Practice in Context – Module 3 – Masters Degree

Apologies for any horrendous errors in grammar and spelling, this continues to be a work in progress…

MA in Design, Module III – Hull School of Art & Design/Leeds Metropolitan University – May 2012

Practice in Context

Visualising Educational Concepts for Art School Students

G. Sleightholme

…a “wordle” data cloud of the content of this text.


2 – Signs, Symbols, Structuralism and Post-structuralism and the Intangible Painted Pipe.

3 – The Visual Metaphor (not the visualised metaphor)

4 – Infographics, the New Black; and the search for a universal visual language, how and why do we relate to image as we do?.

5 – Chart Junk and the Data-Ink Ratio, telling the truth, holistically.

6 – Conclusions – The Solid Gate and the search for transparent paint (The Identification of a Theoretical and Practice based Context through research).

BIBLIOGRAPHY – (with links where possible)

…for Appendices/Additional Notes not covered by links and embeded illustrations and video – See separate post here:

…a larger/complete version of this image can be found on display at HSAD as part of the Yr 1 MA exhibiton.

1 – Introduction

“In The Ego and the Id Freud argued that a cogent thought process, to say nothing of conscious intellectual work, could not exist amidst the unruliness of visual experience. Over the last half century in a sequence of landmark books, Rudolf Arnheim [the German born author, art/film theorist and perceptual psychologist] has not only shown us how wrong that is, he has parsed the grammar of form with uncanny acuity and taught us how to read it.” (Fineburg 2010)

Historically, “thinking” on the impact of alternate forms of contact perception (seeing, touching, smelling and any understanding based on the various human sensory stimuli), ideas and treatise related to “visual thinking” and the role and relationships of images and imagery in cognition, and particularly in art and design education, including Visual Literacy, Picture Games, “Rich Pictures” and Field Dependency etc, has zig-zagged between a great number of root (and radical) concepts, morphing and evolving from elevated to disputed theory as the theorists that hold to them are confronted with the latest data. From Freud’s assumptions of image as the poor relation in cognition through to constructivist concepts of the importance of “student as creator” and learning through the act of design and visual creation being the richer model for learning.

 Visual literacy in the classroom has become increasingly important as more and more information is accessed through technology. Students must maintain the ability to think critically and visually about the images presented to them in today’s society.

(Gangwer, T, 2009)

 Standout and highly visible works on and around this subject include: Rudolf Arnheim’s Visual Thinking (1969), Robert McKim’s Experiences in Visual Thinking (1971), and Betty Edward’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (1979). Whilst contemporary works include: In The Minds Eye (1997) by Thomas G. West, Upside Down Brilliance (2002) by Linda Silverman, and The Einstein Factor (2004) by Win Wenger, plus multiple texts on the birth of the “Science of Signs” and the work of  Saussure, Charles Sanders Peirce, Charles Morris, Barthes, Baudrillard, Eco and Gunther Kress in the field of Semiotics (particularly relevant in a age of rapidly evolving signifiers and the societal will to open interpretations of the signified).

There are, then, many, who in the recent past and currently, are investigating the science of perception itself and its relationship to the creative arts and audience, the effectiveness of visuals and image on the ability to access, decode and memorise the content of that image, dissecting the thinking of other educators that touch upon this field, and attempting to sort and box those myths and hangovers of previous theories that continue to hinder or sidetrack the development of higher functioning artifacts of Information Transference, all causing an upsurge in interest in this field.

The Visual Teaching Alliance (VTA) suggest that approximately sixty-five percent of the population are what Coffield might sneering recognise as “visual learners”; that learners who are listed as twice exceptional (2e) are often catagorised as “visual learners” and that visual imagery in the classroom can improve learning by up to four-hundred percent.

Looking to the science of visual perception the VTA also suggest the brain processes visual information sixty-thousand times faster than text (no citation for this), and that the highest percentage (numbers vary from 75-90%) of information that is processed by the brain is visual; with something like just under half of the nerve fibers connected to the brain being linked to the retina (corroborative data for these figures can be found in – Jessell, 2000).

The impact of these discussions on visual literacy and education in practice is not always obvious however.

Many educationalists (pick up any book on teaching and learning) despite the information they present to the world in words on this subject still use image only as a “back up” to reinforce a written idea, which is of course its traditional role (illustration > to illustrate > to show), but shy away from using image as a primary resource of teaching and learning (not all it has to be said), and they are followed doggedly by institutions.

Can image be used ahead of the written discussion, or is image wholly subservient to the written word? And is the current hierarchy based on tested precepts?

Well yes, image can lead and often does. It is traditionally our first interface with the alphabet, books of all age markets lead with a cover. Some of the most important scientific tracts of the early modern era lead with frontispieces (some created by their authors). Medieval and renaissance patrons commissioned works of complex meaning that where purely expressed visually in order to strike deep into the consciousness of the literate and illiterate alike. While graphic designers and Ad’ agencies use considered and tested imagery, both subtle and not-so-subtle, to sway our opinions and decision-making on a day-to-day basis. More pointedly, the powers that be seem to believe that an image may be interpreted more efficiently (or quickly perhaps) and thus preserve the safety of our social groups when providing instruction to that time constrained and unevenly tempered denizen of our cities, the motorist.

