Layering and Separation

About

Number of pages: 13

Estimated reading time: 30 minutes

Subject: >

Reference:

'Layering and Separation'. In: Tufte, Edward. Envisioning Information. 6th edition. Cheshire, Connecticut: Graphics Press, 1990, 53–65.

Full text

Confusion and clutter are failures of design, not attributes of information. And so the point is to find design strategies that reveal detail and complexity—rather than to fault the data for an excess ol complication. Or, worse, to fault viewers for a lack of understanding. Among the most powerful devices for reducing noise and enriching the content of displays is the technique of layering and separation, visually stratifying various aspects of the data.

Effective layering of information is often difficult; for every excellent performance, a hundred clunky spectacles arise. An omnipresent, yet subtle, design issue is involved: the various elements collected together on flatland interact, creating non-information patterns and texture sim ply through their combined presence. Josef Albers described this visual effect as 1 + 1 = 3 or more, when two elements show themselves along with assorted incidental by-products of their partnership-occasionally a basis for pleasing aesthetic effects but always a continuing danger to data exhibits. Such patterns become dynamically obtrusive when our displays leave the relative constancy of paper and move to the changing video flatland of computer terminals. There, all sorts of unplanned and lushly cluttered interacting combinations turn up, with changing layers of information arrayed in miscellaneous windows surrounded by aframe of system commands and other computer administrative debris.

At left a second color annotates the brush strokes of the calligrapher, Uboku Nishitani. By creating a distinct layer, the red commentary maintains detail, coherence, and serenity, in a crisp precision side-by- side with a gestural and expressive black line in this marriage of color and information. The saturated quality of the red partially offsets its lighter value and finer line (appropriate to meticulous annotation). Alone, each color makes a strong statement; together, a stronger one.

IBM Series III Copier/Duplicator, Adjust- ment Parts Manual (Boulder, Colorado, 1976), p. 101. Drawn by Gary E. Graham.

Fig: IBM Series III Copier/Duplicator, Adjust- ment Parts Manual (Boulder, Colorado, 1976), p. 101. Drawn by Gary E. Graham. 

Similarly, color effortlessly differentiates between annotation and annotated, in this skillful industrial-strength diagram separating 300 small parts and their identifying numbers.

What matters—inevitably, unrelentingly—is the proper relationship among information layers. These visual relationships must be in relevant proportion and in harmony to the substance o f the ideas, evidence, and data conveyed. “Proportion and harmony”need not be vague counsel; their meanings are revealed in the practice o f detailed visual editing o f data displays. For example, in this train timetable a heavy-handed grid interacts with the type, generating a stripy texture and fighting with
the scheduled times. The prominent top position in the table shows the least important information, a four-digit train identifier used by railroad personnel and nobody else: 

New Jersey Transit, Northeastern Corridor Timetable (Newark, 1985)

Fig: New Jersey Transit, Northeastern Corridor Timetable (Newark, 1985). 

A redesign calms the dominating grid, moves the New York departure times to the very top, de-emphasizes less important data, and adds new information. A separating line is formed by tiny leader dots, which read as gray, making a distinction but not a barricade:

New Jersey Transit, Northeastern Corridor Timetable (Newark, 1985) with no grid

Fig: New Jersey Transit, Northeastern Corridor Timetable (Newark, 1985) with no grid

 

The focus is now given over to information, transparently organized by an implicit typographical grid, defined simply by the absence of type. Nevertheless, data-imprisonment spans centuries of information-design struggles. At right is a touchingly ramshackle grid from a 1535 edition of Cosmographia. But, from the virtuoso of typographic design: “Tables should not be set to look like nets with every number enclosed," wrote Jan Tschichold in Asymmetric Typography

The setting of tables, often approached with gloom, may with careful thought be turned into w ork o f great pleasure. First, try to do without rules altogether. They should be used only when they are absolutely necessary. Vertical rules are needed only when the space between columns is so narrow that mistakes will occur in reading without rules. Tables without vertical rules look better; thin rules are better than thick ones.

