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Semiology of Graphics: Diagrams, Networks, Maps Hardcover – 30 Jan 2011
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About the Author
Jacques Bertin was a French cartographer and theorist, and a world renowned authority on the subject of information visualization. In 1954, he founded the Cartographic Laboratory of the École Pratique des Hautes Études, and in 1957 he was named director of education. In 1967, Bertin became a professor at the Sorbonne, and in 1974 he was appointed director of education and director of the Geographical Laboratory of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. In the late 1970s, he became head of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.
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Like the earlier Enlightenment informers, Bertin makes strong connections between geographic maps and abstract statistical charts. I really like how he emphasizes the importance of producing informative singular images—temporal units of meaningful visual perception—while also negotiating how no one image can reveal everything.
Bertin’s uses the word energy to describe the total salience of how data appears to us. It set the stage for many future authors to riff on their own systems of what Bertin called retinal variables: design dimensions that each have the ability to change how the value of a data mark hits the sensors of the eye’s retina. They include position, size, darkness, hue, texture, shape, and orientation. Info We Trust references Bertin’s work several times, and quotes him directly once: “The entire problem is one of augmenting this natural intelligence.”
I would like to say that Bertin presents this important perspective/process in a compelling graphic way, but in fact the book is as dense and inconsistently structured as any of Tufte's great counterexamples. The figures are labelled in unpredictable orders on the page, some never mentioned in the text, and because of a mediocre printing job, many exhibit the very errors Bertin seeks to show how to avoid. Worse, these sort of problems are paralleled in the explication (especially with regard to showing a quantity vs. a quantity spread over an area, or Q vs. QS/S in Bertin's formalism), making it a significant challenge to figure out what is central to the argument and what is in the background.
Still, the insight is in there, and the weaknesses are not too great to stop a determined or required reader. The book is full to bursting with myriad practical tips and tricks regarding not just how, when, and why to cram more information onto the page, but also how to decide what information the reader needs. More importantly, it shows how to "discover the groupings contained in the information" (pg 164), that is, to arrive at an understanding of the data without forcing them into a predetermined system*. This is highly significant, and if Bertin was among the first to capture it (even if somewhat obscurely) then this book deserves all of its renown and is sure to grow in importance.
* this is a problematic thing to claim, but in this respect it's my summary which is inaccurate, not Bertin's concepts.
I do wish I could find some companoion sources that address the digital formats we live and work with.