Scott McCloud provided a self-referential, almost deconstructionist inverted critical lens approach to his book on sequential art, Understanding Comics, by producing the entire work in the form of a comic book or graphic novel; the antithesis of those works of art criticism that I remember picking up with near enraged incredulity at art school, being a books on art without a single image in it, or those with tiny black and white “reproductions” crushed into the margin to make room for the authors more (self) important (and Barthes approved) words.

It would seem then in education, particularly in the arts that image is now to be considered and accepted beyond the confines of the subject specifically being taught.

Yet course information, briefs and student centric documentation is increasingly “wordy” and still “cripplingly” image free.

Academic standards it seems demand a shewing of image in favour of pure text, just as we are asked to leave behind picture books and comics when moving up into high school.

Not all images of course.

Maps, illustration’s forgotten brothers, so long evolved into their own specialist species that we forget they are really just picture based information. Those highly decorative, illustrated medieval and Tudor maps further adding to this severance; the one image (that which shows the way or the world) becoming somehow different and moving up through the visual hierarchy to a place above the renderings of ships at sail or the curiously mouthed whales a-spouting (which are of course frivolous fictions in comparison to the scientific and “reason bound” cartography) within the same paper border; this in spite of their clear subversion of actual “truth”, an acceptance that allows their creators, and more over, their commissioners to show us the world through a skewed and bloating lens that they are paying for; the (psychological, sociological as well as geographic) Lie of Mercator if you will.

So, why is one type of illustration (maps) deemed bona fide and the other not? And (metaphors of journeys aside) could we learn something from maps as a now separate species and “science”, to guide a student through their world or specialist subject? Here we seem to have such a rich vein of metaphors attached to a fixed and accepted system of well-developed signs (Harmon/Clemans 2009), to lead them not to a hall of residence or to the muster point during fire drill, but perhaps to guide them through three years, showing them the journey we hope they take; and perhaps the journeys we hope they don’t.

…early visuals from “the game of drawing” installation.

With subjects such as CATS – or Critical & Theoretical Studiesthose students, who have hoped to escape the (to them) exhausting formal linguistic rigor and difficulties with comprehension of written (all the seemingly alien vocabulary and dense tracts of analytical language) and researched information by simply turning tail and throwing themselves into visually creative subjects can be sent into apoplectic fits through the simple act of asking for a paraphrased sentence or two on a dead, or out of (current) fashion, creative; even one in their own field.

In the realm of education this is obviously an issue; and one that needs addressing or at least softening, that is part of the reasoning behind this research in practice. My response is that within art schools the students have, or at least have recognised within themselves, an intrinsic desire or need to interact with image.

This leads me to suggest that in this special case (learners at art school) that image, in a somewhat more active role than “illustrative supporter of text”, or “explainagram”, might just be “the doorway” that could lead them toward deeper investigative tools such as critical theory, self-actualisation, and broader interests.

Through this investigation I hope to fully explore this “Visualisation of Educational Concepts for Art & Design Students”; experimenting with these potential visual “Gateways” to ease the students access to the (to them) seemingly inaccessible, diss-engagingly alien and unrelated.

Part of this deals with the discussion touched on above i.e., Text versus Image versus Text & Image, but also an exploration of image AS text, and further… IS text image?

It is not without a sense of irony however that a subject that proposes the potential of a number of visual solutions is being tackled here in essentially the inverse manner i.e. via academic text and dense language.

It should, as always, be stated clearly at this point, that in no way do my proposed ideas hope to reduce the amount of written content that a student should engage with (the opposite in fact), nor replace even one sentence; but instead simply to provide a clear and engaging gateway that allows the student to first engage with the idea of a subject or broad concept, then gently usher them towards a self-motivated investigation into the richer written material on their own.

Jeremy Rifkin (political advisor and author on social and ethical concerns) has examined our innate capacity for empathy, something which he suggests is one of the defining traits of the human race (though a shared trait with a few other species, in fact), and that our progressively expanding “spheres of empathy”, have aided our survival as a species. He posits that our continued survival depends on expanding this empathic nature even further, as opposed to the all-too-easy closed-minded retreat into tribalism (Building an empathetic Global Civilisation – RSA Animate)

The relationship between textual information (even that of fiction reading) and the empathy of understanding is clearly only developed through the experiential immersive conditions brought about during the state of Flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988) of deep reading. Psychologists and neuroscientists at the Dynamic Cognition Laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis (Everding G, 2009) are increasingly coming to the conclusion that when we read a story and really understand it, we create a mental simulation of the events described by the story, activating brain regions used to process similar experiences in real life allowing us to “walk that mile in another’s shoes”, and thus building the same pathways that develop empathy.

But this wider-awareness only comes upon passing boundaries within and beyond those acts of study/investigation/immersion leading towards a higher functioning analytical sense, a recognition of interconnectedness of influence, resonance, and precedents (deep reading/travel/experiential learning all contribute to this), perhaps allowing this awareness to be brought fourth later during moments of visual stimulus and thus creating a context for action.

How to then do we get the reluctant to step on to the pathway and begin their own walk or journey? Especially those who have long chosen image as their favoured or sole experiential route and flinched at every turn from the written and the read.

