Charting without prejudice: is it even possible?

As if it ain’t hard enough to slog through a wet, cold & gritty Canadian early Spring, Maclean’s Magazine published Cary Wu and Rima Wilkes’ article, “The stats bear it out: In Quebec, trust is low” on March 30th of 2017 just to bum us all out even further. Well, that, and to present statistically defensible quantification of Andrew Potter’s incendiary assertion, in an earlier Maclean’s article, that “Quebec is an almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society, deficient in many of the most basic forms of social capital that other Canadians take for granted.”

That’s pretty strong stuff. It remains to be seen what will become of Potter’s career at McGill, but I’m less concerned with the message of the article or its veracity than I am with the graphics that accompanied it initially and, rather conspicuously, the graphics which hastily replaced them. Below, the dreary picture of pathological Francophone hyper-vigilance with which the article was initially published. When asked, “Who do you trust?” Canadians responded:


Note the vertical scale. All of the data is presented in percentiles, of course, but the actual range of each graph varies. Some start at the absolute bottom of 0% and go to 25%, while others pick up halfway and terminate at 75%. The reason, or rather, the reason I’m assuming the graphic artist would cite for laying out the data this way, is to feature the relative difference between the Rest Of Canada (ROC) and Quebec rather than featuring the absolute difference between all or none. While the former is pertinent to the question of comparing Canadians, the latter means defining a scale between…

  1. a hypothetical, idiotically gullible rube who trusts everybody all the time, and
  2. a hypothetical, cripplingly paranoid hermit.

I mean, that’s what “100%” and “0%” would represent on an absolute scale, and such naifs / Tolkienian Gollums are not pertinent to the point the authors want to make. At least, that’s how I’d have made this mistake.

And I would be mistaken because there are in this story characters other (and more important) than the those hypothetical extremes described above. In the graph presented as above, the ROC positively towers over Quebec’s trust-score in all but the “members of family” category. Why, just look at that great, amicable red stripe of mostly English-speaking friendliness dwarfing those tiny, paranoid blue stubs of Quebec. As you might expect, people complained.

Maclean'sGraphTweet(Les Perreaux)
And the magazine reacted. They replaced the relative-scale graph with one which showed the same data in an absolute scale:


Well, that puts things in a different light. Even the printer can see this is a fairer representation just by looking at the ink reservoirs when the job finishes.

What can we learn from this? Was the first chart an attempt to deceive or obfuscate the facts? Edward Tufte sagely observed that “data graphics are no different from words [in so far as] any means of communication can be used to deceive.” Indeed, he cites as an example of such deception a graph using non-zero Y-axis values in Visual Display of Quantitative Information (2001), but he does so because the graph at issue compares quanta from two dissimilar Y-axis starting points (dirty pool!). More to the point, he laments later in the chapter that he finds it “particularly disheartening […] that the reported perception of something as clear and simple as line length depends on the context and what other people have already said about the lines.” Or, as Donald Rumsfeld famously put it, even the most elemental data visualization is subject to distortion from “that which we don’t know we don’t know.”

So: know. That’s the lesson. Know, or know that if you don’t know, somebody smarter than you will let you know. I don’t believe the graphic designer who produced the initial graph for Maclean’s was “deceptive,” nor intentionally trying to dwarf Quebec with cloying Anglophonic bonhomie. But the fact that the graph had to be replaced shows they did that anyway, which must have been mortifying, and for which they have my deepest sympathies.

But with the article already hot like a hot potato in the world of Canadian letters (having just got Andrew Potter dealt the Spanish Archer* at McGill), the editor should have known that their position just might be read graphically as a bit defensive concerning their accuracy in assessing how trusting are Quebeckers relative to the rest of Canada vs. Quebeckers relative to Tolkein’s Gollum.

If they didn’t, it’s safe to say they do now.

*El Bow


Three theses go in; only one come out.

I took the whole of the summer of 2014 to chew a knuckle in contemplation of my thesis alternatives for the fall; the assignment was to show up in September with three ideas to choose from. Narrowing my febrile imagination down to three discrete ideas was hard because I suffer from that crippling mental illness, everything-looks-kinda-good-to-me-itis. Yet I managed to carve out these three, expressed below as “elevator pitches.

