Ben Shneiderman’s Treemap Art

Art imitates life, and sometimes art is inspired by research. Ben Shneiderman’s Treemap Art is unique in that it is the researcher himself (with Kazi Minhazur Rahman), rather than an artist, who has created the art pieces.

Ben Shneiderman, The Singing Mondrian

Now that I think about it, treemaps have a history of aesthetic improvements. The original treemap layout, now called slice-and-dice, tended to produce rather ugly rectangles that ended up being very long and thin. The squarified treemap improved things, ostensibly for easier comparability of rectangles – but it also made them nicer to look at. Cushion treemaps removed the lines between rectangles and instead used a gradient to create the impression of a bumpy surface; an improvement both in terms of ease of perception as well as aesthetics.

Here is an example of a cushion treemap:

Cushion Treemap

Treemap Art doesn’t just use the idea of treemaps, the pieces are generated from actual data using a treemap tool. Of course, the layout method, colors, and other parameters such as stroke width, are chosen on purpose to create a particular effect. It is a testament to treemaps’ maturity and versatility that it is possible to create a large variety of different images from a single tool.

The pieces are available as PDFs for printing at any size. It pays to zoom into the gray ribbon at the bottom or on the side to read the short explanation of the data and the artistic influence. There is also a blog of draft designs, which provides a window into some of the process. This is fairly rare in research, much more common in art and design, and quite interesting.

I’m torn about which piece I like best. The Mondrian-inspired one is the most obviously appealing one, no doubt because of its familiarity and the bold colors. But I also like Green Terps for its much more chaotic layout (reminiscent of a Jazz performance), and Blooming Businesses for its beautiful color palette (inspired by Josef Albers, no less) and vaguely flower-like structure.

Treemap Art is unique in its approach, and I think it’s very interesting. Anything can be used to make art, so why not a visualization tool? The results speak for themselves.

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