And how do we communicate to the learner/student that a relationship with this deeper learning experience brings its own rewards in adding depth and colour to their worldview.

All of which is readily corroborated by taking a look at the “fringe subject” reading list of someone like Carl Sagan, or in the advice/opinions presented in the book an Anatomy of Inspiration by music historian R.E.M. Harding:

Originality depends on new and striking combinations of ideas. It is obvious therefore that the more a man knows the greater scope he has for arriving at striking combinations. And not only the more he knows about his own subject but the more he knows beyond it of other subjects. It is a fact that has not yet been sufficiently stressed that those persons who have risen to eminence in arts, letters or sciences have frequently possessed considerable knowledge of subjects outside their own sphere of activity…

…[M]any ideas outside the subject become associated with it by a kind of interest association and acquire a similar tone. Thus they tend to become available at the same time as the ideas directly connected with the subject itself. The variety of interests tends to increase the richness of these extra ideas — ‘fringe-ideas’ — associated with the subject and thus to increase the possibilities of new and original combinations of thought.

– (Harding R.E.M. , 1942)

2 – Signs, Symbols, Structuralism and Post-structuralism and the Intangible Painted Pipe.

When compiling their 1980 Dictionary of Visual Language, collaborators Phillip Thompson and Peter Davenport suggested one of their criteria for inclusion was “the imaginative use of [visual] cliche”.

Cliché, something that George Lois, controversial US art director in the foreword to the same book, describes as “a derogatory word in literary circles”, the visual cliché is essential in the world of graphic communicators.

“Without it there is little communication”

(Thompson & Davenport, 1982   p.V)

This adherence to a system of encoded, (readily) interpretable signs that have universal value within a culture reflects a Structuralist world-view that sees all cultural nodes as being linked or having a fixed relationship to or to other cultural artifacts within a/the larger overarching system.

Structuralism tries to make sense of our very human propensity towards using the familiar and similar as a reinforcing tool in learning or comprehension and subsequent dissemination of ideas that we now recognize as being related to “sensory memory” – in which we retain data briefly after the stimulus has ceased – and “top-down visual processing” which uses memories expectations and intentions in order to process it (Malamed 2009).

This is at the heart of the semiotics, the science of signs and those things that we accept as authentic representations, including Baudrillard’s simulacra.

It is encoded and echoed in epistemological standpoints such as phenomenology. From thinkers like Foucault and through to comic artists (and theorists) like Scott McCloud, philosophical commentators all variously discuss our capacity to accept the “not real” as “real”, or at least “real enough for this moment”.

Both look to Magritte’s Treachery of Images in order to help explain contemporary notions of abstraction in images.

That we accept the image as “real”, to all intents this representation of an object is a suitable stand-in for “a real pipe”, when in “reality” it is (in the context in which you are reading this) nothing more than the digital reproduction of embedded code of a scan of a a photograph, of a painting, of a pipe – perhaps not even from observation (Foucalt, 2008), (McCloud, 1993, p24 – 26).

But this is who we are.

For all of our knowledge of the science of things, we are happy to accept an unfixed reality, or to err, if it potentially teaches/reveals to us something else.

As Hawkes notes when discussing Vico’s The New Science published in 1725:

The master key [of Vico’s book lay in his] decisive perception that so called ‘primitive man’, when properly assessed, reveals himself not as childishly ignorant and barbaric, but as instinctively and characteristically ‘poetic’ in his response to the world, in that he possesses an inherent ‘poetic wisdom’ (sapienza poetica) which informs his responses to his environment and casts them in the form of a ‘metaphysics’ of metaphor, symbol and myth.

(Hawkes, 2007, p2)

 This use of metaphor and simile, analogy, symbolism or signs all rely on the social validity and acceptance of a set of mutually recognised encoded values and their interrelations within a larger system.

This allows us to interpret and compare cultural artifacts and their contents and given meanings with a range of previously experienced and accepted information in order to validate a concept or idea and place it in its right position within our given holistic overview, system or belief structure (it is still amusing to note my colleagues obsession with the height of buses as related to the height of dinosaurs, so frequently encountered in childhood representations, “but how tall is a double-decker bus?” He cries!).

Structuralism, despite being un-encountered as a conscious concept by the student themselves thus becomes essential as they slowly build up a catalogue of experience to help with their own interpretation, comparison, catagorisation and eventual synthesis of data, whether written, visual, auditory or experienced in some other sensory way; building their own system of signs if you will, and seeing how they relate to those of others.

Structuralism’s idea of an underlying systems of signs is manifest in any understanding of both the obvious and the subtle sub-textual, historical, and symbolic relationships between works of art and literature (its original stomping ground) and the influences and concepts synthesised within it, for example, the relationship of story forms in storytelling (Lane 2000).

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (based upon earlier plots by Arthur Brooke and William Painter), shares a similar story pattern or structure to West Side Story, despite there being a clear difference in theatrical genre, period and cultural and social identifiers. Similarly Hamlet and the recent TV show Sons of Anarchy share a simplistic narrative. In the contemporary show we follow the revelations of young man (Jax) reading the diaries (the voice from beyond death) of his dead father following his mothers re-marriage to the best friend of his Motorcycle Gang Leader father; thus usurping Jax as the president of the gang (though he is the Vice President, a Princely position ) and standing between the hero and his inheritance and developing a narrative surrounding the circumstances of his fathers death.

