December 19, 2009

What can graphic novels teach us about verbs in static displays?

I'm in my office this afternoon for a few hours getting some work-related puttering done.

While I'm procrastinating on the puttering for a few minutes, I want to talk aloud (or write publicly) about some thoughts I had in the last few days about how graphic novels convey verbs. Here's the problem: most forms of visualizing information are all about nouns--whether points on a graph or text inside chart boxes. In a few cases (such as with the wonderful, visualizations have implicit verbs (in Gapminder, changes). But for the most part, the existing "grammar" of concept mapping is all about nouns. I realized this in June when attending a digital-humanities unconference and someone who worked on Internet 2 was running a show-and-tell about a number of visualization tools. Great stuff! And then I realized why I was so uncomfortable: where were the verbs? Where do you get to show what the implicit model of the world is?

This issue is important because however useful visual representation of stuff (i.e., nouns) is, it is enormously hard and rare to put verbs in the picture. Minard's famous graph of Frenchmen dying throughout Napoleon's invasion of Russia is the exception, not the rule. But we think about the world with verbs as well as nouns, and those of us with some quantitative skills need to figure out how to (and help others) put verbs in visual representations, else we will be stuck with cryptic, largely useless concept maps as the default, too-often-brainless attempt to visualize ideas.

That challenge has been nagging at me for half a year now, and probably because it's the end of the semester, a few days ago I realized something obvious: what visual medium is able to convey verbs in what is ostensibly a static representation? Oh, duh, yeah: comics. Graphic novels. Whatever you call them, they've got action. Oh, boy, do they have action!

I am not sure exactly where to go with this. I don't have anything clear in mind except a few fragments: something that's the reverse of Edward Tufte's sparklines (reduction of visual information to stick in a line of text), or maybe something like the xkcd stick figures dancing within and on the margins of graphs, talking about what's happening. This is one of those times I wish I had wasted months of my adolescence reading comic books, because if I had, I would know exactly how graphic novels represent verbs.

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Posted in The academic life on December 19, 2009 3:45 PM |