Vol.34 No.2 May 2000

Is a Visualization Language Possible?

Thomas G.West
Visualization Research Institute, Inc.

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"Just after the invention of the Phoenician alphabet, words and images . . . began to take separate routes. It is true that . . . in ancient Egypt, the two forms were combined. . . . But, by and large, the visual and the verbal went their separate ways. . . . Each had its own vocabulary . . . , each its own department in the university. . . . Everybody knew that you were either a word person (which was most of us) or a picture person (i.e., the artists). It was all part of a great either/or division that we have relied upon for millennia."

With these observations, Robert E. Horn argues that now we are all, whether we know it or not, involved in building a truly new language, a visual language-one that is bringing together the pieces that have been mostly separate for so long. In his book, Visual Language, Horn explains that with the tight integration of words and visual elements we are now building a new global means of communication. And he claims that this new entity will be a true language with its own special syntax, semantics and the other formal structures expected of a true language [3].

Into Practice

Hornís book is interesting on several levels-not the least of which is that he puts into practice what he preaches. For the first four pages, his book is mostly text with just three unpretentious illustrations. However, with pages five and six, the format changes dramatically and becomes the thing he is talking about. The story of visual language is told with visual language. From that point on, nearly everything is explained, argued and illustrated with images and arrows and webs-with labels, brief explanations and short paragraphs. In some cases he even reduces his two-page spread in size and adds labels to his labels-to explain what he has done on his pages and why.

In addition, nearly everything is rendered in plain clip art style. He says that he recognizes "that using clip art gives this book a particular look that may be dismissed by some critics, which is often the fate of clip art." However, he wants to show how much can be done by anyone (artistic or not) with simple and easily available images-believing that in time "different styles will soon become available that will make it an increasingly graceful and aesthetically pleasing communications tool."

The approach does promote a tendency to feel we are not getting the full measure of certain ideas and concepts-since many topics are dealt with extreme brevity in one-page or two-page segments. Clearly, the approach is highly suitable for some topics and less suitable for others. However, on the whole, the approach does seem to work quite well.

Given the acknowledged limitations of his format, Horn is able to easily carry his subject as he adds a bit of unexpected charm and levity. He puts himself in the picture (literally) every few pages. Mostly, he draws himself into the margin, helping us to understand some point, gesturing with his hands or holding a coffee cup, in his suit and tie, or, jacket off with his sleeves rolled up. Thus, Horn succeeds in projecting a persuasive and personable presence-in spite of the comparatively crude form of drawing he employs.

Indeed, Horn uses his visual language method so successfully throughout his book that it seems a bit obtuse to try to write a review of the book and the method without also resorting to using the method as well. Suffice it to say that seeing his method in use suggests future experiments.

Bridges, Simultaneous Revolutions

While there can be no doubt about the essential usefulness of visual knowledge and visual literacy within the SIGGRAPH community, this awareness is still hardly known in the world at large-especially among educational institutions where the word is still undisputed king. (Indeed, as we can see from ill-fated attempts at reform, most educators, at most levels, are so deeply rooted in this perspective that they can hardly view education in any other way.) Accordingly, it is therefore all the more important that a book like Hornís is available to organize and synthesize a vast amount of material-building bridges in a way that can be understood even by a largely word-oriented culture.

Whether it is recognized or not, Horn argues that the momentum of visual language is now growing widely and rapidly. "Currently, visual language is in a period of tremendous growth all over the world and in all areas of human communication. Such global developments make it difficult to get an accurate perspective on very recent developments. . . . One thing is certain: When a complete history of the language is written, our times are sure to be remembered as a flourishing of creativity in the use of visual language."

Horn also reminds us that "visual language is one of many simultaneous communications revolutions." He explains that the World Wide Web promotes the use of hypertext which permits many connections, giving writers greater flexibility, but "fragmenting the document from the readerís point of view." With rapid transit between many "context-less destinations," the Web also promotes being "lost in cyberspace." With multimedia we are now able to communicate with almost all the senses "after a long period during which the print-oriented media restricted the focus" of human senses. The use of virtual reality will "add a third dimension of space, further complicating and enriching communication." The fragmentation of specialist information "into smaller, more flexible-but less coherent -chunks creates challenges for coherence and context in new media environments."

Words With Images

Hornís approach invites us to consider that we are not exactly moving from a world of words to a world of images. Rather, as we really knew, we should more properly see that we are moving to a world of words with images-but this time both will be used in an unfamiliar tight and mutually-reinforcing integration.

We may think immediately of the rare artist/writers-such as Leonardo da Vinci or William Blake-where scholarly editors and cost-conscious publishers have produced expensive editions of either the words or the images alone, rarely displaying both together. It has been a marketing problem, a departmental problem, a technological problem. But all this many be changing.