“Why should first year, survey-of-anything students suffer with big fat traditional textbooks in the age of the internet? No wonder half of them ‘forget’ to bring it to class: the very nature of the thing makes it gigantic with small print on onionskin paper. Look, I know the thing has to be exhaustive, but must they tote it to and fro? Sell kindle / iPod-able versions of these biblical-scale documents along with the physical version: you can link to other resources, sell added-value services, and integrate with existing learning systems without sacrificing the advantages of a physical book.”

“Hmph,” they said. “Sounds a bit dry.”

“Howzabout a peppy organic fruit & veg energy drink? Have you noticed that between the high-octane, solvent-like canned stuff they sell to teens and the fancy latte and working man cuppa, there’s a dearth of available caffinated options available to the consumer. Especially the health-conscious, organic-oriented consumer who would never drink a can of anything spelled in all caps. No, these folks would fall for a tasty pick-me-up that looked healthy and peppy. To achieve this aesthetically, I propose an advertising campaign predicated upon a photographic technique I (think I) invented, involving the clever disposition of light sources within and around fruit and vegetables such that they appear to glow with a healthful energy.”

“That sounds awful.” “Glowing food looks like poison.”

“Well, you’ve got me there. Suppose, then, that tomorrow, astronomers discover the Earth is about to be hit by a comet,some two years hence. A plan to evacuate a limited number of people to a nearby planet is hastily enacted, and the evacuees are chosen by an ad-hoc world government. One of the first actions of the new apocalyptic government is the creation of a Department of Global Pacification, the underlying function of which is to placate and promote a positive attitude in the populace while honestly keeping them abreast of their impending doom. Why two years from now? I choose the two-year duration to allow for a seasonal as well as psychological progression in the design of civil defense communication with an increasingly traumatized citizenry. The dynamics of arranging street-level communication with people under these circumstances would be complex and changing. The varied audience of messages such as “this way for compulsory barbiturate injection” or “no personal items allowed in euthanasia chamber” may be illiterate, and/or intoxicated, and/or belligerently aware that they have nothing at all to lose. Good design will anticipate this variation within audience, and it will take into account their diachronic variation as well: a message-system that placates the masses on day -540 may infuriate them on day -5. Add to this problem the fact that civic-minded design will become increasingly difficult to motivate as the end nears, and the need to anticipate and plan for the event well in advance is plain. Hence, I propose a system of signage and way-finding, including public information literature and kiosk display that adapts to the changes in the communicative dynamic as the situation deteriorates, thus helping the evacuees escape the rioting hoards safely.”

Well, that last one hit them like a turd ejected from a passing airliner headed in a direction opposite to that in which the convertible in which they were seated had been blithely traveling in the Hamptons on some fine autumn morn. In short, they didn’t like it.

"There I was, just enjoying the drive, when this Design Student shows up and pinches a loaf right in my face."
“There I was, just enjoying the drive, when this Design Student shows up and pinches a loaf right in my face.”

However, they mulled it over for a while, we talked the thing out and we made some decisions. Keep your top up until next week when I tell you what the project turned into.

New direction: process journal

Those of you who slavishly followed this blog in the previous school term became accustomed to a higher standard of bloggetry when you encountered my pincer-action method of first cornering an issue in modern graphic design and then surrounding it with my specialized forces in the persons of Theo van Leeuwen and Gunther Kress, whose quite excellent Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design (2006) would lay siege any image introduced previously in the week until it surrendered unconditionally its semantic value and cultural significance. Well, most of that has changed this year.

This year, on a mission of peace, my blog will focus upon the process of realizing my graphic design thesis, a project of no little effort on my part and one which you shall observe at leisure. Yes, as I slog through the deadlined  research, testing and development of a thesis the likes of which can be met only with spit bubbles and slack jaws by the design world, you shall watch, sitting in judgement silently for the most part, though you are welcome to pipe up with an encouraging word or two in the comment field. Enjoy it!

In the weeks and months that follow, revel in my accumulated research, creative development and explorations, selection and refinement processes and final design direction (including the final execution and the production schedule that leads up to it) as I work this thing out.

What’s it all about, you ask? I’ll tell you about the proposal, how it was met by my peers and instructor, and what I’m up against for the long haul next week. Roll on your side and chew on a wallet if you think you may swallow your tongue in febrile anticipation before then.

