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The grammar of graphics? Visual methods for revealing the shape and structure of knowledge and data

Many fields of science, medicine, business and human organisation use graphics to explore the structure of data and knowledge, and to communicate to both ‘visually literate’ experts and general audiences. The practice is ancient, but for technical reasons saw a great deal of innovation in the Victorian period and ever since. However, on the whole, these dispersed and siloed efforts have not led to much analytical thinking about what makes various kinds of graphics good or bad at communicating.

Conrad Taylor talked through and illustrated some ideas that have developed since the 1970s, which try to analyse information graphics systematically on a parallel with verbal language, employing semiotic and syntactic analysis. Today, we can extend these approaches to take account of the new technical possibilities afforded by fast computation, dynamic pivoting of the elements in graphic displays, and time-series animations. But whichever dimensions and technologies you choose, a good foundation in visual rhetoric is still worth knowing.

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