Revolution Lullabye

October 9, 2014

Drucker, Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production

Drucker, Johanna. Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2014. Print. 

Drucker’s project in this book is to show how visual forms of knowledge not only display knowledge but create and generate knowledge. Drucker argues for humanist graphical knowledge: visual forms of knowledge that account for complexity, not simplicity, and that understand information as constructed, not context-less, given, or value-less. Drucker crosses multiple disciplinary boundaries as she traces the history of visual and graphical forms, showing how different categories of visual forms of knowledge situate knowledge and make arguments about hierarchies, relationships, and individual agencies. Her book juxtaposes her text and her argument with visual forms of knowledge from ancient hieroglyphics and stone carvings to screenshots of digital texts and maps. One of her goals is to show how the informational graphics and the interfaces that have become such an intertwined part of our everyday experience are arguments themselves, designed for specific purposes. She works in this book to bring these more invisible visual elements to the forefront and analyze them in critical, humanistic terms.

Quotable Quotes

“Humanists work with fragmentary evidence when researching cultural materials. They produce interpretations, not repeatable results. We have to find graphical conventions to show uncertainty and ambiguity in digital models, not just because these are conditions of knowledge production in our disciplines, but because the very model of knowledge itself that gets embodied in the process has values whose cultural authority matters very much” (191).

Writing and composition in a networked and digital world: “In spite of the networked condition of textual production, the design of digital platforms for daily use has hardly begun to accommodate the imaginative possibilities of constellationary composition, graphic interpretation, and diagrammatic writing…Very few acts of composition are diagrammatic, constellationary, or associative. Fewer still are visual or spatial. The predominant modes of composition in digital displays have remained quite linear, even when they have combinatoric or modular underpinnings” (183).

the future of humanistic interface: “More attention to the acts of producing and less emphasis on the product, the creation of an interface that is meant to expose and support the activity of interpretation, rather than to display finished forms, would be a good starting place” (179).

The graphical interface (our screen) is an argument, not a thing: “We ignore its graphicality, its constructedness, the very features that support its operations and make it work. We look at the interface as a thing, a representation of computational processes that make it convenient for us to interact with what is ‘really’ happening. But the interface is a mediating structure that supports behaviors and tasks. It is a space between human users and procedures that happen according to complicated protocols. But it also disciplines, constrains, and determines what can be done in any digital environment” (138-139).

“Perhaps the most striking feature distinguishing humanistic, interpretative, and constructivist graphical expressions from realist statistical graphics is that the curves, bars, columns, percentage values would not always be represented as discrete bounded entities, but as conditional expressions of interpretative parameters – a kind of visual fuzzy logic or graphical complexity. Thus their edges might be permeable, lines dotted and broken, dots and points might vary in size and scale or degree of ambiguity in placement. These graphical strategies express interpreted knowledge, situated and partial, rather than complete.” (132)

“The rendering of statistical information into graphical form gives it a simplicity and legibility that hides every aspect of the original interpretative framework on which the statistical data were constructed. The graphical force conceals what the statistician knows very well – that no “data” pre-exist their parameterization. Data are capta, taken not given, constructed as an interpretation of the phenomenal world, not inherent in it” (128)

“Maps, like other graphic conventions, construct normative notions about time, space, and experience that become so familiar that we take them for accurate representations rather than constructions” (82).

“Visualization formats exist independent of particular media. Calendars don’t have to be scratched into stone and bar charts don’t need to be rendered by engravers with finely tooled burins – any more than scatter plots have to be generated computationally.” (67)

“The interpretative acts that become encoded in graphical formats may disappear from final view in the process, but they are the persistent ghosts in the visual scheme, rhetorical elements of generative artifacts. The challenge is to develop a terminology for the rhetorical iconography of graphical forms that is grounded in the features of spatialized relations such as hierarchy, juxtaposition, and proximity (66).