The animation The Lion King explores the same story pattern, again through an extreme reinterpretation, overlaying the framework with different or new (perhaps more contemporarily relevant) cultural mores whilst retaining character archetypes an underlying story structure.

Whilst further possibilities of pattern recognition and reworking of comparative content can be found in a series like Sherlock, a modern day interpretation of the classic Conan Doyle penned detective stories; or possibly more interestingly, House, in which two characters, a detective and a doctor (with a limp) are rolled into one and shifted from period detective fiction into contemporary medicine. Even the name House and its relationship to the word Home and its phonic if meaning-free mirror “Holmes” reflects the whole shows premise becoming a self-exemplary, post-modern example of structuralist inheritance and influence in creativity, in this case with a self deceiving structuralist pattern seeking thinker as its protagonist.

This belief in a system of patterns or accepted codes in creative storytelling goes beyond the early exponents of comparative mythology and folk tale “types” (and their links with psychology) into the critics understanding of film criticism and screenwriting.

Early in my creative career I had heard a mentor suggest that “there are only seven films, and five of those are Westerns”. A “truism” that can be expanded upon or adhered to depending on whether you are discussing “stories” or “plot”, looking at Jungian archetypes that we are able to recognise in culturally contemporary stories, whether Beowulf, Journey to The West or Star Wars and our internalisation and exploration of our relationships to myth such as Campbell‘s Journey of the Hero, and their relationship to our own personal development and search for maturity, identity and meaning through such storytelling and the cultural (and now cross-cultural) sharing of these stories (Moyers & Campbell, 1989).

But this Structuralist expectation of meaning and pattern can also result in apparent aberrations of true meaning through phenomena such as Apophenia and Pareidolia, in which structuralism has led one to believe there is a model and so allows one to overlay that model over data where there is no previous relationship between data.

Again in criticism this can lead to an over-thinking and misinterpretation of intent*, for example when watching the film A Very Long Engagement it is possible to pick up on visual echoes in which strands, strings, ropes, cables and even hair is severed or cut, perhaps symbolising the “giving up of ties” or links to previous lives and notions, or simply the protagonists slow severance from their childhood sweetheart. This would seem likely, but for the dearth of corroboration in any discussion with Pierre Jeunette the director of the film leads one to see the corruption of intent through a reliance or expectation of a system of signs. The seemingly related images are not casually related at all, in fact if you where to look for links between the film and cutting ropes and hair symbolism in a simple internet search the highest rated article you would find would be this one.

*This ambiguity in intended meaning and it multiple interpretation can however be purposefully used of course, poetry and artists as well as comedy all use the inversion or the purposeful misunderstanding of relationships between concepts and language. But depending on our experience we know this and thus this seeming inversion, falls straight back into accepted order and so becomes structuralist again.

Does this potential for error of interpretation make the comparisons any less valid? Well in the light of Structuralist thought perhaps, as it suggests that differing interpretations being valid an overarching agreed system is too rigid. So thought the Post-Structuralists who suggested that texts or any “read” cultural artifact (whether linguistic or visual) can be interpreted as fitting not just to one fixed model of reality, but many. That reality is a an extension of the neurobiological, survival conditions that place an importance on “the self” in humans, and so any criticism/analysis comes to rely on the individual and their personal experience (and their comparissons) for validity.

Any work should be thus interpreted through the widest and most varied range of possible lenses (much like Brookfields educationalist theory) of interpretation, phenomenalogical, scientific, mythological, gender based etc. in order to even approach concensus; “Truth” as a fixed shared model of reality being improbable.

Related to this interpretation issue is the work of Derrida one of the proponents of Post-Structuralism (along with Foucalt) who discusses the inherent ambiguity of language as problematic to the ideas in Structuralism.

This flaw can be exemplified in the illustration below of the area for misinterpretation inherent in a conversation between two individuals discussing a chair (Sausure’s “the signified”) which only one of the speakers has seen.

*This ambiguity can however be purposefully used of course, poetry and artists as well as comedy all use the inversion or the purposeful misunderstanding of relationships between concepts and language. But depending on our experience we know this and thus this seeming inversion, falls straight back into accepted order and so becomes structuralist again.

Ultimately, Structuralism only makes sense if the experience of the individual affords room for comparative analysis. Those students who shy away from wider reading and deep study will not have the experience in place to be able to cross-compare and identify and appreciate the patterns and accepted codes used in both creative criticism as well as the creation of subtle, multi-layered cultural artifacts, whether that be the juxtaposition of political concepts and selected imagery in fine art, and literature or pop-culture and politics as seen in animated shows a such as Family Guy and The Simpsons.

This limited world-view does not wholly limit creative output. Chance and Circumstance added to the Synthesis of limited data can still produce interesting and universally acclaimed works, it does however not create an environment conducive to repeatable creative output (without self-derivative content) due to not having a wider pool from which to synthesise and the compare patterns from which structures and valid codes can be extrapolated.

