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Periodic Table of Visualization Methods

Visualization is not Periodic, Period!

Of all the sins committed against visualization on the Internet, the Periodic Table of Visualization Methods stands out as the most egregious. Its collection of actual visualization methods, structural diagrams, and feel-good business bullshit does not fit a structure that was devised to understand the world – and that is actually a very effective visualization in itself.

Visualization Methods

A good part of the left half of the diagram is comprised of actual visualization methods. There are line charts, bar charts, parallel coordinates, etc. Of course, there's already a taste of the things to come in the "Continuum" and the "Scenario Matrix" example for Cartesian coordinates. And even though the Information Visualization category is defined as being based on data, it contains flow charts, entity relationship models, etc., which are part of the next category.

Structural Diagrams

These are diagrams that are not based on data in the sense that they visualize a dataset. These are modeling tools, and they are useful, but they are not visualizations. Flow charts, entity relationship models, etc. provide a means of depicting and reason about structures, like the control flow in a program or the table layout in a database.

Most of these are under the Information Visualization category, while the remaining categories like Concept Visualization, Strategy Visualization, etc. fall under the next heading.

Feel-Good Business Bullshit

Argument Slide, Force Field Diagram

You need to fill the time at those seminars with something. When you're not teaching your clients to juggle, ride a unicycle, or fire-walk, you talk about the Argument Slide or the Force Field Diagram. It helps pass the time, and everybody enjoys sharing information in such an informal setting. And it's exactly the kind of stuff that keeps the Dilbert guy in business drawing his terrible cartoons. This is not visualization.

The Structure

Adding insult to injury, the structure they have abused is actually a remarkable visualization in itself. The Periodic Table of Elements was developed by Dmitri Mendeleev after discovering patterns in how different elements behaved depending on the number of valence electrons (electrons in the outermost layer around the atom) and the number of layers. The simple ordering in the table nicely groups the elements into different kinds of metals, non-metals, noble gases, etc.

The table provides a kind of visualization of the underlying data (the number of electrons), revealing its periodic structure. It organizes the information about elements in a way that makes the relationships between elements obvious; much like the white and black keys on a piano keyboard.

Other Idiotic Periodic Tables

Visualization is not the only thing the periodic table can be misapplied to. There is a Periodic Table of Typefaces, a Periodic Table of Texting (a t-shirt that's apparently no longer sold), a Periodic Table of Beer, a Periodic Table of Awesomeness, etc. Of course, none of these depict structures that are actually periodic. Camdon Wilde, who designed the typefaces table, freely admits that:

Unfortunately, the typefaces could not be sorted exactly numerically on the table while at the same time keeping them in groups of families and classes. It had to be one or the other. Of course it COULD have been done but I would have had to seriously sacrifice aesthetics of the overall design (i.e. it wouldn't have come out looking AT ALL like a traditional periodic table.)

There is something about this structure that is vaguely familiar, has an air of science, and the fact that people like structure (just look at all those lists out there on the Internet) that just draws people in and compels them to email all the people they know about this abomination.

When you get that next email pointing you to this awesome resource, don't forward it. Only you can stop this nonsense.

Posted by Robert Kosara on May 19, 2009.