The forms of our visual communication are arguments themselves: the forms were culturally-constructed and still contain that history: “We are still Babylonians, in our use of the calendar, our measure of days, hours, and minutes, just as we remain classical in our logic, medieval in our classification systems, and modern in our use of measurements expressed in rational form. Each of the many schematic conventions in daily use and the frequently unquestioned appearance in our documents and websites replicate ideologies in graphics” (65).

“Though we often use visual means to make images of invisible things, much of contemporary life simply can’t be shown. The workings of power, the force of ideology, the transmission of values, and other abstract ideas have no specific visual form, even if they work through a material social world.

“Speed, scale, complexity, and the infrastructure in place and at work in systems of communications, production, distribution, much scientific discovery, and humanistic thought simply cannot be made apparent in visual images. But an endless stream of visualizations continues to turn complex phenomena into images, reifying abstractions, turning them into objects to be seen” (22-23).

Goal: “the urgency of finding critical languages for the graphics that predominate in the networked environment” (17)

Methodology: “draw on the rich history of graphical forms of knowledge production that are the legacy of manuscript and print artifacts as well as digital media works in the arts and applied realms” (17)

“Even though our relation to experience is often (and increasingly) mediated by visual formats and images, the bias against visual forms of knowledge production is longstanding in our culture. Logocentric and numero-centric attitudes prevail” (16).

Notable Notes

Introduction

Key terms in the introduction

information graphics = “visualizations based on abstractions of statistical data…Visualizations are always interpretations – data does not have an inherent visual that merely gives rise to a graphic expression” (7)

graphical user interface – “dominant feature of screens in all shapes and sizes…In a very real, practical sense we carry on most of our personal and professional business through interfaces. Knowing how interface structures our relation to knowledge and behavior is essential.” (8)

Visual epistemology – “ways of knowing that are presented and processed visually” (8)

Language of form – “a systematic approach to graphic expression as a means as well as an object of study” (9)

Image, Interpretation, and Interface

Looks at different theoretical and methodological ways of understanding visual forms as knowledge, cross disciplinary and across history

There have been efforts in the late 19th, 20th, and 21st century to create a language for graphics – formal rules and descriptions (18)

We use visualization a lot, but it is still treated as less than, suspect (23) Maybe in part because there is no universal grammar of visualization – visuals by their nature are not consistent, don’t hold meaning with “stable, fixed, and finite rules” like words/language/mathematics does. (24)

In science, visuals were used to represent and record knowledge, not produce knowledge (26-27)

Change in the late nineteenth century (Eugene Guillamume, industrial revolution) from a graphic language based on the human body (fine arts) to one based on geometry (industrial design, design to be produced and reproduced through mechanical means) (31).

Growth of formal education/principles/methods in graphic and visual design in the 20th century, modernism (35)

20th century – rise of the use of visual/graphical/statistical displays of knowledge

Interpreting Visualization/Visualizing Interpretation

The histories of visual forms of knowledge

Forms that Drucker investigates: 1. Timekeeping (star charts, calendars, timelines; 2. Space-making (maps); 3. Administration and record-keeping (tables, charts, grids, flow charts); 4. Trees of knowledge (family trees, network diagrams, evolutionary diagrams, division and hierarchy and relationships); 5. Knowledge generators (diagrams, volvelles, Venn diagrams; 6. Dynamic systems (model processes and events, weather maps and meteorology, fluid dynamics, chaos theory and systems mapping

Distinction between “static” representations (those visual representations that are merely representations of information) and “dynamic” representations (those visual representations that can create or generate knowledge) (65).

Interface and Interpretation

Looks at digital and book interface as encoding and producing knowledge, explores what a humanistic interface design might be and entail.

Afterword

Call for new rhetorics, grammars of the digital media age

January 5, 2009

Helfand, Six (+2) Essays on Design and New Media

Helfand, Jessica. Six (+2) Essays on Design and New Media. New York: William Drenttel, 1997.