2Jan Tschichold, Asymmetric Typography (Basel, 1935; Toronto, 1967), p- 62

Fig: Jan Tschichold, Asymmetric Typography (Basel, 1935; Toronto, 1967), p- 62. 

Even quite small changes in line can have significant visual effects. For Paul K lee’s sketch, the easy and graceful separation o f black line and red commentary collapses into a mishmash when color and light/dark differences are minimized: 

Paul Klee, Symptomatic. Pen and ink drawing, 1927/F2. From Das bildtierische Dettken (Basel, 1956), p. 300

Fig: Paul Klee, Symptomatic. Pen and ink drawing, 1927/F2. From Das bildtierische Dettken (Basel, 1956), p. 300. 

Separate macro-annotation explains the micro-detail of hospital costs in this 26-day narrative of one person passing through an intensive care unit. The design is transparent to the disturbing information, as a layered polyphony of voices—time sequence, accounting data, commentary— weave together to trace out days, hours, minutes, dollars.

Redrawn from David Hellerstein, “The Slow, Cosdy Death of Mrs. K----- H arper’s, 268 (March 1984), 84-89

Fig: Redrawn from David Hellerstein, “The Slow, Cosdy Death of Mrs. K-----Harper’s, 268 (March 1984), 84-89. 

All elements in the map at right—contours, rivers, roads, names—are at the same visual level with equal values, equal texture, equal color, and even nearly equal shape. An undifferentiated, unlayered surface results, jumbled up, blurry, incoherent, chaotic with unintentional optical art. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Far more detailed than the perfectjumble, this map below separates and layers information by means o f distinctions in shape, value (light to dark), size, and especially color. The negative areas are also informative; 

Eduard Imhof, Cartographic ReliefPresenta  tion (Berlin, 1982), edited and translated by H.J.Steward from Imhof’sKartograpliische (jelandedarstellung (Berlin, 1965), p. 72. The internal quotation is from H. Windisch, Sclmle der Farhenphotographie (Seebruck, 6th edition, 1958)

Fig: Eduard Imhof, Cartographic Relief Presentation (Berlin, 1982), edited and translated by H.J.Steward from Imhof’sKartograpliische (jelandedarstellung (Berlin, 1965), p. 72. The internal quotation is from H. Windisch, Sclmle der Farhenphotographie (Seebruck, 6th edition, 1958). 

light strips formed by the grid of buildings identify roads and paths. The water symbol is a blue field, further differentiated from other color fields by a gentle fading away from each outlined edge. Shown against a dull background rather than bright white, these colors remain both calm and distinctive, avoiding clutter. The map exemplifies the “first rule of color composition”of the illustrious Swiss cartographer, Eduard Imhof:

Pure, bright or very strong colors have loud, unbearable effects when they stand unrelieved over large areas adjacent to each other, but extraordinary effects can be achieved when they are used sparingly on or between dull background tones. “Noise is not music . . .only on a quiet background can a colorful theme be con structed,” claims Windisch.

The preferred example is redrawn from J. Marcus Wharton and Nora Goldschlager, Interpreting Cardiac Dysrhythmias (Oradell, New Jersey, 1987), p. 123. Color also layers, as a gray grid calibrates this signal of ventricular fibrillation, a final collapse of the heart, with only a disorganized rhythm re  maining. A similar trace can result from recording artifacts such as a loose monitor  ing wire; however, one textbook dryly notes, “As the patient will usually have lost consciousness by the time you have realized that it is not just due to a loose connection, diagnosis is easy.” John R. Hampton, The ECG Made Easy (Edinburgh, 1986), p. 66.

