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Design Workshop Questions

Jeff Heer asked me to talk more about the Design, Vision, and Visualization workshop at VisWeek, so here is a list of questions we came up with. While we were not able to discuss them at great length, I think they're very valid, and might lead to a better understanding about how to connect the design and visualization worlds.

The list is based on my notes and what I remember from the discussion, but I also filled in some additional thoughts. Feel free to add and/or disagree in the comments.

  • How do designers work? What do they actually do? Few people in visualization know what designers actually do, how they work, how they discuss their work, etc. We need to convince people that design is not just about being artsy or making things pretty. A potential problem is also that visualization researchers might not want to abandon their overall designs, but only expect a designer to make things look better. An understanding is therefore needed what each side can bring to the table, and which part of the work being discussed is the actual subject of a discussion or collaboration.
  • How can we connect with designers? The incentives that bring researchers to a conference do not work for designers, and vice versa. It's not easy to set up a forum where the two communities can meet. The best bet right now is to find somebody to work with at your own institution, though there are some roadblocks there, as well (see the other points).
  • When do we need to go to first principles, perception, etc.? Designers can't answer all our questions, and often they don't know why something works or should be done a certain way. Sometimes it may be necessary to go back to the basics, perform experiments, etc., to establish how (and if) a particular technique works.
  • What are the properties/characteristics of data? When designing a visualization, we have to take the characteristics of the data into account. Or something. Frankly, I don't remember what this point was about.
  • What is the visual language of the users? Some fields have well-established visual languages, even if those may not always be optimal. Colors have a certain meaning in chemistry for example, and any attempt to color atoms differently is bound to fail. In some cases, the conventions are not that strict, however, and users can be convinced to abandon them for more effective designs. The question is when that is the case, and how to present a radical new design so that it has a chance of being accepted.
  • What are the expectations about good and/or effective design? Design includes being useful, but that is not all there is to it. Depending on the people working together, the definition of what the goal is can vary quite a bit. It really boils down to an actual collaboration and understanding of the other's motivation and way of working, not just throwing something over a wall and expecting what gets thrown back to be perfect.
  • Perceptually correct vs. aesthetically pleasing? Similar to the point above, a design that is based on perceptual principles might not be the most aesthetically pleasing, and vice versa. The question is what to insist on and what to accept even if it contradicts things we know.
  • What are fundamental skills for anybody in visualization? This was the most intriguing question in my humble opinion: What does everybody in visualization need to know? It still strikes me as odd how few people have any kind of background (or even just interest) in design, photography, or art. I think we need to learn a lot more about visual literacy and acquire more of an appreciation for how other disciplines communicate visually to improve our work. Others may well disagree, though…

Posted by Robert Kosara on November 9, 2008.