype examples of how Wellcome’s digital data can be used in new and exciting ways.

See the Wellcome Data Week blog.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Two papers for Design and Time at DHS Conference 2016

All three PhD students who have worked at the Royal College of Art with me on visualising historical time will be participating in the Design History Society conference 2016, which this year is on the theme of Design and Time.  Olivia Vane and Sam Cottrell are continuing their studies, while Dr. Florian Kräutli, who graduated in July, is now at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.

Max Planck Institute for the History of Science / Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte

Our aim in these presentations will be to raise the level of debate about dates. Since chronology moved from being a proper discipline in the seventeenth century to a kind of silent scaffold for knowledge in the eighteenth century, we have all tended not to take dates seriously.

Our presentations are a plea for a deeper engagement between disciplines in tackling these problems, where dates are obviously valuable data, but also a problem.  Visualisation reveals ‘good’ information - info we hoped and expected to see - but also ‘bad’ information that forces us (all) to think more deeply about the way we position objects in time, both as historians and as designers.

The conference is at Middlesex University where, as it happens, my work on these themes began, helped by two enterprising Masters students, Emma Bevan and Aleksei Kudikov.  Speaking of which, we will also have the pleasure of presenting with Zoë Hendon, Head of Collections at the university’s Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, who supported that project back in 2009 and who has collaborated so generously with us again recently.


Saturday, 30 July 2016

Using Data Visualisation to tell Stories about Collections

On Thursday 14th July, Olivia Vane and I presented a paper 'Using Data Visualisation to tell Stories about Collections' at the Electronic Visualisation and the Arts London conference held at the British Computer Society. It was co-authored with our recent graduate Dr. Florian Kräutli, now of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.

Here's the abstract:
The paper explores visualisation of 'big data' from digitised museum collections and archives, focusing on the relationship between data, visualisation and narrative. A contrast is presented between visualisations that show 'just the data' and those that present the information in such a way as to tell a story using visual rhetorical devices; such devices have historically included trees, streams, chains, geometric shapes and other forms. The contrast is explored through historical examples and a survey of current practice. A discussion centred on visualising datasets from the British Library, Science Museum and Wellcome Library is used to outline key research questions.

And here are a few of the illustrations we used:
Christoph Weigel. 1720. Discus Chronologicus. Nuremberg: Weigel. Collection and photo: Stephen Boyd Davis

Stream of Time, or Chart of Universal History from the German of Strass. London: 1849. Collection and photo: Stephen Boyd Davis

Barbeu-Dubourg, Jacques. 1753. Chronography or Depiction of Time. Rare Books Collection, Princeton University Library (used with permission). Photo: Stephen Boyd Davis.

Florian Kräutli. 2015.  Britten's Poets - visualisation for Britten-Pears Foundation, Aldeburgh UK.

Olivia Vane. 2016.  Visualisation of Medical Office of Health Reports data at Wellcome Library: 'typhoid carrier'.
Olivia Vane. 2016.  Visualisation of Medical Office of Health Reports data at Wellcome Library: 'typhoid carrier' (detail).
We concluded with some research questions about data visualisation and narrative:

  • What form(s) should we adopt?
  • To what degree can a story be brought out using computation?
  • How can we support rapid apprehension from uncluttered displays, but still provide depth of information where it is needed?
  • What literary narrative devices can be translated into visual terms?
  • What forms of inquiry are best framed in narrative terms?
  • Who narrates?

And we were very pleased to receive the EVA 2016 'Best Paper' award!

Olivia Vane, Stephen Boyd Davis at EVA 2016.  Photo: Sam Cottrell.

Read the paper on the BCS website here.