Actually, don't put anything in a convulsing person's mouth. That went out in the 'fifties. Just loosen their clothing, turn them on their side, time the seizure and, when they regain consciousness, tell them I'll write more in just a couple of days.
Actually, don’t put anything in a convulsing person’s mouth. That went out in the ‘fifties. Just loosen their clothing, turn them on their side, time the seizure with your watch and, when they regain consciousness, tell them I’ll write more in just a couple of days.

How to evaluate materiality: crafty analysis!

You know the drill: first post of the week discusses an interesting design issue currently causing chins to be scratched in high places; the second examines one of the images presented earlier beneath the coppery analytical bristles of Theo van Leeuwen and Gunther Kress’ quite excellent Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design (2006). There is no third post, ’cause by the time you’ve finished the second you’re already reeling back on your heels and whistling through clenched teeth. I mean, what more do you want?

In our last chapter we considered the current trend toward handcrafted, “genuine,” non-computer-generated design in today’s consumer culture and put it into some historical perspective alongside the late Victorian Arts and Crafts movement. To that end, I decorated my discussion with this pithily ironic needlepoint:

Created by Briar Mark
Created by Briar Mark

Here it is in close up so’s you can see the delicate embroidery:

Detail from Briar Mark's "I could have done this on my mac."
Detail from Briar Mark’s “I could have done this on my mac.”

What are we to make of this saucy locution in finger-blistering needlepoint? Let us consider the thing first as a text, as the artist has clearly gone out of his/her way not just to convey a language-based message, but to present that message in the recognizable forms of a regularized, sans-serif typeface.
The thing about texts as such is that they can be infinitely varied in their appearance without affecting their meaning; you can write the phrase, “I did this on my PC” in any typeface you please without significantly changing the meaning of the phrase. Of course, if you render it in, say, Impact (the typeface of warning labels) the message may take on some new connotation further subject to contextualization, but that won’t change what we like to think of as its “literal meaning.” So, at a textual level, this piece has the following characteristics: it’s all caps, has no punctuation and a subjunctive direction: the reflexive subject (“I”) tells us that which is not the case. At the most ephemeral, immaterial level of analysis, this is a message, presumably from the artist to you the viewer, about that which is not the case.

But no message exists in a purely ephemeral form: in order to cook the proteins in the rods you keep buried in your retinas or knock loose the little bones in your ears or whatever, a message has to be manifested physically. This is an important thing that people who work with words all the time often forget: in order to work, words have to have volume and mass. Oh, you may have lovely ideas about words that float magically on gossamer banners in your fecund imagination, but if you’re ever going to make anyone else aware of them you’ll have to articulate them in some quantifiably volumetric manifestation. All visual texts are, therefor, first and before they’re anything else, pictures of text.

Kress and van Leeuwen make this important distinction to help us navigate the next step (which is good because it’s a doozy). There are a vast number of ways in which we might turn when considering the word manifested in writing or speech or the careful arrangement of dozens of Franklin Mint figurines or whatever. But if we approach the problem like good semioticians, we shall look for motivated signs only. It’s not enough that the viewer should say, of the image above, for instance, that “it’s white background reminds me of snow and of winter; therefor, white is a symbol of winter in this image,” because the whiteness may or may not be a signifier intended by the creator or, even if it was, it may not be recognized as such within the culture of its production or reception. To signify, for our analytical purposes, the proto-sign must meet both conditions. Another way to say this is “The white=winter value would have to meet the criteria for motivation.”

If it’s only motivated signs we’re looking for, that narrows the field considerably. Kress et. al. make the next step easy, too. There are three categories into which we might like to group our motivated signs:

  1. the surfaces involved, such as  “paper, rock, plastic, textile, wood, etc” (216);
  2. the substances with which the message is materialized, like “ink, gold, paint, light, etc” (216);
  3. the tools of production with which (1) was realized upon (2), such as “chisel, pen, brush, pencil, stylus, etc” (216).

