Skip to content

Visualization Criticism - A New Way of Thinking about Visualization

The main means of communication in science is the (printed) journal article or conference paper, which only contains text and static images. This limits the way we can illustrate change, interaction, and dynamics. We do not have the appropriate language to effectively describe our work not only in terms of what it shows, but how and why it works. We also lack a means of talking about our own and others' work in ways that critically reflect on what has been done. We need to learn from art criticism, where this is all possible.

Visualization lacks what is overabundant in art: talk. Artists talk, art critics talk, millions of lines are written every year about artists, their work, exhibitions, etc. There are numerous books, journals, and magazines devoted to writing about art, and every major newspaper has an art section.

This could all seem like a lot of pointless banter and personal opinions (and some of it certainly is), but there is an important aspect to all this that makes art criticism so interesting: art theory. Faced with the need to write coherently and substantially about art, expressing and defending their views, art critics had no choice but to develop two important tools: a language and a theory.

The Language of Criticism

Art criticism goes beyond "Oh, interesting." According to Britannica Online, "art criticism is often tied to theory; it is interpretive, involving the effort to understand a particular work of art from a theoretical perspective and to establish its significance in the history of art." This is very different from visualization, where all we usually do is criticize work that we want to improve on based on relatively practical problems. Visualization also lacks a theory.

Talking about visualization without being able to show images and to point and gesticulate wildly is incredibly difficult and not very effective. Talking about interaction and the finer points of visualization (not just what it looks like) is even harder. Videos help, but are usually not very effective, are hard to find, and there is also some work in psychology that shows that we do not comprehend videos too well. We need the means to write and talk about visualization, and that is no different from what you need for talking about art: a language and a theory.

Visualization is also a very technical science (if it is a science at all), where the technical achievement of doing something new usually outweighs any questions on how useful or necessary a technique is. And while visualization papers have started to include evaluations, those are still quite superficial: while a new technique may look better in a quick user study, getting to know it better and being able to master it can reveal entirely new aspects of it.

There is a lack of reflection, critical or otherwise, in visualization. Once something has been published, it is usually considered done, and we move on to other things. We do not waste our time critically appraising our own and others' work – but we should.

A Culture of Criticism

Critical thinking and writing will force us to think about the categories we think in, the applications we have in mind, our personal preferences for specific types of visualization, different approaches, etc. It will also make it possible to go back to papers that were published many years ago, without much impact, and look at what went wrong, which ideas might be worth reconsidering, and why the paper seemed like a good choice for a publication at the time.

Critical writing means criticism, and many of us are afraid of that; both of being criticized (How am I going to defend myself?) and of criticizing (Who am I to criticize this work?). Artists have no choice, we do – and that is not a good thing. We can avoid criticism, and we do. Talks at conferences usually yield little in addition to some polite questions about details and "have you considered x?" The most useful tools we have right now are reviews, but those are limited both in number (you only get 3-5, and only for submitted work) and in size and scope. But reviews give us a taste of what we could get from open criticism: constructive and thoughtful reviews can greatly improve a work, and help us to properly structure our thinking.

Criticism works, also in visualization. David H. Laidlaw and Fritz Drury teach a course at Brown university, and Georg Russegger and I have modeled a similar course after that. In both, the students not only develop something (which they usually do in CS courses), but they also get to show their work to their peers, and criticize it. Their work even gets exhibited at the end of the semester, adding another means of exposure, and another venue for criticism. This creates a higher level of self-awareness, because students anticipate possible criticism, and address it before presenting their work. This improves their designs, because they have to think harder about them, and usually have the wish to show something that will be considered good by their peers, not just their teacher.

From Criticism to Theory

Once criticism has been established as a part of visualization culture, a language will evolve all by itself. We will see how different people attack different methods, and how they try to construct larger bodies of concepts, rather than talk about individual methods. These will be the pieces for building a theory. Of course, these pieces will not emerge immediately, and they will not fall into place to make a theory all by themselves. Other parts will certainly be needed, taken from fields like psychology, and derived by other means. But the growing body of criticism and criticism of criticism will eventually produce the cornerstones of the theory, and allow us to start putting the puzzle together.

A stronger focus on reflection will also make it possible to publish more theoretical papers, thus furthering the goal of a visualization theory. Like in any (other) science, theoretical and practical papers of various types will influence each other and allow us to understand what we are doing, how we are doing it, and why we are doing it – which we currently don't.

Can we copy art theory? No, and nor should we. There are many differences between art and visualization, and visualization needs a very different kind of theory than art. Art critics are usually not artists, and art theory certainly works in a very different way, and has very different goals than a theory of visualization. Artists also do not usually use criticism to improve their work, or work directly with critics. This would be necessary and useful for visualization, and we certainly do not want to split the field into visualizaiton practitioners and visualization critics (though to an extent, this might be useful). But there are many ideas in art theory that could be directly applied to visualization, and that would provide useful new perspectives on what we do.

Visualization also offers the perfect basis for a culture of criticism. Most researchers are young and there are few authorities that can dictate opinions. And even those are willing to engage in discussions and question their views. We are not dealing with steep hierarchies, doctrine, and unquestionable authorities like some other fields. Any new publication could turn our world upside down, any new model of how things are done could make everything that had been published before irrelevant. We are in a truly unique position to define and redefine our field in an unprecedented way. We need to seize this opportunity.

Posted by Robert Kosara on October 10, 2006. Filed under criticism.