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Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information [Books]

Visual Complexity is a site maintained by Manuel Lima which collects projects that deal with complexity in information. Not always about communicating clarity the site’s predominant focus was acknowledging beauty that exists in complex representation of information and data. Within a year of it’s launch, Visual Complexity began to attract large readership, following closely every post were thousands of readers, often reblogged and quoted. Manuel became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, nominated by Creativity magazine as “one of the 50 most creative and influential minds of 2009″ and prior to becoming Senior UX Design Lead at Microsoft Bing he has worked as a Senior User Experience Designer at Nokia and Senior Interaction Designer at the leading digital agency R/GA. He has also spoken about information visualization at numerous events such as TED, Lift, OFFF, Reboot, VizThink, IxDA Interaction, Royal College of Art and others.

The book Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information is Manuel’s voyage of trying reveal patterns that exists amongst designers, researches and scientist that employ innovative mixes of colour, symbols, graphics, algorithms and interactivity in a attempt to clarify and often beautifully, what would otherwise be a clutter of data. 

Our ability to generate information now far exceeds our capacity to understand it. Finding patterns and making meaningful connections inside complex data networks has emerged as one of the biggest challenges of the twenty-first century…From representing networks of friends on Facebook to depicting interactions among proteins in a human cell, Visual Complexity presents one hundred of the most interesting examples of information-visualization by the field’s leading practitioners.

The book is composed into 7 chapters. Starting with “The Tree of Life”, Manuel jumps into the earliest representations of systems of thought, where information is broken down in the familiar analogy of hierarchical organisation of information and branch analogy. Chapter 2 takes you on a journey of shift “From Trees to Networks”, distancing oneself from top-down metaphors to “accommodate the complex connectedness of modern society” to notions of interconnected systems; the networks. Decoding Networks is the third chapter based on the principle that amongst all the connectedness it is about understanding the both existing and emergent networks with a step by step guide in ‘decoding” these. With the increased computing power and storage, where once limited, both physical and social networks create immense amount of interconnected nodes. In chapter 4, Manuel addresses the “infinite interconnectedness” between different elements of our physical and virtual lives. Internet being prime example of these systems, a number of projects are included to address the magnitude of invisible systems that both already exist and those that can be represented. The chapter 5 deals with the language and visual trends that begin to reveal themselves from both diversity of the topics and graphical choices.  Arc Diagrams, area groupings, centralised burst, centralised ring, the globe and other types cluster the projects and recognise the existing trends that we see used today. Chapter 6 named Complex Beauty, my favorite chapter of the book, addresses some of the most most problematic and fascinating elements of Visual Complexity. “Delight lies somewhere between boredom and confusion”, Manuel quotes art historian Ernest Gombrich. Why do we feel drawn to these structures… and how can we explain the alluring qualities of complexity. Filled with examples in art and sculpture that overwhelm, it’s apparent that this is where Manuel finds most beauty. The book closes with essays from Nathan Yau (flowingdata.com), Andrew Vande Moere (infosthetics.com), Christopher Kirwan and David McConville, looking ahead.

It is most certain that Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information is an important player in addressing the context and place where this work sits. From looking at history and how we got to where we are, the book does offer a great insight into both inspiration and influence to what has become a trending profession. Seven years since the launch of GC, and when many instances of data visualisation and info-graphics are finding their way into mainstream media (guardian, new york times, etc.) and when these works often claim relevance, clarity and objectivity, what is certain is that in this information age how we present and interpret data plays an increasingly important role. Data visualization is here to stay and whilst there are dangers of beautification and magnification of data, as well as carefully crafting relations to tell only one side of the story, Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information is an important milestone revealing both beauty and history of visualising information.

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See also: Information Visualization Framework on VC blog and how the book cover came about in VC Book Cover.