What makes the image at issue interesting and worthy of my fine analysis here is that it delivers a duality of surfaces and structures simultaneously in order to make a point about the tools of production. The artist was clearly motivated to pair dissimilar signs from our shared culture in order to make a point about craft: the delicate, time-consuming art of embroidery meets the effortless, instantaneous convenience of word processing. The white surface on which the embroidery is featured is a suggested (especially by the former) as a symbol for a blank computer monitor, especially because it is quite at odds with the way in which delicate embroidery is commonly backgrounded in our culture.

The colours chosen back this up neatly and cast the whole thing in an editorial slant. The Cyan-Magenta-Yellow gamut is of course the arena in which computer printers create the millions of colours we perceive, but the artist has chosen a) to not blend them at all despite their overlapping, b) to cast them ghostishly apart from each other, as though the result of some Tyndall effect-inflected trapping error, which c) puts the very technical concept of computer-controlled print alignment in the foreground of the image’s meaning.

The result is a message about what the artist refused to do in a manner that suggests an intentional malfunction: rather than go the easy way, the artist went to great lengths to represent a printing error with tools that require such meticulous attention as to obviate any interpretation of the error as an error. It’s a pretty neat trick.


The up and down and left and right of Milton Glaser’s Mad Men promotional artwork.

That's not me, by the way. In case you thought so.
That’s not me, by the way. In case you thought so.

You’re a loyal fan of johnroscoe-the-blog, so you’re by now enured to the how-d’you-do/piledriver structure of the weekly entries: the first blog entry of the week picks you up at your parent’s place to introduce some topic pertinent to  graphic design in modern practice, and the second blog post of the week gropes madly at you from all directions analyzing the images introduced previously through the Visual Grammar of Theo Van Leeuwen and Gunther Kress (2006) before you even get to the prom. Because chicks dig that.

Before we revisit the artwork Milton Glaser designed to sell the last season of Mad Men, which is surely the giddiest great big jiffy-pop full of martinis and free love on modern tv, let us become way, way bummed out by this massive downer:

God Shows Death to Adam and Eve (French, 15th C. miniature from ms. of De Civitate Dei, Hughes, 1969)
God Shows Death to Adam and Eve (French, 15th C. miniature from ms. of De Civitate Dei, Hughes, 1969)

Whoo-hoo! French medieval scriptural exegesis is in da house, y’all! Yes, the party hasn’t started until you’ve contemplated long and hard the cold, everlasting end of mortal innocence in God Shows Death to Adam and Eve, a friendly reminder of how soiled is your soul owing to the serpentine conspiracy of women. I mention it here because it makes a pretty stark example of two meaning-bearing axes common to art in the western tradition: the horizontal break down between Given and New, and the vertical distinctions between Ideal and Real. Let me just ink up this cheezy albumcover a little….

God Shows Death to Adam and Eve (annotated)
God Shows Death to Adam and Eve (annotated)

The vertical demarcation is between the capital-I-Ideal and also-capitalized-R-Real. That is, the (Ideal) beautiful Garden of Eden and the (Real) hideous, rot-in-the-ground fact of death, respectively. Perpendicular to this dichotomy is the split between the Given, i.e., God-The-Eternal-All-Seeing, and that which is new, i.e. Not-Here-For-A-Long-Time Adam and Eve.

Seems trite to pick these vectors out of thin air, but the thing is I didn’t! This quadrangular “information chunking” is common in western art, and in the art of many places that enjoy a language which is read from left to right. Elsewhere, it’s different, but in North America it’s how art works. Don’t believe me? Oh yeah?

Milton Glaser's promotional poster for the final season of Mad Men.
Milton Glaser’s promotional poster for the final season of Mad Men.

The Ideal is most especially the name of the show, itself a sort of pun on the folding of The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit with that televisual illusion popular in the culture of the period that glamorized the advertising industry into a sort of demigodhood. If you’re a fan of tv from the sixties and seventies, you know that advertising industry executives were grossly over-represented in the situation comedies that anchored a decade of prime-time.* So there’s a weird, my-father-garroted-men-in-the-war-but-he-never-talks-about-it reality which meets an I’m-going-to-get-some-if-there’s-any-going fantasy which sitcoms of the period celebrated incessantly. Let us continue downwards beyond the name of the show, please.