Fig: The preferred example is redrawn from J. Marcus Wharton and Nora Goldschlager, Interpreting Cardiac Dysrhythmias (Oradell, New Jersey, 1987), p. 123. Color also layers, as a gray grid calibrates this signal of ventricular fibrillation, a final collapse of the heart, with only a disorganized rhythm remaining. A similar trace can result from recording artifacts such as a loose monitor ing wire; however, one textbook dryly notes, “As the patient will usually have lost consciousness by the time you have realized that it is not just due to a loose connection, diagnosis is easy.” John R. Hampton, The ECG Made Easy (Edinburgh, 1986), p. 66. 

Signal and background compete above, as an electrocardiogram trace line becomes caught up in a thick grid. Below, the screened-down grid stays behind traces from each of 12 monitoring leads:

The preferred example is redrawn from J. Marcus Wharton and Nora Goldschlager, Interpreting Cardiac Dysrhythmias (Oradell, New Jersey, 1987), p. 123. Color also layers, as a gray grid calibrates this signal of ventricular fibrillation, a final collapse of the heart, with only a disorganized rhythm remaining. A similar trace can result from recording artifacts such as a loose monitor ing wire; however, one textbook dryly notes, “As the patient will usually have lost consciousness by the time you have realized that it is not just due to a loose connection, diagnosis is easy.” John R. Hampton, The ECG Made Easy (Edinburgh, 1986), p. 66. 

Similarly for music notation, some staffpaper is better than others:

The preferred example is redrawn from J. Marcus Wharton and Nora Goldschlager, Interpreting Cardiac Dysrhythmias (Oradell, New Jersey, 1987), p. 123. Color also layers, as a gray grid calibrates this signal of ventricular fibrillation, a final collapse of the heart, with only a disorganized rhythm remaining. A similar trace can result from recording artifacts such as a loose monitor ing wire; however, one textbook dryly notes, “As the patient will usually have lost consciousness by the time you have realized that it is not just due to a loose connection, diagnosis is easy.” John R. Hampton, The ECG Made Easy (Edinburgh, 1986), p. 66. 

In Stravinsky’s sketchbook for Sucre du printemps, a grid quietly but clearly and precisely locates the music. Gray grids almost always work well and, with a delicate line, may promote more accurate data reading

Igor Strawinsky, Sacre-Skizzenbuch, p. 135, top; Paul Sacher Stiftung, Kuustmuseum Basel, and in Hans Ocsch, “Im Schatten des Sacre du printemps Beobachtungen zu den Trois poesies de la lyrique japonaise, cinem Schliisselwerk von Igor Strawinsky,”Komponisten des 20.Jahrhunderts in der Paul Sacher Stiftung (Basel, 1986), p. 100.

Fig: Igor Strawinsky, Sacre-Skizzenbuch, p. 135, top; Paul Sacher Stiftung, Kuustmuseum Basel, and in Hans Ocsch, “Im Schatten des Sacre du printemps Beobachtungen zu den Trois poesies de la lyrique japonaise, cinem Schliisselwerk von Igor Strawinsky,”Komponisten des 20.Jahrhunderts in der Paul Sacher Stiftung (Basel, 1986), p. 100.

and reconstruction than a heavy grid. Dark grid lines are chartjunk. When a graphic serves as a look-up table (rare indeed), then a grid may help with reading and interpolation. But even then the grid should be muted relative to the data. Often ready-made graph paper comes with darkly printed lines. The reverse unprinted side should be used, for then lines show through faintly and do not clutter the data. If the paper is heavily gridded on both sides, throw it out.

Giambattista Nolli, Pianta Grande di Roma (Rome, 1748; from a facsimile edition byj. H. Aronson, Highmount, New York, 1984). Note the seemingly English word “or” in the names under the bridge, a result of the 18th-century custom of contracting the Italian ora, meaning now, at this time, currently. On his map, Nolli cites first the old name Ponte Gianicolo or[a] Ponte Sisto (the bridge’s new name). Ironically, the English “or” works in this context, although the meaning is not quite right. See Barbara Reynolds, The Cambridge Italiati Dictionary, Italian-English (Cambridge, 1962), p. 521.