It is like the child who presses his face against the wallpaper and imagines a map of a pirate island surrounded with smaller islands with inlets and river heads, only to discover the islands coast is part of a larger floral repeating pattern as they step back from the wall.

Full comprehension cannot be achieved without enough data to recognise the codes and patterns underlying the initial interpretation or stimulus.

3 – The Visual Metaphor (not the visualised metaphor)

“Visual Imagery can also be made without a picture”

– George Lois. Designer/Creative

Even those who suggest that the image should remain subservient to the cold reality and un-frivolous theoretical gravity of the written word, cannot ignore that these tiny micro-composite illustrations (letters and type) that in combination form concepts in varying complexity, still rely on the visual when explanation is required; part of the dichotomy of saying and showing as Wittgenstein-ians might have it.

The irony is not lost to some of us in the extensive use of imagery in essays such as that of Architect and TED founder Richard Saul Wurman, and How I strive to understand what it is like not to understand which opens:

 There is a Tsunami of data that is crashing on to the beaches of the civilised world. This is a tidal wave of unrelated, growing data formed in bits and bytes, coming in an unorganised, uncontrolled, incoherent           cacophony of foam. It’s filled with flotsam and jetsam. It’s filled with the sticks and bones and shells of inanimate and animate life.”

(Rendgen, 2012. p.39 )

 The contemporary priority of type/writing over image could be seen as a lie, based on a lack of understanding or an obfuscation through selective memory or interpretation, by those who cannot wield the original purest language, that of the image.

Design and Visual Language author Phillip Thompson seems to agree.

…a few art directors, aware that their craft depended on a passionate intimacy with the myths and symbols of man’s fumblings and triumphs throughout history, remained loyal to the idea that visual imagery was the language of humanity. (Thompson & Davenport 1982)

Yet it is clearly not a fixed system, visual language and sign has evolved just as written language has, the difference between Shakespeare’s language and modern conversational speech is not one of hierarchy with assigned values and levels of purity, but the illustration of the evolution of context effecting what symbols, signs, sets and systems we are willing to support and identify as relevant to our contemporary selves.

The same is true of the visual.


Just what are we to interpret from those thickened thighs on the hunters of Lascaux? Was there a common agreement in the importance in powerful thews in the successful hunt and their sympathetic representation in image or is it of some significance that is lost to us through the evolution and subtle change in our use of sign, or simply the use of a different tool that resulted in their form.

But how curious the return to a similar form in the pictogram based work of Otto Neurath, Rudolf Modley and the mathematic and science based Logicians who sought it out for their own reasons, the once sought after grail of a concept of a Universal Visual Language.

But images clearly mean different things to different people, the simple crossing of a countries border can reverse or colour meaning of the familiar. Time, and the widening borders of history cause even greater problematic differences.

The Alchemical diagrams that accompany impenetrable texts of occult books of previous centuries can still be recognized as aesthetically pleasing, despite their contextual, and fantastical symbolic references. We can admire the penmanship or the composition relating/comparing it to its contemporary equivalent. But when it comes to making sense of the images and reading what is there as we might a magazine cover or the gig poster, the visual language being used is ultimately lost on us; just as Gulliver’s Travels now appears just as an interesting fantasy novel, rather than a biting socio-political diatribe we know it to have been.

4 – Infographics the New Black; and the search for a universal visual language, how and why do we relate to image as we do?.

Ultimately this relates to the holistic standpoint of infographics proponents like Tufte and McCandless. The latter shows in his piece on comparative International Budget Spending (The Billion Dollar-O-gram, McCandless, 2001) how the mathematically factual aesthetic proportioning of the visuals adds to our (human) inherent propensity to deal with patterns and structuralist relationships even in the visual.

It also relates to the use of this willingness to assume or believe in a relationship or underlying pattern in data, and how this can be subverted when skewed to support an agenda. For example the purposeful abuse of our understanding of proportional scale in the development of political world maps.

This is clearly the underlying argument for students to explore, experiment and read around their subject and the subjects of their subjects associated content more widely than is currently understood by the majority. Too limited an experience and exposure to related data places the student in a disadvantaged position regarding analysis relevant to others in the close and broader peer groups from a common experiential standpoint. Taking them from the most optimistic, pattern-conscious and interpretation competent position of the Structuralist ideal to the most self-absorbed, dismissive, nihilistic standpoint leveled at the Post-Structuralists, all without being aware of either philosophy.

The recognition of Post-structuralist freedom (if you will) of intellectual thought and interpretation as tool to use and sought for in the assignments of art school students being wholly unidentifiable by the student yet to discover the relative thinking of Freud and Jung let alone the Structuralists and their roots in existential phenomenology and subsequent detractors.

That many contemporary art students harbor a mistrust of theory in favour of surface detail gleaned from accessible and brief sources is evident when working with then and testing their understanding of the interrelationships of seemingly obvious pop-culture artifacts. This unwillingness to engage with deeper and wider meaning in imagery and “texts” of the world around them lulls these civilized modern thinkers into a trap that Semioticians and Structuralists are keen to avoid in their definitions and descriptions of this language or system of signs; that of mistaking the sign for the signifier. Resulting in a lack of the sapienza poetica of Vico’s early man; to the extreme of finding the idea of watching the rare sight of meteors blazing across the evening sky as we pass through the tail of a comet on our tiny blue planet as something that is simply “boring” in favour of watching reruns of openly scripted “reality” shows on TV; Baudrillard’s acceptance of the ‘hyperreal’ over the real.

