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Book Review: Visual Thinking for Design, by Colin Ware

Colin Ware's latest book Visual Thinking for Design has a promising subtitle: active vision, attention, visual queries, gist, visual skills, color, narrative, design. That's covering quite a bit of ground, and also a lot of things not usually considered in visualization. While this is a book about design, I was interested in what it could teach people in InfoVis, and I review it from that point of view.

Colin Ware is a well-known researcher in Information Visualization (InfoVis), and I consider him the one with the most scientific approach in the field. His book Information Visualization: Perception for Design is widely read and used in visualization courses, and is without doubt the most thorough treatment of the perceptual and cognitive psychology foundations of visualization (and design, for that matter). He was also kind enough to contribute a list of influences to this site, where he mentioned the book he was working on at the time.

(Why) Is This An InfoVis Book?

My interest in this book comes from several terms mentioned in the title and subtitle. I think that visual thinking is marginalized in visualization, where we often present particular data rather than provide the visual means for solving problems. Design and design skills are also still underappreciated in InfoVis. Visual gist, narrative, etc. are things people think and talk about, but very little of that translates into the work being done in InfoVis.

The Book

This is a well-designed book by somebody who knows exactly what he wants. In the preface, Ware talks about how he placed the images in the text so they would appear where they are needed, without the need for "See Figure x" to send the reader hunting for the right image. He uses that to great effect to set up little experiments where the reader has to read the instructions at the bottom of one page and only sees the image when turning the page. Most figures really are were they belong, but some are not, and that is a lot more apparent when so much emphasis is put on figure placement.

The writing is vivid and very readable. This is a book for an audience with a vast range of backgrounds, and Ware does not assume much previous knowledge or a great tolerance for jargon.

However, the book also feels superficial in places. A lot of the usual basics are only skimmed over, and that helps make the book manageable and get to the important parts, but some readers will want to know more and will not be provided with many pointers where to look.

Chapter By Chapter

Here is a brief summary of every chapter, with some thoughts on each of them. I am only mentioning topics that I found particularly interesting and/or relevant, more things are certainly covered in the book.

Chapter 1 dives right into cognition and change blindness to discuss visual memory and introduces the concept of the world as its own memory, which we constantly query as needed instead of keeping a model in our heads. Ware compares the eye to a digital camera, which is generally a bad idea, but he makes it work by introducing the concept of the brain pixel. The mixed bottom-up and top-down aspects of visual processing are also discussed and used to present a first overall model of vision.

Chapter 2 describes the parallel processing that takes place in the brain, the different pathways involved and how eye movement planning works. This is the basis for a discussion of features that "pop out," i.e., pre-attentive features and some of the mechanisms behind them (Ware points out that pre-attentive is really a misnomer, but it is probably too late to change the term now). A thorough model of visual search is constructed from the underlying mechanisms described in the chapter. This is also the first chapter that has a section on concrete examples of applying the presented information to design questions in InfoVis and visual design more generally.

Chapter 3 starts out discussing spatial organization of information, then drills down into a lowest-level description of edge detection on the neuron level to quickly bounce back to high-level tasks like texture detection, pattern learning, and all the way to visual metaphors. That is a lot of ground to cover, and it feels a little superficial. This chapter in particular seems to call for more details or at least more pointers to further reading, which are missing (see below).

Chapter 4 deals with some of the perceptual effects of color and explains, among other things, why we can see more detail in greyscale than color images. There are a lot of useful figures that illustrate the described phenomena. The interesting connection between names of colors in most languages and the number of colors that can be easily recognized and distinguished is worth pointing out, and provides a good rationale for a limit on the number of colors used.

Chapter 5 goes into depth perception by discussing depth cues and the role of motion in depth perception. The fact that we really only perceive a 2.5D world (or even less, Ware argues it's closer to 2.05D) is discussed and why 2.5D design makes sense. This chapter also talks about how depth perception is only really necessary if we make use of it for movements like grasping, which Ware argues is the reason for many 3D technologies like CAVEs and 3D movies failing (or at least not being the revolution everybody thought they would be).