Fig: Giambattista Nolli, Pianta Grande di Roma (Rome, 1748; from a facsimile edition byj. H. Aronson, Highmount, New York, 1984). Note the seemingly English word “or” in the names under the bridge, a result of the 18th-century custom of contracting the Italian ora, meaning now, at this time, currently. On his map, Nolli cites first the old name Ponte Gianicolo or[a] Ponte Sisto (the bridge’s new name). Ironically, the English “or” works in this context, although the meaning is not quite right. See Barbara Reynolds, The Cambridge Italiati Dictionary, Italian-English (Cambridge, 1962), p. 521. 

In the masterly 1748 Nolli map of Rome, the river’s heavy inking activates what should be a visually tranquil area, causing bridge names and a little boat to vibrate in a moire prison, albeit a quiet one. Muting the river encoding calms vibration and brings names and other details forward, while retaining a symbolism of rippling water.3This redesign and others that we have seen are visual equivalents of Italo Calvino’s approach to writing:

My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language....Maybe I was only then becoming aware of the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world—qualities that stick to writing from the start, unless one finds some way of evading them.

Layering of data, often achieved by felicitous subtraction of weight, enhances representation of both data dimensionality and density on flatland. Usually this involves creating a hierarchy of visual effects, possibly matching an ordering of information content. Small, modest design moves can yield decisive visual results, as in these intriguing demonstrations of the illusory borders of subjective contours:

Gaetano Kanizsa, “Contours without Gradients or Cognitive Contours?” Italian Journal of Psychology, 1 (April 1974), 93-112; and Gaetano Kanizsa, “Subjective Contours,” Scientific American, 234 (April 1976), 48-52.

Fig: Gaetano Kanizsa, “Contours without Gradients or Cognitive Contours?” Italian Journal of Psychology, 1 (April 1974), 93-112; and Gaetano Kanizsa, “Subjective Contours,” Scientific American, 234 (April 1976), 48-52.

Visual activation of negative areas of white space in these exhibits illustrates the endlessly contextual and interactive nature of visual elements. This idea is captured in a fundamental principle of information design: 1 + 1= 3 or more. In the simplest case, when we draw two black lines, a third visual activity results, a bright white path between lines (note that this path appears even to have an angled end). And a complexity

Rare exceptions are the Turgot-Bretez map of Paris and the Nolli map of Rome: streets, absent of ink, are defined—tersely, clearly, and precisely—by the surrounding ink of blocks and buildings, creating subjective contours.

Fig: Rare exceptions are the Turgot-Bretez map of Paris and the Nolli map of Rome: streets, absent of ink, are defined—tersely, clearly, and precisely—by the surrounding ink of blocks and buildings, creating subjective contours.

of marks generates an exponential complexity of negative shapes. Most of the time, that surplus visual activity is non-information, noise, and clutter. This two-step logic—recognition of 1 + 1 = 3 effects and the considera tion that they generate noise—provides a valuable guide for refining and editing designs, for graphical reasoning, for subtraction of weight.

In a little-known essay on 1 + 1 = 3 effects, Josef Albers conducts the demonstrations below, a visually sensitive and artistic approach to the cognitive contours of perceptual psychologists. Albers, seeing area and surface rather than border and edge, escapes the preoccupying magic of optical illusions to conceive a broad idea of negative space activation:

Josef Albers, “One Plus One Equals Three or More: Factual Facts and Actual Facts, ”in Albers, Search Versus Re-Search (Hartford, 1969), pp. 17-18. 

Fig: Josef Albers, “One Plus One Equals Three or More: Factual Facts and Actual Facts, ”in Albers, Search Versus Re-Search (Hartford, 1969), pp. 17-18.

Middle map above, student project by Jon Wertheimer, Studies in Graphic Design, Yale University, 1985-1986.

Fig: Middle map above, student project by Jon Wertheimer, Studies in Graphic Design, Yale University, 1985-1986.