The title is imposed upon some rather ferny looking flora, and beneath it an array of blooming forms which, of themselves, are significant insofar as they introduce the Vertical Mediating element: a woman’s head in profile, where they adorn her scalp like the laurel of Adonis and which, in turn, connects with the bottom-most elements of the illustration: a rather gruesome-looking tentacle extending from Don Draper’s reclining, smoking, black-as-pitch silhouette–a tentacle echoed in the Mediating flora that adorns the woman’s chin. Hence, the Reality of Draper-the-octopus cad is mapped on the Ideal fantasy of sixties’ free love across the mediating substrate of a woman, herself clad in the laurel which, Ovid tells us, Adonis claimed in lieu of fair Daphne who, rather than be ruined by the god, was metamorphosed into a tree.

Perpendicular to the Ideal -> Fantasy axis is the Given -> New axis. What changes from left to right in this image? That’s a trick question because most of the action is occurring in the opposite direction: things are going right to left. As reported previously, Glaser himself says, “if you look, ” there’s a ladies’ shoe “entering the frame from the right.” More vivid, perhaps, is the stream of champagne, actively flowing along a similar right-to-left vector nearby which, due to its collocation to the unseeing closed eyes of the Mediating feminine figure at center, implies something more sinister than celebration, especially in combined with the twisting green vines that appear to emanate from Draper’s ominous form at bottom right (the place from which the Real New comes).

So what are we to make of this? The Ovidian myth of Daphne’s ruin is surely not good news for any but the most arborophilic women. Combine this with the right-originating disrobing and inebriation symbology and I think we have the signs that indicate a ruinous seduction, possibly one that ends in an Ophilial suicide, judging from the aquatic kinetic nature of the whispy floral forms against a cobalt-blue background. Or is the wearing of the laurel a sign that the woman will escape her Ophilial fate; nay, transcend it to attain godhood herself? Time will tell. Watch the show and find out.

Join me next week when I’ll split open the guts of something entirely different and tell you the future right before your very eyes AGAIN!

*From Donald Hollanger, Marlow Thomas’ boy friend in That Girl; to Tom Corbit , Bill Bixby’s character in The Courtship of Eddy’s Father; to both of the Darrens in Bewitched and many, many more.

Milton Glaser designs the ad for Mad Men’s final season.

Read a lovely interview with Milton Glaser in the New York Times in which he discusses his artwork for the promotional material for the upcoming and final season of Mad Men.

Glaser starts off by explaining that Matthew Weiner wanted an abstraction, rather like the Bob Dylan poster Glaser designed in 1966–the very year in which the show is set (see below).

Milton Glaser's promotional poster for Bob Dylan (1966).
Milton Glaser’s promotional poster for Bob Dylan (1966).

What he got is something a little more concrete and narrative and [gasp!] indicative of how the season, and thus the whole darn shootin’ match, will end.

Glaser describes the piece as “a woman, drinking wine and if you look there’s a floating shoe coming off the right hand side,” delivered in a sort of neo-Art Nouveau which, the master-overlord-progenitor-god father of design says, “people seem to like.”


Let us pause for a moment here to consider the rigorous depth to which Glaser’s analysis of his own work is ready to penetrate: just exactly at the surface.  Is this intellectual modesty, proprietary discretion, or just plain ignorance? Who knows. Dude says what he likes and that’s how it is.

Glaser’s not a Mad Men fan NOT! Of course he loves the show like Citizen Kane loves his sled: it reminds him of his being a carefree kid. The characters are “the ad people I knew” says a man who can legitimately claim to have been there and done all of that before you were even a twinkle in your old man’s bleary eye. That the magical, mid-sixties childhoods of the men who write it has long informed the aesthetics of Mad Men is evidenced by the creator’s choice for last season’s promotional materials: Brian Sanders, an illustrator who few outside the UK would cite as a seminal contributor to the period. But Weiner knows him from “lush, painterly illustrations on TWA flight menus” he saw when he was a kid (Kennedy, NYT).

It’s a little bit of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny to find the id-dominated psyches of little boys informing a show about men lead by their id-dominated lust for chicks, booze and power, don’t you think? Of course you do. Then riddle me this, Batperson: how does “a woman, drinking wine and if you look there’s a floating shoe coming off the right hand side” (Glaser’s description of this season’s spread) explain how the whole damn show will end?

Check back in a couple of days when I release the hounds of visual grammatical analysis upon the juicy T-bone steaks of Glaser’s final season Mad Men art.