Of course much of this debate stemmed from the ideas surrounding the interpretation of written language, it is no surprise to find that the nomenclature discussing the artifacts to be interpreted refers to them as “Texts” regardless of their written or visual nature, despite the historical and anthropological errors inherent in this.

It is possible, without too much of a conceptual stretch to imagine a scenario in which an early ancestor of our verbal, literary selves drew a basic representation of the concept of a want or need to communicate this to another, before the formal verbalisation of the same (visual).

We know that the Pictograms developed to tally and record early trade, tribute, and even the lineage of kings and their conquests stem from an abstraction of representational symbols and imagery.

Archaeologist and retired Art Professor Denise Schmanddt-Besserat concurs with this suggesting that this systematic set of function-led information graphics was at the root of some of the early success in building and managing the building of the early cities and their economies, leading to the rise of the first empires in middle eastern city states (2007). Ancient Egyptian tombs where covered in information that in the form of extensive and elaborate hieroglyphs which fall somewhere between image and what would pass for modern literature.

Even eschewing these obvious historical precedents and flashing forward to the mid point of the last century, the graphical representation of data and information (as opposed to its interpretation through art or conventional illustration) has been obvious to those who where looking for it.

Sandra Rendgen in her introduction to Information Graphics discusses the prevalence of the infographic and its less fashionable precursors in Newspapers and magazines; businesses, using charts and graphics to support the communication of statistics, projections and economic forecasts via Flip Charts and PowerPoint presentations.

Safety manuals, user guides and instructional pamphlets all using schematic drawings to support their primary written content. Illustration by its very nomenclature and definition therein seems purely a supportive addition, there only to illustrate further the point already made in text or numeric form.

But here as in many areas of the commercial visual arts it is this relegation to the role of support that surprises the visual creative. Especially (as mentioned earlier) by those that have worked with or in the field of Graphic design and Advertising.

Our inherent abilities and predisposition as a species (not to mention a physicality that points toward the exploitation of vergence and stereopsis) to willingly explore and manipulate (and be manipulated by) imagery can be seen in the elaborate juxtaposition of sometimes highly incongruous images in advertising and film including the experiments of film makers such as Kuleshov.

Though of late this appears to have begun to change. The fashion for the decoration of information, its juxtaposition within design with imagery simply designed to attach false or purposefully misleading meaning has in some areas begun to wane in favour of a new image/data “truth” based on the application of a similar rigor and stylistic approach to scientific data visualisation.

This in itself brings new tensions – Such as those discussed by theorists in the field of data visualisation such as Edward Tufte.

Tufte’s analysis of a range of infographics, historical and contemporary, scientific and recreational, looks at the relative scales of imagery associated with specific data and how these visual techniques for depicting quantities can be subverted in the process of trying to make the information appealing. Ideas and terms such as Chart Junk – the obfuscation of information through counter-productive or attention diverting additions – are coined in the process of trying to encourage accurate representation whilst still making the image readable and appealing to the audience.

“What about confusing clutter? Information overload? Doesn’t data have to be “boiled down” and “simplified”? These common questions miss the point, for the quantity of detail is an issue completely separate from the difficulty of reading. Clutter and confusion are failures of design, not attributes of information.”

(Tufte 2006)

Tufte worries about the handing over of such valuable data to designers to decorate or presenters to render vacuous through the blind double-clicking of the powerpoint icon on their laptops, he suggests in no uncertain terms that leaving designers and illustrators to assume command of the design and in particular the content of statistical (info)graphics would be akin to “allowing typographers to control the content, style, and editing of prose.”  (Tufte, 2001)

But he magnanimously suggests that not only can design as decoration obfuscate data, but that:

“Design cannot rescue failed content.” (Tufte, 2006)

Graphic design in itself remains a language, and like other contemporary languages it has a vocabulary, if not quite universal, grammar plus its own syntax and rhetoric, even if not cross-culturally ratified and agreed upon. Each cultural divide and layer – religion, psychological, historical, national, social, erotic, civic, heraldic or artistic (Thompson & Davenport,1982) -, brings with it its own symbolic and unique textural visual references that in combination or isolation can be used to deliver a subtle sub-textural idea, or a blatant, jangling shout of a message.

5 – Chart Junk and the Data-Ink Ratio, telling the truth, holistically.

Looking for a style in which to present my ideas has caused issues. The worry over allowing an aesthetic style to interfere with a message or to become the primary focus positively or negatively has caused me to eshew all stylistic development. Instead I will look to the sketch in order to develop my ideas.

As part of this investigative process I will have to breakdown and perhaps even break completely with ideas relating to aesthetics that I have built up over years of professional practice and creative output. Tufte’s concept of the “data-ink ratio”, “ChartJunk”, and the possibility of holistic data truth, and it’s relation to Bauhaus’s “Form… Follows Function”, sitting at odds with my life as an illustrator and occasionally (particularly during my tenure as a Theme Park designer) “aesthetic decorator”.