John W. Tukey, Exploratory Data Analysis (Reading, Massachusetts, 1977), p. 269; and, right, Edward R. Tuftc, The Visual Display ofQuantitative Information (Cheshire, Connecticut, 1983), p. 125.
Fig: John W. Tukey, Exploratory Data Analysis (Reading, Massachusetts, 1977), p. 269; and, right, Edward R. Tuftc, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Cheshire, Connecticut, 1983), p. 125.

Stumbling over 1 + 1 = 3 has produced perhaps theworstindexever designed, a rare perfect failure. The preface to this guide for flying small aircraft says, “This manual is primarily intended for use during actual flight instruction.”Imagine now noisy vibration in a plane as we search through this visually vibrating list, looking for, say, an entry on “forced landing”...and the index turns out to have no page numbers. Only a small segment of the unbearable original is shown.

The noise of 1 + 1 = 3 is directly proportional to the contrast in value (light/dark) between figure and ground. On white backgrounds, there fore, a varying range of lighter colors will minimize incidental clutter. Three maps at right show these tactics in action. In the first, the bold shapes promote vibration all over; and with only nameless streets down on paper, this map is already in visual trouble. At center, thinning two sides of each block results in every street bordered by one thick and one thin line, thus deflecting 1 + 1 = 3 effects (the thin lines, like gray lines, are visually light in value). On the bottom map, gray establishes serene, motionless edges—an arrangement that will easily accommodate additional geographic detail.

Careful visual editing diminishes 1 + 1 = 3 clutter. These are not trivial cosmetic matters, for signal enhancement through noise reduc tion can reduce viewer fatigue as well as improve accuracy of readings from a computer interface, a flight-control display, or a medical instrument. Clarity is not everything, but there is little without it. Editing this statistical graph (showing variability about local averages) remedies the visual clutter induced by parallel lines and equal-width white bands. The redesign, at far right, sweeps the noise away, with color spots now smartly tracking the path of averages.

Harmonizing text and line-drawing requires sensitive appraisals of prolific interaction effects. Unless deliberate obscurity is sought, avoid surrounding words by little boxes, which activate negative white spaces

Advertisement: SURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING: SMOKING CAUSES LUNG CANCER HEART DISEASE, EMPHYSEMA, AND MAY COMPLICATE PREGNANCY

Fig: Advertisement: SURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING: SMOKING CAUSES LUNG CANCER HEART DISEASE, EMPHYSEMA, AND MAY COMPLICATE PREGNANCY

between word and box. And below, the first three maps place the type poorly, with an awkward white stripe materializing between name and river. Type from above adjusts to graphics better, in part because most words have fewer descenders than ascenders (in map 3, a diverting white shape is formed by the ascending letters). These small local details will promptly accumulate on the entire map surface, deciding quality.

Eduard Imhof, “Die Anordnung der Namen in der Karte,”International Yearbook of Cartography, 2(1962), 93-129; and, in English translation, “Positioning Names on Maps,” The American Cartographer, 2(1975), 128-144; showing here 4 of Imhof ’s total of 106 examples! Also, Paul BiihJer, “Schriftformen und Schrifterstellung unter besonderer Beriicksichtigung der schweizerischen topographischen Kartenwerke,”International Yearbook of Cartography, 1(1961), 153-181.

Fig: Eduard Imhof, “Die Anordnung der Namen in der Karte,”International Yearbook of Cartography, 2(1962), 93-129; and, in English translation, “Positioning Names on Maps,” The American Cartographer, 2(1975), 128-144; showing here 4 of Imhof ’s total of 106 examples! Also, Paul BiihJer, “Schriftformen und Schrifterstellung unter besonderer Beriicksichtigung der schweizerischen topographischen Kartenwerke,”International Yearbook of Cartography, 1(1961), 153-181.