Conceptualizing vs. Imagining: Not the same thing.

All year, so far, this blog has worked like the twin horns of the minotaur on a sheep herder who’s wandered onto his turf: first, the left horn punctures some topic important to the world of graphic design and presents imagery related to it, and then, just a couple of days later, the right horn swings across to analyze the images presented previously through an  analytical apparatus suggested by Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen’s Reading Images: the Grammar of Visual Design (2006). After your questions about how images mean the things they do have been impaled upon and gored to pieces by the ancient brute force of my analysis, I’ll lead you further into the labyrinthine world of visual communication. Bring some string.

A still of Tamati Rangi as the Minotaur in  The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010).
A still of Tamati Rangi as the Minotaur in
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010).

When last we met, I had presented to you some playful constructions made of food stuffs: it was part of an effort to make some creative, playful exposition of a food drive, and I sang it’s praises. I say this in the past tense, but it’s still true. Lovely idea: get some engineers involved in crafting large scale sculptures out of food stuffs such that the sculpture takes on some symbolic meaning regarding the reasons for the food drive. Hence this little beauty:

"Feed the Birds" by team RWDI
“Feed the Birds” by team RWDI

Now, suppose you’d never seen this charming arrangement. Suppose I’d said to you, “imagine you’re in a grocery store, walking down the aisles, and imagine you’re tasked with using some of the dry goods to create a little diorama of some ducks in a pond.” You (if you are even half as confident of your own imagination as I imagine you to be) will likely move your eyes toward the upper right quadrant of their sockets and say, “sure.”

Liar! The fact is, what with all those little boxes and cans and the myriad details that pertain to each in it’s unique and three-dimensional reality, it’s way too complicated a thing to “imagine,” if we use that word in its strict, philosophical sense. Now don’t get mad: I’m nitpicking here to make a point about intellection and the place of imagination vs. conceptualization. Consider, if you think this difference worth pursuing (and it is!) the unfathomable chiliagon.

Top left: a 1000-sided Chiliagon; bottom right, a section of the chiliagon depicted top left magnified 200 times (Wikipedia).
Top left: a 1000-sided Chiliagon; bottom right, a section of the chiliagon depicted top left magnified 200 times (Wikipedia).

This is an old game that goes back at least as far as Descartes, but I think it’s still lots of fun. A chiliagon, you see (no you don’t!) is a polygon with a thousand sides, and if you say that you can imagine one of them (where “imagine” is used in its strictest philosophical sense), you’re either some kind of super-human imagining machine or a liar. Because a 1000-sided polygon is utterly indiscernible from a circle: in order for all of the 1000 segments to join AND have the same angle of interference, they’ll either have to escape the 2nd dimension or conform to the pi math that makes all circles round.

Right about now you should be thinking, “say, what is this ‘strict philosophical sense’ evasion John’s trying to pull? If he’s not going to use words in their ‘normal’ manner, he’s engaging in an old-school, obfuscative Humpty-Dumptyism* that merely eschews productive understanding.” No no no no no! I mean to put the matter in a broader context from which I may reveal an important truth about the way we see the world in our “mind’s eye,” so to speak. See, what you’re really doing when I tell you to imagine a chiliagon is conceptualizing, rather than imagining. If you were a completely honest imaginer, you’d take a moment to consult the inventory of your chiliagonic imagination and confess that, unlike your mental images of triangles, squares and myriad less complex polygons, your “image” of the chiliagon is a jumbled, disconnected abstraction of tiny little bendy bits. Not like the real thing at all, is it? Or, conversely, your “image” of a chiliagon is indiscernible from that of a circle, in which case we ought to wonder why you’d want to call it something other than a circle.

Kant, Hume, Locke and more recently Daniel Dennet (and now me!) have all roasted this old chestnut in one way or another. Some have put “idea” or “concept” or “intellection” at the end opposite “imagination” on the continuum of mental processes that result in picture-thinking, but the result is the same: despite how spatially aware you might think yourself to be, there is a level of detail beyond which you cannot imagine–at least, not without recourse to some specialized use of “imagine” that obviates it’s root in “image” (touché!). On the other side of this “detail barrier” is the macroscopic synecdoche that makes a shorthand of our available imagery into words or ideas or concepts, such as the perfectly meaningful and accurate phrase, “a 1000-sided polygon.”