Helfand’s essays, which all first appeared in Print and Eye Magazines, ask how our ideas are being shaped by new digital media and vice versa, how new digital media is shaping our ideas. She writes as a designer, calling in each of her essays (some more overtly than others) for her fellow designers, whose formal training probably did not address programming code or hypertext or moving visuals, to take up the challenges presented by the internet and digital new media and find appropriate, responsible design solutions instead of leaving the digital landscape open to chaotic, untrained interpretation. Her argument (which she admits is a bit elitist) takes her from an analysis of electronic typography to the relationship between information and form and from questions of access to a discussion of the physical, hardware and software constraints of digital design. Her first essay, “Design and the Play Instinct,” claims that responsible and thoughtful play is an essential component of the design process, and the computer has made play easier and more efficient because of the possibilities of erasing and reverting to previously-saved, “uncorrupted” drafts. She warns against designers relying on old design paradigms, such as those developed for the printed page, calling for designers to find ways to accurately present the overload of information and non-linear narratives found on the internet in ways that allow for clear communication without making complex concepts and relationships overly simplistic. The technology might limit the design, but the concepts a designer can communicate are not limited. The text is a little dated to the new media debates of the mid-1990s (lots of discussion of CD-ROMs.)

Quotable Quotes

Interaction design: “It demands, instead, more comprehensive thinking that involves cognitive, spatial, and ergonomic considerations” (59) Interface designers can’t just rely on traditional design training; they have to branch out and collaboarte with software engineers, psychologists, and other experts who can help them with the unique design challenges of new media.

Designers need new ways of “visualizing stories in multiple layers, for designing with mulitple points of entry” (60).

The problem with websites that “dutifully mimic the form and structure of a paper publication, which is its own restrictive model” (49). Instead, we need “more ambitious thinking, more inventive models, and, undoubtably, more inspired design than presently exists” (49).

“The internet is a dialectic hybrid: a utopian archetype at once pragmatic and mythical, borderless and structured, it is a potentially infinite space with no geographical, political, or otherwise material boundaries” (47).

“Texture is complexity made physically manifest” (22).

“As information overload tips the scales, the demand for editorial and design direction will become more and more critical” (45).

“Thoughtless computer-aided (or driven) design maximizes shortcuts. It delights in gimmickry and exploits for effect. Here, in the land of the gratuitous filter, it is a celebration of bells and whistles, uninspired form and negligble content…This is the play instinct gone awry – devoid of imagination, brain-free, giving way to the loathsome gravitational pull of mediocrity” (10).

Notable Notes

Essay Titles:
1: “Design and the Play Instinct” – play is essential to the design process. Computer and technology facilitate it (and allow it to happen.)
2: “Electronic Typography” – typography is now asked to represent spoken, time-sensitive word, can disapper and appear in the 4th dimension, need for visual literacy to develop, emails are constrained but serve all purposes.
3. “The Pleasure of the Text(ure)” – digital new media is often pushed into linear forms when that doesn’t make particular sense because it gets rid of the texture. CD-ROMs discussion.
4. “The Culture of Reciprocity” – access to new media is limited around the world, how educational institutions are teaching and using new media, new media is formed by and for those who participate in it.
5. “A New Webbed Utopia” – the internet is controlled by its constraints: html code, upload times, ambiguous target audience
6. “The Lost Legacy of Film” – new media designers should look to film designers to help unlock the power and potential of narrative and drama. New media has more choice and participation; the audience become the authors.
+1. “I Design, Therefore I Am” – avatars as identity, one that can be manipulated and edited constantly.
+2. “The Myth of Real Time” – our world has equated real with efficient, and the potential of leisure time as productive time is ignored. Also, digital media seems by its very nature ephemeral, not as a comglomerate of building layers over history.

blue underlined hyperlink developed by U of Illinois for their Mosaic project – now ubiquitous in website design (49)

information highway should be reconceived as an information landscape – by MIT research team

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