“If one limits strong, heavy, rich, and solid colors to the small areas of extremes, then expressive and beautiful colored area patterns occur....Large area background or base-colors do their work most quietly, allowing the smaller, bright areas to stand out most vividly, if the former are muted, grayish or neutral.”Eduard Imhof, Cartographic Relief Presentation (Berlin, 1982), edited and translated by H. J. Steward from Im hof’s Kartographische Gelandedarstelhing (Berlin, 1965), p. 72. On visual issues and mapmaking, see essays by Samuel Y. Edgerton, Jr., Svetlana Alpers, Juergen Schulz, Ulla Ehrensvard, James A. Welu, and David Woodward, in Woodward, ed., Art and Cartography (Chicago, 1987).

Fig: “If one limits strong, heavy, rich, and solid colors to the small areas of extremes, then expressive and beautiful colored area patterns occur....Large area background or base-colors do their work most quietly, allowing the smaller, bright areas to stand out most vividly, if the former are muted, grayish or neutral.”Eduard Imhof, Cartographic Relief Presentation (Berlin, 1982), edited and translated by H. J. Steward from Im hof’s Kartographische Gelandedarstelhing (Berlin, 1965), p. 72. On visual issues and mapmaking, see essays by Samuel Y. Edgerton, Jr., Svetlana Alpers, Juergen Schulz, Ulla Ehrensvard, James A. Welu, and David Woodward, in Woodward, ed., Art and Cartography (Chicago, 1987).

This array above, an information prison, employs a narrow range o f strong shapes. Grid, silhouette, and type compete at the same nervous visual level. Too loud and too similar. Thick bars of grid boxes generate little paths around both type and silhouette by exciting the negative white space: 1 + 1 = 3, all over again. Why should the trivial task of dividing up the already free-standing elements become the dominant statement of the entire display?

To direct attention toward the information at hand, the revision below extends the light to dark range of color, separating and layering the data in rough proportion to their relevance. Gray calms a contrasty silhouette, bringing about in turn more emphasis on the lamps and their position and motion. Coloring these lights helps to separate the signals from all the rest. Some 460 lamp-whiskers were erased, whiskers which originally read in confusion as glowing light and also trembling motion. Note the effectiveness and elegance of small spots of intense, saturated color for carrying information—a design secret of classical cartography and, for that matter, of traffic lights. Finally, in our revised version, the type for the title (upper left corner) has emerged from its foggy closet. Also the labels, now set in Gill Sans, are no longer equal in visual weight to the motion arrows, among several typographical refinements.

“If one limits strong, heavy, rich, and solid colors to the small areas of extremes, then expressive and beautiful colored area patterns occur....Large area background or base-colors do their work most quietly, allowing the smaller, bright areas to stand out most vividly, if the former are muted, grayish or neutral.”Eduard Imhof, Cartographic Relief Presentation (Berlin, 1982), edited and translated by H. J. Steward from Im hof’s Kartographische Gelandedarstelhing (Berlin, 1965), p. 72. On visual issues and mapmaking, see essays by Samuel Y. Edgerton, Jr., Svetlana Alpers, Juergen Schulz, Ulla Ehrensvard, James A. Welu, and David Woodward, in Woodward, ed., Art and Cartography (Chicago, 1987).

Fig: “If one limits strong, heavy, rich, and solid colors to the small areas of extremes, then expressive and beautiful colored area patterns occur....Large area background or base-colors do their work most quietly, allowing the smaller, bright areas to stand out most vividly, if the former are muted, grayish or neutral.”Eduard Imhof, Cartographic Relief Presentation (Berlin, 1982), edited and translated by H. J. Steward from Im hof’s Kartographische Gelandedarstelhing (Berlin, 1965), p. 72. On visual issues and mapmaking, see essays by Samuel Y. Edgerton, Jr., Svetlana Alpers, Juergen Schulz, Ulla Ehrensvard, James A. Welu, and David Woodward, in Woodward, ed., Art and Cartography (Chicago, 1987).