Emerging Visual Culture

An example of Hornís method is his two-page spread on "What is Driving the Emergence of Visual Culture?" Here he shows a mountain-rimmed horizon with a rising sun of "visual culture" and many broad arrows in the foreground. Each arrow shows the direction of movement and linkage of a score of driving forces-ranging from the "increasing importance of presentations" and the "rapid globalization of work & organizations" to the "large increase in capacity for scientific visualization" and the "worldwide spread of comic books."

Using his illustration as case in point, Horn describes how each image and set of words works in the overall design. He describes much that is almost painfully obvious. But in so doing he also shows how much we already know about the shared rules of visual language that have gradually and informally built up over time. He also systematizes a wealth of information and artistic convention from many different sources.

In another example, quoting one of Marshall McLuhanís major interpreters, Horn observes that " Ďthe alphabet is a funnelí but visual language unleashes the full power of communication." These words themselves are not as suggestive as seeing the funnels themselves illustrated, one compressing all information into a thin line of words surrounded by empty white space. The other expands and amplifies information in a spreading richness of possibility.

Speed and Best Practice

Throughout, Horn guides us in what we need to know and what we should do. He indicates widely understood conventions and visual metaphors-such as "time as an arrow." Citing Edward R. Tufte and others, he also indicates what we have learned about the best ways to show information: Graphs should not have "clashing optical effects." Charts should be simplified, maximizing data and minimizing unnecessary lines and other elements with a desirable "data to ink ratio." We need to organize information so that we do not try to hold more "than 4 to 7 chunks in short-term memory simultaneously."

Horn claims the superiority of integrated visual language and cites a number of studies to support this view. He claims that "basic scientific research is beginning to bear out the thesis of this book-that people find it easier and more effective to communicate by using combinations of words and images."

He cites one study comparing integrated text and diagrams with separated text and diagrams. The results indicated that with the integrated information students got more answers correct. Another study indicated visual language approaches produced higher scores in less time. In business environments, studies indicate that the use of visual language is more persuasive, promotes faster decision making and broader group consensus, makes a better impression and shortens meetings.

Paths to the Complex

Those of us who have been enthusiastic about information visualization have anticipated that one of the most important long-term effects would be the ability to really see the big picture. Often it is important to see all parts of a problem together in a simultaneous fashion-rather than just advocating for a particular point of view among many, as is often the case. Horn and others dealing with sophisticated graphical and text displays of information see opportunities for resolving truly complex issues.

With the politics of Kosovo or the role of carbon dioxide in global climate change, some see this approach as a major innovation. Using these techniques they hope "that by developing an argumentation analysis we can help people stop hyperventilating and get clearer on what things they disagree on, and which of those are factual and which are emotional issues." As a discussion evolves, others want to "use the computer to put a map on the wall. Then people would really see and understand the causes and effects and what to do about it." [2]

Opportunities Missed or Gained

In the end, it seems clear that Bob Horn has provided us with a major milestone on the road to a sophisticated understanding and use of images and words in tight association. His concept of visual language may help all of us to see that rapid change may be leading us back to a more natural reintegration of our senses and thought processes. His extensive use of clip art makes his book at once unpretentious and accessible. The book does go a long way to help us understand the extent of what we already know-and the large potential and possibilities that are still almost invisible to many.

However, we may wonder whether there may be a deep cultural and economic resistance to the full adoption and recognition of visual language-so that vast potential might be continually unrealized, as with television. Some could see clearly a vision for educational TV-which never really happened. Mostly, the potential of TV was diverted to selling products and, from time to time, political images-although we must acknowledge that TV had much to do with bringing down in Eastern Europe a hastily-constructed wall or two. But perhaps the history of TV is not so much a failure as it is just one further step to a larger vision of possibility.

As Horn quotes the expectation of one earlier visionary: "Sight, even though used by all of us so naturally, has not yet produced its civilization. Sight is swift, comprehensive, simultaneously analytic and synthetic. It requires so little energy to function, as it does, at the speed of light, that it permits our minds to receive and hold an infinite number of items of information in a fraction of a second. With sight, infinities are given at once; wealth is its description." [1]


  1. Gattegno, G. Toward a Visual Culture: Educating Through Television, Onterbridge and Dienstfrey, 1969.
  2. Holmes, Robert. "Beyond Words: Bogged down by complex arguments? Mapping ideas could let you take in everything at a glance; and even see the edge of knowledge," New Scientist, July 10, 1999, pp. 32-37.
  3. Horn, Robert E. Visual Language: Global Communication for the 21st Century, MacroVU, Inc., 1998.

Thomas G. Westís book, In the Mindís Eye, was selected as one of the "Outstanding Academic Books of 1998" by Choice magazine, a publication of the American Library Association. It was designated as among the "best of the best" for the year and was recommended for inclusion in college and university libraries. West thinks it is a measure of how far we have already come that the professional association of librarians - who have heretofore devoted so much to a culture of books and words - honored the book.

Thomas G.West

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