The Sketch is a useful tool when dealing with corporate clients in that it creates the illusion for the client that there is room for maneuver, change and development, for collaboration in moving forward.

The sketch is also reflective of that early stage of thinking whist doodling, the protean, shifting process of early ideation. See Baudrillard’s Cool Memories collections; notes and ideas in rough form still fresh and vibrant, free of tethers to a particular arguement or essay, but still valid. Much like the drawings of James Jean in his sketchbook The Hallowed Seam (Process Recess, Vol. 3), the sketch is allied to the process of formative thought in the case of some thinkers and scientists, Edward Tufte lists examples in the foreword of his book Visual Explanations (1997) including (the “left field” diagram work of ) Feynman, and Huygens who like Da Vinci and Newton turned to drawing as part of the process of cognitive thought.

Milton Glaser along with Saul Bass one of the great advocates of drawing as a designer and thinker, believes “that drawing changes the brain… makes you attentive. It makes you pay attention to what you are looking at, which is not so easy”.

Basically the act of drawing has nothing to do with being an illustrator, we draw because it enables us to see.

–      (Art is Work 2008)

<p><a href=”″>MILTON GLASER DRAWS & LECTURES</a> from <a href=””>Employment</a&gt; on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 6 – Conclusions – The Solid Gate and the search for transparent paint (The Identification of a Theoretical and Practice based Context through research).

 It appears my practice appears to touch on several areas of both theoretical and practical concern, and relate both to my personal development (the understanding of my own practice as a designer) and my professional development (the possibility of adding value to my area of work).

Ultimately the focus of my study seems to be narrowing, focusing down, on getting students to understand that developing a broader experience of related learning including the ever baneful presence of “wider reading”, far beyond the obvious connections of their specific subject interest, added to “deeper reading” of whatever study they undertake, and the effective comparative analysis of this reading will deliver some of the intangible creative components they try too achieve through late-take-up, mechanical skill acquisition in order to become an effective creative practitioner.

Ironically, this, due to their chosen, not inherent, bias may well be best addressed through the visual.

The worldviews of the structuralists and semioticians and their systems and sets and my exploration therein has begun to directly highlight areas of my search for common reference points within the users of my design solutions.

If A is the wish to achieve in the student, and B is the deep and wide reading and the process of synthesis of the practitioner in “Flow” that high end practitioners recognize and C the goal of becoming a creative who can convey concepts through their practice, then C has to follow B which follows A. B cannot be avoided or sidestepped. Reading, self motivated experiment and developing a wealth of experience of the wider world are as valuable a set of tools to the designer as being able to draw.

As Einstein succinctly put it: “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”

As for the use of pure image versus pure text as a means of communication, there will no doubt be compromise.

“The use of strong visual imagery plus a few brilliantly arranged words combines to form a message vastly exceeds the sum of its parts. One plus one can indeed add up to three.”

George Lois (Thompson & Davenport, 1982, p.VI)

 The combination of strong visualised metaphor and visual metaphor, added to economical but well though out type, may be a basic guide rule for my experiments.

It echoes the historicist/archaeologist work on linguistics presented earlier in this text by Schmandt-Besserat and the thoughts of Baudrillard on the unrepresentable concept and the inexplicable image:

Between them there is, then, insuperable distance. As a result, the image is always nostalgic fo the text and the text nostalgic for the image.

(Baudrillard, 2003)

 Looking to designers whose experience has shown them the validity of their aesthetic decision-making and the amassed heritage of efficacious graphic design, all lend grease to my elbow, in order to construct a set of principles (a work in progress) perhaps by which it might be possible to develop design artifacts that convey something along the lines of…

 “You understand the message of this poster because I read the work of others who showed me how to make that happen”.

 …and with such conviction and gravity that the student would immediately get themselves to a library.

 Beyond the theoretical contexts there are four further contexts within which my work currently exists:

i – Intrinsic: The personal development of myself as a practitioner. The investigation of an area that, though having had a long-term interest in – the subject of infographic display and Graphic design in general – will hopefully broaden my range as a both a professional practitioner and a creative theorist.

ii – Professional Development as an educator – looking at the development of teaching methods that I can use in my own practice and potentially share as part of both my close and extended educator based community of practice.

Looking primarily at the way information is conveyed to students, particularly in an Art School setting (as that is where my practice as an educator resides) where as discussed the students, though not quite visual learners but without doubt have a bias toward the visually stimulating (evident by their choice of subject).

I am interested in researching methodologies and stylistic considerations that could be taken in order to clearly visualise academic information to art students.

I am interested not so much in looking at the “subject specific” information as the additional, sometimes pastoral and more holistic concepts and other information that students are asked to grasp and understand, from timetables to course content and flow and ultimately there place within the college and how that fits into the wider picture of life beyond academia.

For example how to visualise “Why CATS is important and how does it relate to your studio practice?” or “How do the different modules on the Games design course relate to real world Games Studio practice?

The studies [of Visual Thinking Strategies] have found that VTS builds critical thinking skills that students transfer to other settings and other subjects, including writing, math, social studies, and science. VTS produces measurable academic growth in students with varying ethnicities, income levels, and school achievement, including those with limited English skills and poor prior standardized test performance. Over two to three years, VTS students demonstrate significantly greater academic growth than control groups.

