Arguably, all visualizations rely on metaphors to communicate. These metaphors allow us to use existing knowledge about a system to help us understand the new system. Metaphors help us interpret quantitative and categorical information in charts. They are why we understand taller bars in bar charts as having more, and why we understand part to whole relationships in pie charts. They communicate subtler nuances as well, like line charts representing continuous vs. categorical data shown by bar charts. Sometimes, visualizers take advantage of these metaphors and create very special work. They use the metaphor of the visualization to add a deeper meaning, much like a poet uses the form of language to go beyond the literal semantics.
Let’s call them Visualization Poetry.
Much like real poetry, they cover all kinds of topics, come in all different formats, and are of varying quality in their other aspects. One of the most powerful visualization poems is Titanic by Richard Johnson. The column charts at the top are the poetry. They resemble icebergs, and just like the iceberg that sank the ship, the largest part is underwater. In addition, the survivors are shown above water, while the people who drowned are shown underwater.
The OECD Better Life Index by Moritz Stefaner is another visualization poem. In it, the length of the petals on the flowers represents the quality of different aspects of life. The bigger the flower blooms, the better life is in those countries.
Jess Bachman is also a visualization poet. Several of his works might be regarded as visualization poetry, and Golden Parachutes is definitely one of them. The interplay between the size of the man and the size of the parachute creates a physics problem for many of the bankers. This makes you empathize with the more honest bankers, while the ones who bailed with a huge ‘chute don’t get any respect.
One of the simplest visualization poems is the Literal Pie Chart by Laszlo Thoth. The chart itself is incredibly simple, but it has several layers of connections. Most obviously, it is a pie, and a pie chart. In addition to that, it is self-visualizing; as pieces get eaten it stays accurate.
Perhaps this makes it most similar to the haiku about haikus: Haikus are easy. But sometimes they don’t make sense. Refrigerator Drew Skau is Visualization Architect at Visual.ly, and a poetry loving PhD Computer Science Visualization student at UNCC, with an undergraduate degree in Architecture.