Information visualization, as well as rhetorical and cultural awareness, is one of the many topics taught in some of our technical writing courses here at Illinois State today. Many people think of graphs and charts when they see the words “information visualization.” However, this term has increasingly come to mean something much more.
Information designers, technical writers and other professionals realize that people often don’t “read” tables, charts and graphs. Yet, if information is presented in an interesting and culturally specific way, as well as from a rhetorical foundation, numbers can tell us a lot. One of my favorites is John Snow’s cholera map. Made in the 1800′s when many people in London were dying of cholera and no one knew why, Snow decided to take a map of London, with its water pumps identified, so that British medical workers and government officials could understand why so many deaths were occurring. He started by placing a dark line by buildings on the map where people had died of the disease. Once complete, it was clear that the deaths were of people in buildings that were all centered around a certain water pump, which was contaminated. This was where the people around it drew their water supply. Thus, through visualization, he found the source of infection that had eluded so many officials. Another important example is Florence Nightingale’s rose diagram, which illustrated why soldiers’ deaths in the Crimean war in the 1800′s decreased when female nurses were allowed to go to the war front and institute sanitary reform and regular record-keeping. In the course we might discuss, for instance, why money and technical resources are placed on space exploration today when there are so many pressing social issues. Many kinds of technical writing are published each year on this topic. What if some of this information was visualized in one place? What might be learned?
In my introductory technical writing classes, I use Alberto Cairo’s book on data visualization in my classes to supplement my rhetorical-based technical writing text. His website has many interesting articles and examples of information visualization. For basic perceptual information that informs all data design, I always refer to Rudolf Arnheim, especially his book, Visual Thinking.
Also key to designing information visualizations are rhetoric and culture. Without understanding why one is designing an information visualization and for whom, we will fail. One must understand the importance of different cultures and how they see visual information. For example, one information visualization may be clear in one country or culture but not in another. Once students have both their rhetorical goal and an understanding of the culture of their intended audience, students can use both familiar and unfamiliar tools to design their infographic. They learn, for example, that a number of different software programs–many of which we already have access to–Microsoft Word or the Adobe Suite–can be used to create information visualizations. Rough drafts or sketches begin the work and sometimes even finished visualizations are done on graph paper. Students in my classes also are required to turn in, with the visualization, an essay, explaining their rhetorical and cultural choices–both visual and verbal.
Just as our Technical Writing program at Illinois State has evolved over time, so has the presentation of visual information and visual rhetoric. In all of our classes in Technical Writing at Illinois State, each member of our faculty is seeking new ways to work with students in this area of English Studies.