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Visual Complexity, Mapping Patterns of Information – A Review

THE EASIEST THING would be to just like this book. Come on – visualization is hot! Complex visualization is perhaps even hotter …

But even though there is a lot of good things to say about this book, I’m not totally convinced. There is simply too much fluff. You get 272 pages – and the best part starts at page 221. I might tear out that chapter and save these 22 pages. The rest of the book I’ll donate to some of the people, that seem to fill the commentbox on every instance of circles and multicolored connected dots published on the internet with ‘awesome’ – ‘mindblowing’ – etc.

Too much research and too little storytelling

Written by the man, who was labeled in 2009 by Creativity Magazine as ‘The man who might well become the Edward Tufte of the 21st century’, you’ll get your hopes up for some really groundbreaking thinking. Instead you get a more or less random collection of thoughts about trees, religion and networks in the first three chapters – backed up with a lot of references, mind you. Manuel Lima is good at collecting other peoples thinking and showing other peoples projects. This will work for a encyclopedia or compendium of some sort, but it can’t be described as groundbreaking Tuftesque work.

Whenever Lima quotes someone interesting I find myself wanting to look it up for further study. Reading this book is like being at a lecture, where the teacher touches randomly on various subjects, but you don’t feel enlightened or fulfilled, and you’re not allowed to ask questions.

I’m not going too much into the chapters 4 and 5. More than 100 pages of visualizations. In a way they are the book’s selling point, but at the same time they are the weakest part of it all. Yes, you get an abundance of visualizations, but here they are presented mostly out of context with just a little explainer – and frankly it gets boring after a while to see all these patterns without digging deeper into the content and have it explained. You’ll end up with the common – ‘wow, that looks good – what is it – pretend to get it – move on’-reaction.

Especially chapter five which divide and list projects in different categories such as ‘Centralized Ring’, ‘Circled Globe’, ‘Circular Ties’, ‘Elliptical Implosions’, ‘Radial Convergence’, ‘Radial Implosion’, ‘Scaling Circles’, ‘Segmented Radial Convergence’ … See? It goes round and around in circles but ends up being repetitive in its ambition to show a lot of examples.

Also – while a book is a good medium to discuss and analyze visualizations, it’s not so much a medium suited to show interactive or animated projects or even installations. Lima states that the goal of the book is to make the current pool of knowledge about visualizations more accessible to a larger audience, but also about saving these projects for posterity. I’m not sure he’ll reach these venerable targets by printing screenshots in an expensive book. In fact I think his interesting website does a much better job of reaching the masses

Touching on the price – and by that the production quality of the book, I’m impressed – except for a lot of very distracting hyphenations in the end of lines. How did the proofreader accept such line breaks as Proj-   ect, Contrib-   ute, Cat-   egorize and a lot more?

Chapter of Complex Beauty is inspiring

At last we arrive at the best part. Chapter 6 – Complex Beauty. Written in a more fluent style, I can imagine that it was the last one Lima finished – and better because of that. It certainly shows an author willing to take some risks and speculate in an original form about his subject. Where the first three chapters were merely textbook-material you now get to travel into the unknown land of visualization-theory and compare networks with abstract art by Jackson Pollock, fractals and chaos theory. The discussion of order vs. complexity and the way to fuse the two directions into a dynamic system is very inspiring too.

Myself, I started to wonder if the problems a lot of infographic artists have with dataviz stem from the same Gestaltism against Expressionism-fight that took place in the world of Art fifty years ago. When I read how psychologist Rudolf Arnheim condemned the abstract expressionism as ‘deliberately relying on accident for the production of their work’, it certainly rang a bell with me. You’ll probably get your own insights from the comparisons and discussion in this chapter.

To finish the book we’re served a couple of short essays from around the viz-world. Most of these didn’t really strike home with me, – although the contribution from Andrew vande Moere about ‘The Fall and Rise of Ambient Visualization’ is very well thought out, well written and delivered in a to-the-point style, that other chapters of the book could’ve learnt from.

A classic like Tufte’s books this is not. Far from it. Even if the publisher has put the ‘New Tufte’-citation from Creativity’s 2009-article on the back of the book, (perhaps to make you think it’s taken from an actual book review, snigger). I’ll rate it with a generous 5 on a scale to 10. With this book out of his system, we can only hope that the next book from Lima’s hand will be free of the history-lessons, you didn’t ask for, when you bought this book, and more about his own original thoughts and examples.