Visual Poetics

Towards Some Principles of Visual Poetics • A Prologue

Over 2000 years ago around the year 350 BC Aristotle wrote Poetics. Unassuming in length, it laid down the 6 principles of one of the most powerful vessels of communication: stories. To be precise: stories as acted out in Greek tragedy (assumed superior to its contemporaries the comedy and the musical play). Stories have of course been around for significantly longer, used to entertain as well as share and memorise knowledge before writing came along.

In that it shares something with another discipline that originated from similar depths of time and potentially — who knows — was directly connected to storytelling: map making. The first map found dates back to 16,500 BC. It shows the 3 bright stars Vega, Deneb and Altair and not having convened with an attendee, I bet the map maker had a story to tell about their map. Connected or not, he or she planted the seed of something people would call data visualisation some future day.

Both crafts evolved over time at different pace and rather independently from each other until they were brought into the same sphere — mainly out of necessity as visualisers and storytellers looked around for more effective ways to unfold. But it didn’t quite fit. Stories in the original sense were used for all sorts of communication, but often of the fictional kind, used to convey emotions. Data visualisation often didn’t want to be fictional or emotional. First and foremost it wanted to purvey clean and abstract data, facts, the truth. Furthermore, data visualisation sometimes wanted to show a lot at once, not a linear story, but rather a context: a network of information rather than a straight line.


The 2 meaningful animals next to each other

There is continued talk about potential connections between data visualisation and story. Some say it’s all fine and the two belong together, at least in what one would call explanatory visualisations. Some even allow them to mingle in less constrained exploratory visualisations. Others fear a bad influence of stories on the purity of visual data display and strive to find different friends for it.

Describing their relation, many well meaning and intelligent people defined stories in the context of data visualisation, and left it there. I want to add a slightly different (but at least well meaning) attempt, by going back to Aristotle’s grand principles, the first consistent definition of story, and assemble a storytelling tool-belt for data visualisation.

No idea if that’ll work… but it might be rewarding, as Aristotle’s principles are by far the most battle-tested; consciously laid out for eternity and flexible in their high level of abstraction. They are simple, pure and universal. But you still may ask: why compare Aristotelian drama with data visualisation? Apples != pears?

Not quite. Theatre, even aeon-old Greek Tragedy, and data visualisation share a key foundation: they are both communication media. They’re apple and pear on the presentational layer but not on the conceptual. Both are intermediaries between message producers like writers, directors, artists (encoding information) and message receivers like readers, listeners, audiences in general (decoding information). The inscribed purpose of communication is always a changed consciousness in the form of knowledge, belief, opinion or perspective and to achieve this, both producers and receivers, play an active role. And they often use stories to en- or decode information.

In fictional media like film and theatre stories are used more consistently and consequently than in factual media like scientific journals or, well, data visualisation. But stories are tempting for all communication as they are such an efficient vessel of meaning. Streamlined to the way we make sense of the world, suitably flexible to live in different contexts, dense enough to be stored as a single unit, yet appropriately unspecific to be filled with the audience’s own world knowledge. The presentation layer as well as the techniques to unfold a story might differ from books (thought and action) to films or theatre (visual likeness and similarity), to articles (anecdotes and sidebars) and eventually to data visualisation (graphical primitives and multimedia). But all follow principles of storytelling in some respect in order to unfold a changed perspective.

But even if the message producers, the 'media' didn’t put any effort into laying out stories, the message readers, the 'audience' probably would. As Doctor Who once put it: 'we’re all stories'. As such they're hard to escape...

Well then. Assuming that visualisation is communication trying to change meaning and stories are helpful vessels for meaning — let’s look at the universal principles of storytelling Aristotle conjured up for us and see if they can help us produce better data displays. Let’s go through them one after the other, starting with the most central but for our mission most challenging principle: Plot.