Chapter 6 is about 3D objects, geons, as well as short-term (working) and long-term visual memory. Here like in most other chapters, Ware offers design tips related to the content, which are not just tacked on the discussion of the underlying mechanisms. One thing that confused me about this chapter was the assertion that most of what we see is already in our heads - how does that work with what was said in chapter 1, that the world is its own memory? A bit more discussion would have been useful here.

Chapter 7 tackles visual and verbal narrative. It starts out by questioning the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. Of course, a thousand words (or even just a handful) can express many things a picture simply cannot, or not easily. So deciding when which should be used is an important question - at least in design, but perhaps also in visualization. But I felt that this chapter didn't quite live up to my expectations because it just stays too superficial. It talks about film directing and work done on assembly instructions for furniture by Tversky and others, but leaves the connection with more abstract kinds of representation open. I also found the treatment of sign language too superficial. While Ware talks about how it uses visual abstractions, it seems a strange choice for this chapter (it uses the same key parts of the brain as spoken language, despite its different modality), and there are many fascinating things about it (like the use of location for pronouns) that might inspire some new ideas in design.

Chapter 8 calls creative visual thinking "meta-seeing," and essentially switches the book's point of view from the recipient to the designer. Random scribbling is discussed as a way to find starting points, as well as recognizing figures by adding little "props," like beaks and eyes. It also talks about some fairly high-level design topics like spiral design and critique. This chapter in particular provides good insights into the design world for non-designers like InfoVis researchers.

Chapter 9, "The Dance of Meaning," is a review of the previous chapters, which I did not find necessary for a book of this length, even though it adds new examples and other information. There is an interesting example of using static representation vs. animation in a study of the behavior of humpback whales, which I felt could have been discussed in more detail in the main part of the book. Ware is a bit too modest in talking about his own work and misses some opportunities to illustrate and develop further some of the topics in the book because of that.

The book ends with an argument for the importance of design in the designed world we live in as well as touching on the fact that some of the basic human perceptual limitations and skills are changing because of exposure to new kinds of stimuli, like video games.

Further Thoughts

There are quite a few typos and other small errors in the book. Ware consistently misspells Anne Treisman's name, which is especially problematic because he uses it to showcase how a difference in orientation pops out (interestingly, he also misspelled her name in his previous book's text, but got it right in the references). I also found almost two dozen errata on my first reading.

There is also a lack of references, especially given the introductory nature of the book. While I like the sparse use of marginal notes and lack of footnotes (for the same reason figures should be where they are referenced), additional references in the back would not have hurt. Image credits could also be improved. For one of the images, the visible man is mentioned, but no explanation is given what that is or where it can be found. The same is true for TubeGuru, a planning system for the London Underground that does not live at an obvious URL (and there are many other sites of that name that do other things, like let users share videos). For an image sequence from the Powers of Ten movie, Ware mentions the names of the people behind the images, but not its title.

What is great are the connections to design throughout book. They really connect with the content of each chapter, and appear quite useful (to this non-designer). This is probably not a typical design book, but one every serious designer should read carefully to understand his/her profession in a much more profound way.

This is also an inspiring book. I consider it a good sign when I catch myself thinking the things described further rather than reading on, and that happened in every chapter of this book. I almost feel that every single chapter could be the synopsis for an entire book, with more details and ideas. That is all the more reason why there should be a lot more references in the book.

The book is listed as having 256 pages on Amazon, but it's really only about 185 (not counting the preface, index, etc.). I consider this a good thing, there are too many half-read books on my bookshelf that I will likely never finish. A manageable size makes a book much more practical and useful, though again based on the assumption that there will be plenty of pointers.

Is This A Visualization Book?

As an introductory text that covers a lot of ground on perception and cognition, and that draws connections with practical design issues, this book is hard to beat. If you have not read Ware's previous book, I would strongly recommend this one as a starter to whet your appetite. Perception for Design goes into a lot more detail on many of the topics covered (but does not cover all of them), but is also a lot more technical.

In addition to Ware's background, what makes this book relevant for InfoVis are the examples and the fact that most (if not all) the covered topics are directly relevant and applicable to visualization. In addition to the perceptual and cognitive topics, that is also true for the design issues that are mentioned. This book will provide a lot of thought-provoking and useful material, and many starting points for future research.

Posted by Robert Kosara on June 8, 2008. Filed under book-reviews, criticism.