Paul A. Tukey and John W. Tukcy, “Data- Driven View Selection; Agglomeration and Sharpening,”in Vic Barnett, ed.. Interpreting Multivariate Data (Chichester, England, 1981), pp. 231-232; and Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Cheshire, Connecticut, 1983), p. 114.

Fig: Paul A. Tukey and John W. Tukcy, “Data- Driven View Selection; Agglomeration and Sharpening,”in Vic Barnett, ed.. Interpreting Multivariate Data (Chichester, England, 1981), pp. 231-232; and Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Cheshire, Connecticut, 1983), p. 114.

In the statistical graphic at top, the visually most active elements are, of all things, glowing optical white dots that appear at each intersection o f grid lines. (The arrangement of many computer interfaces is similarly overwrought.) The doubled-up, tremor-inducing lines consume 18 percent of this technically ingenious chart, a multi-window plot. Here the redrawing, in ungrid style, eliminates the visual noise, concentrating our viewer’s attention on data rather than data containers.

Too often epidemics of data-imprisonmentanddecorativegridding break out when contemporary commercial designers are faced with information. The aggressive visual presence o f stylized grids, little boxes surrounding words here and there, and cadenced accents—all so empty of content, irrelevant—becomes the only way you can tell if something has been designed. At any rate, the self-important grid is for the birds, providing only a nice place to perch: 

Dioscorides (Constantinopolitanus), De materia medica, 6th century, ca 512 a.d., fol. 483 Illumination on vellum, Vienna osterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. Med. Gr. I.

Fig: Dioscorides (Constantinopolitanus), De materia medica, 6th century, ca 512 a.d., fol. 483 Illumination on vellum, Vienna osterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. Med. Gr. I.

Fables of Aesop, According to Sir Roger L'Estrange with drawings by Alexander Caldcr (Paris,1931; New York, 1967), p.t.

Fig: Fables of Aesop, According to Sir Roger L'Estrange with drawings by Alexander Caldcr (Paris,1931; New York, 1967), p.t.

Information consists of differences that make a difference. A fruitful method for the enforcement of such differences is to layer and separate data, much as is done on a high-density map. In representing various layers o f meaning and reading, the most economical o f means can yield distinctions that make a difference: the small gestures of Calder’s pen easily separate the stag and his watery reflection. Failure to differentiate among layers of reading leads to cluttered and incoherent displays filled with disinformation, generated by the unrelenting interactive visual arithmetic o f flatland, 1 + 1 = 3 or more.

All these ideas—figure and ground, interaction effects, 1 + 1 = 3 or more, layering and separation—have compelling consequences for information displays. Such concepts (operating under an assortment of names) are thoroughly tested, long familiar the world over in the flatlands of typographers, calligraphers, graphic designers, illustrators, artists, and, in three dimensions, architects:

In every clear concept o f the nature of vision and in every healthy approach to the spatial world, this dynamic unity o f figure and background has been clearly under stood. Lao Tse showed such grasp when he said: “A vessel is useful only through its emptiness. It is the space opened in a wall that serves as a window. Thus it is the nonexistent in things which makes them serviceable.”Eastern visual culture has a deep understanding o f the role o f empty space in the image. Chinese and Japanese painters have the admirable courage to leave empty large paths of their picture- surface so that the surface is divided into unequal intervals which, through their spacing, force the eye of the spectator to movements of varying velocity in follow ing up relationships, and thus create the unity by the greatest possible variation of surface. Chinese andjapanese calligraphy also have a sound respect for the white interval. Characters arc written in imaginary squares, the blank areas of which are given as much consideration as the graphic units, the strokes. Written or printed communications arc living or dead depending upon the organization of their blank spaces. A single character gains clarity and meaning by an orderly relationship of the space background which surrounds it. The greater the variety and distinction among respective background units, the clearer becomes the comprehension of a character as an individual expression or sign.


Attribution: © All Rights Reserved, 1990 Graphics Press