Likewise, if you’re going to make a little duckpond out of canned goods and spag packs without the canned goods and spag packs, you’d better bring some pencils and paper and tape measures and whatever other cognitive prostheses you can carry: the liter-and-a-half of brains you’re carrying just isn’t enough.

See how this fits in with the theme of “the part that relates the whole” we’ve been exploring these past weeks in regard to city logos and the frontispieces of 17th century tombs of political philosophy? You’re welcome, people of the Earth.

Next week: Milton Glazer designs the graphic for the final season of Ad Men. Jump up and down squealing like a drooling idiot until then, won’t you?

*”When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” -Lewis Carrol, Through the Looking Glass.

Infographical aesthetics and indications.

In my previous post I treated some of the finer points of that uniquely 21st century cultural phenomenon, the selfie. It has been my custom this term to operate the blog like a Schick razor blade: the first blog entry of the week cuts close, revealing some event in the world of graphic design exposed beneath the blinding light of my awesome reason, and then the second blog entry of the week cuts even closer by applying the methodology suggested in Kress and vanLeeuwen’s Reading Images: the Grammar of Visual Design (2006) to one of the images presented previously. Today: I shave away the gnarly beard of ignorance yet again with a thrilling examination of the infographic I introduced last week.

Softjoiner: new to my blog? Welcome! Interested in the concept of the selfie more than you are in the construction of appealing and informative infographics? Consult my previous post in which I treat the issue with the sort of alacrity professional wrestlers exert when leaping upon stunned opponents from the third turnbuckle. Or are you ready to look past the content forest and appreciate the tree container? Then please see below.

Unmetric's selfie graphic, reduced size.There’s a lot to like about this graphic from an aesthetic and an informational perspective. Consider the lovely colour scheme and DON’T get all hairy-eyed because the data points are glaringly outside the gamut of earthy human skin-tone browns and pinks which otherwise dominate the image (although, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, the pink of those hands seems to me evocative more of a newborn baby hamster quivering naked in the nativity of a shredded newspaper nest than it does the hands of any human being, European or otherwise). Because data markers are supposed to stick out.

Indeed, despite the complex high natural modality of the photo-real images in the right-most column (remember my treatment of modality last week? I explained photo-real naturalism on a scale between purely arbitrary signs and hyper-real simulacra? Good times), this is a fairly simple plotting of just three data series across a vertical axis marking the passage of time. Consider the ingenious mapping of the quantity of monthly number of brands using selfies mapped onto the the area occupied by the circle that contains its numerical value.

The chart’s creator must have chewed a knuckle, cool sweat trickling off his compressed brow when he realized that the very reasonable mapping of the magnitude of each datapoint onto the proportions of a translucent circle would result in Venn-like epiphenomena when the chart was vertically compressed to fit the client’s specifications.

I like to imagine him waking suddenly in the middle of the night, terrified and clammy, the bedsheets knotted in his clutching fists as his eyes open blindly on the nightmare of people thinking the circles which indicate monthly quantities of brands running selfies might be in some way indicative of the logical relation of a finite collection of sets–because that would be wrong. “They overlap to save space; no fancy Venn-phenomena is intended” he cries.

Another feature I’d like to point out is the interesting saw-tooth separation that marks the difference between Twitter and Facebook selfie deployment. This marker usually indicates an artifactual compression–a concession to the means of production that says, essentially, “in order to show this to scale, there’d be a big empty space right here that you don’t need to see, so we skipped it.” It’s a good tactic when indicating a period or series of low importance, but it’s not clear what it’s supposed to indicate here. Other social media selfie campaigns? Beats me. Sits like big ugly monster teeth in the middle of the thing though, doesn’t it?

The real charm in a thing like this comes from two things: an uncluttered, low-modality, easy-to-follow chart area and some high modality, real-to-hyper-real, callouts  to treat either typical examples or remarkable outliers (see the rightmost column in the chart above).

What you got yourself there is some informing and entertaining, and that’s mostly how people figure things out, it seems. Lament until next week the passing of the Pleistocene era when last the Earth was subject to glaciation and consider how you will fare in the coming ice economy.