–Visual Thinking Strategies, Research Major Findings

iii – To test some of the work produced through these design outcomes the context will become physical. I will need to put my work up for perusal and critique by my creative peer groups and creative further afield. Communities of practice online and “real world” external creative groups, groups both formal and informal and those known to me (and vice versa) and those that are not.

As part of this I will no doubt need to liaise and share research and prototype designs with:

Educational Institutions – In particular Art & Design Schools

 Education Training Departments within Teaching Institutions

 And further, looking at how visually augmented, enhanced or solely visual information effects understanding amongst primarily visual and non-visual learners.

I.e. Other Unique User Groups with a Visual Bias, for example:

 The users of cosmopolitan multi-lingual cities.

 The Deaf.

 iv – Finally, as a jumping off point for further research. As an academic educator in a higher education institute it is part of my remit to continue my research in practice or as a further academic qualification.

The act of research not simply being an end in itself or something from which practical benefit can be drawn but as a sign that the institution to which the individual belongs is still vital. Producing research that can act as a link between institutions and as a point of kudos that might draw more students to this place where even the tutors are continuing to study and learn, reflecting the principle of “Lifelong Learning”.



Bass, J, Kirkham, P. Saul Bass – A Life in Film & Design, 2011, Laurence King Publishers.

Baudrillard, J. 1990, Cool Memories 1980-1985, Verso, London/NewYork.

Baudrillard, J. 2003, Cool Memories IV, Verso, London/NewYork.

Campbell, J & Moyers ,W. The Power of Myth,Reissue ed. Sep 1989, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group.

Fineburg, J. Art since 1940: Strategies of Being, 3 edition, 2010, Prentice Hall. –

Fisher R., Dream A Little Dream… (article on creativity, and daydreaming), New Scientist, 16th June, 2012. Reed Business Information Ltd. UK.

Foucalt, M. This is not a Pipe, 2008, University of California Press; 2nd Revised edition.

Gangwer, T. Visual Impact, Visual Teaching: Using Images to Strengthen Learning, (2009), Corwin Press, USA

Glaser, M, Art Is Work, 2008, Overlook Duckworth. New York.

Glaser, M, Drawing Is Thinking, 2008, Overlook Duckworth. New York.

Glaser, M. Graphic Design, 1983 (Revised edition), Overlook Duckworth. New York.

Gombrich, E H. Art and Illusion: v. 6: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, 2002. Phaidon Press Ltd; 6th edition. Hong Kong.

Harmon, K. (with essays by Cleymans, G.), The Map As Art, 2009, Princeton Architectural Press, New York.

Hawkes, T. Structuralism and Semiotics (New Accents), 1977 (2 edition 2003), Routledge, London/NewYork.

Heinrich, R; Nemeth, E; Pichler, W; Wagner, D (Eds.) Image and Imaging in Philosophy, Science and the Arts. Volume 1, 2001, Gazelle Books, Printed in Germany

Jessell, T M.; Kandel, E R.; Schwartz, J H. Central visual pathways. Principles of neural science. 2000, New York: McGraw-Hill. pages. 533–540

Lane, RJ. Jean Baudrillard, 2000, Routledge, London/NewYork.

Malamed, C. Visual Language for Designers: Principles for Creating Graphics That People Understand, 2009, Rockport Publishers, Massachusetts.

McCandless, D, Information is Beautiful. (2012) Collins.

McCloud, S. Understanding Comics. 1994, William Morrow Paperbacks.

Neurath, O, From Hieroglyphics to Isotype: A Visual Autobiography,  2010, Hyphen Press.

Schmandt-Besserat, D. “When Writing Met Art”, 2007, University of Texas Press.

Tufte E. R., Visual Explanations (Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative), 1997, Graphic Press LLC, USA.

Tufte E.R.,, Beautiful Evidence. 2006, Graphic Press LLC, USA

Ware, C – Information Visualisation. 2013 (not yet released, pre-launch info & content available online), Morgan Kuafmann, China. Last accessed June 2012.

Csikszentmihalyi, M and Csikszentmihalyi, I (ed). 1988, Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness, Cambridge University Press. UK

Online Articles:

Lupton, E – Modern Design Theory. Essay, 2009, accessed online.

Building an Empathetic Global Civilisation – RSA Animate –

Visual Thinking Strategies, Research Major Findings

Edby Bhagat D, O’Neill, P.  Inclusive Practices, Inclusive Pedagogies Learning from Widening Participation Research in Art and Design Higher Education –

The Visual Teaching Alliance – Online resource for and by teachers –

On Empathy – “Readers build vivid mental simulations of narrative situations, brain scans suggest. Brain processes stories as though they were real-life situations.” –

On Synthesis –

On Flow –


Internet and articles/essay reading on Arthur Koestler (creativity), Charles Sanders Peirce, Charles Morris and Umberto Eco (semiotics), Jean Baudrillard and Roland Barthes (Philosophy of Images), Saul Bass, Milton Glaser and Rick Poynor et al (the Design Process)


~ by hesir on August 14, 2012.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: