This text seeks to contextualize the history of and discourse surrounding information visualization. It positions visualization in relation to broader 20th century visual culture and addresses the evolution of the interface as a ubiquitous tool and the aesthetics for understanding the organization of information. A timeline of precursors to the Graphical User Interface (GUI) is developed and a survey of recent related history and theory is conducted to deliver additional perspectives on information aesthetics. The text concludes with a brief survey of several recent visualization projects to illustrate the variety of fields being engaged and enriched by contemporary information design.
Defining The Interface
An interface defines the boundary between two entities. It abstracts the interior language of a system and serves as an operable membrane through which this system can be manipulated. Although we tend to associate this relationship with the control of technology (i.e. software directing hardware), we can abstract the notion of the interface to read the practice of information visualization. An information “map” is an abstraction of a dataset into a more accessible, legible form that can be quickly scanned, comprehended and potentially even reconfigured by a user.
As a paradigm, interface culture is most clearly exemplified by the Graphical User Interface (GUI). The GUI is a virtual environment that has become so ubiquitous that we have become blind as to how much it colours our perception. This “hidden in plain sight” perspective on the interface as a paradigm was the subject of Steven Johnson’s text Interface Culture (published at the height of Microsoft’s power, before the dot-com bubble burst), which presciently employed the GUI as a cipher to read the sweeping economic and technological changes of the mid 1990s.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Information: Organized data that increases the knowledge of the individual consuming it.
Information Visualization: The distillation of a body of data into a meaningful graphic representation.
Data: Quantitative facts, figures or statistics provided without context.
Interface: An operable membrane that defines the boundary two entities (i.e. an operating system mediates the relationship between computer hardware and the user).
GUI: A visual means to facilitate human-computer interaction, often employing familiar “graphic standards” such as windows, icons, menus and widgets to represent available information and actions.