How to identify, instantiate, and evaluate
domain-specific design principles for creating
more effective visualizations.
By maneesh aGRaWaLa, WiLmot Li,
anD FLoRaine BeRthouzoz
VISuAL communIcATIon VIA diagrams, sketches,
charts, photographs, video, and animation is
fundamental to the process of exploring concepts
and disseminating information. The most-effective
visualizations capitalize on the human facility for
processing visual information, thereby improving
comprehension, memory, and inference. Such
visualizations help analysts quickly find patterns
lurking within large data sets and help audiences
quickly understand complex ideas.
Over the past two decades a number of books10, 15, 18, 23
have collected examples of effective visual displays.
One thing is evident from inspecting them: the best
are carefully crafted by skilled human designers.
Yet even with the aid of computers, hand-designing
effective visualizations is time-consuming and
requires considerable effort. Moreover, the rate at which people world-wide generate new data is growing
exponentially year to year. Gantz et al.
estimated we collectively produced
161 exabytes of new information in
2006, and the compound growth rate
between 2007 and 2011 would be 60%
annually. We are thus expected to produce 1,800 exabytes of information in
2011, 10 times more than the amount
we produced in 2006. Yet acquiring
and storing this data is, by itself, of
little value. We must understand it to
produce real value and use it to make
The problem is that human designers lack the time to hand-design effective visualizations for this wealth of
data. Too often, data is either poorly visualized or not visualized at all. Either
way, the results can be catastrophic;
for example, Tufte24 explained how
Morton Thiokol engineers failed
to visually communicate the risks
of launching the Challenger Space
Shuttle to NASA management in 1986,
leading to the vehicle’s disasterous
failure. While Robison et al.
the engineers must not be blamed for
the Challenger accident, better communication of the risks might have
prevented the disaster.
Skilled visual designers manipulate the perception, cognition, and
Design principles connect the visual
design of a visualization with the
viewer’s perception and cognition
of the underlying information the
visualization is meant to convey.
identifying and formulating good
design principles often requires
analyzing the best hand-designed
visualizations, examining prior research
on the perception and cognition of
visualizations, and, when necessary,
conducting user studies into how
visual techniques affect perception and
Given a set of design rules and
quantitative evaluation criteria, we
can use procedural techniques and/or
energy optimization to build automated
IllustratIon by Mark skIllIcorn