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A Criticism of Visualization Criticism Criticism

Criticism in visualization can be harsh, pedantic, and stupid. But it is also a useful tool that shows the thinking behind the seemingly simple graphical shapes we use, and teaches people things they might not be aware of. While I largely agree with Andy Kirk's criticism of visualization criticism and the danger of scaring people away from visualization, his "grown-up criticism" argument cuts both ways: grown-ups can argue a point without getting upset.

It's not like all the web would be hostile to visualization experiments; far from it. Look at websites like infosthetics and flowingdata, which present links to lots of visualizations, good and bad, with little to no criticism. Now compare their traffic to what I am getting here, or what Bryan Connor's The Why Axis is getting, or Kaiser Fung's Junk Charts. Taken together, infosthetics and flowingdata have about ten times the RSS subscribers and 25 times the page views of this humble little blog (based on their sponsorship information here and here).

People like sharing pretty stuff to look at, and there are plenty of places to find things. Visualization is just another source of colorful pixels, just like photography, painting, collage, etc. The things that get shared are invariably beautiful, and sometimes they are also good visualizations.But more often than not, the question of whether something serves any kind of purpose, or is interesting in addition to being pretty, is not asked.

The Bike Analogy

Andy uses the example of a bicycle to argue that different people have different goals. A bicycle doesn't go very fast, it doesn't carry a lot of luggage, it doesn't work well in water, etc. It still has a lot of other good uses, though, and that's why people like bicycles. Fair enough. He's also right that criticism in visualization can be based on nonsensical assumptions or on reciting some oversimplified "rules."

But let's play with that bicycle metaphor a bit and consider a new bike design by a newcomer to the field. Our designer has looked at existing bikes and found that they all are too similar and not nearly as exciting as they could be. So here is a new design! It's pretty, it's intricate, and it uses ideas from other fields. I hope you like it.

This is what a lot of visualization experiments look like, and that's fine. But it has to be possible to criticize them. This is not a useful bicycle. It has other virtues, perhaps, but if my goal is to get from point A to point B, this is not going to do it. The fact that you can actually ride it and it works makes not difference here, it's not a practical bike. As a decorative piece, it's clearly superior to a lot of more useful bikes, though. But is bicycle design, as a field, about decorative pieces with no practical value, or perhaps more about efficient modes of transportation? What should be the typical assumptions and goals of bicycles, and which goals might be somewhat less important?

I Scare Because I Care

Visualization is still very young, and there are many influences and potential directions. That's great, and we should embrace that. But at the same time, we also need to figure out where the boundaries are. Without boundaries, there is just chaos. People often do things and call them visualizations even when they're not. They don't know how to use colors. They don't know what perception is. They've never heard of scaling or baselines or part-whole relationships.

Different people also have different ideas about what they want from visualization, but don't realize it. There is much confusion about what visualization is, what its goals are, etc. But that is exactly why we need to clarify, rather than muddle up and sweep under the rug. We need to point to things and figure out why they are different. And sometimes, somebody needs to play the curmudgeon and lay down some rules.

Because this field is so young, it needs a culture of discourse. We need to be able to argue. And we need to be able to criticize. Without that, there is no progress and no evolution, only chaos.

Posted by Robert Kosara on July 9, 2012. Filed under criticism.