Every Picture Tells a Story

In White Space is Not Your Enemy, Kim Golombisky and Rebecca Hagen maintained that design represented visual culture’s driving force. Design not only needed to look visually appealing (i.e. avoiding tacky type emphasis), but also had to guide viewers to the presented materials. In the process, Golombisky and Hagen showed that design had a communicative power that can advance a designer’s message, whether through a design’s rhythm or through its unity as all parts work together. Designers, for example, can create tension in their works simply by positioning two pieces of text against each other, or using two distinctive forms of font. By the same token, designers can lend an air of sophistication to their topic through the use of a soft color design or a smooth font.

Edward R. Tufte further advances the communicative power of design as initially described by Golombisky and Hagen. Yet, whereas Golombisky and Hagen use design as a method of presenting the material, Tufte focused on the explanatory power of design through illustrations. Golombisky and Hagen, to be certain, noted that visual designs had the ability to explain certain trends in visual culture. For instance, they noted how people can date a film based on the fashion, décor, and other visual hints. Tufte, however, goes a bit further. He showed that illustrations can offer effective explanations on complicated ideas.

The Challenger tragedy of January 1986 represented one of the more intriguing portions of Tufte’s work. As Tufte explained, shuttle engineers and NASA officials debated the exact cause of the Challenger explosion the night before the accident. Engineers used thirteen charts to raise concerns over whether the shuttle’s O-rings would effectively seal during a cold-weather launch. For instance, Tufte created a data matrix which provided a complete history that correlated temperature to O-ring conditions. The matrix showed that O-rings suffered a damage index high of eleven during a launch of fifty-three degrees Fahrenheit, whereas the damage index decreased at higher temperatures. The Challenger launched amidst temperatures lower than thirty degrees Fahrenheit, and it exploded seventy-three seconds after lift-off. As Tufte noted, O-ring failure can be clearly seen in photographs taken moments before the explosion (38-44).

The Challenger tragedy, though, highlighted a more important point. As Tufte noted, “there are right ways and wrong ways to show data; there are displays that reveal the truth and displays that do not” (45). Shuttle engineers based their concerns on thirteen charts, but only six of them provided information on O-ring temperature, O-ring blow-by, and O-ring damage. Of the remaining seven charts, “six of them included data on either launch temperatures or O-ring anomaly but not both in relation to each other” (45). That the Challenger exploded as a result of O-ring failure during a cold launch magnified the methodological flaws of the engineers’ data displays. Had the engineers presented data that showed a correlation between O-ring damage and cold weather, the take-off could have been postponed, thus saving the lives of the seven astronauts.  The correct display, in short, can facilitate significant consequences.

Horizontal and Vertical Type Tools

When using Photoshop to create a Frank Robinson baseball card, I became familiar with the Horizontal Type Tool. The tool enables users to write information either on the photograph or on a surrounding frame. As someone who cannot draw, and cannot write in a straight line unless writing on notebook paper, the Horizontal Type Tool shows that you do not have to be a poor drawer with poor handwriting to use Photoshop. The tool will immediately establish a straight-line underneath the created text, ensuring that the writing will not be off-line. Once the text has been written, the tool offers flexibility as users can move the entire text around for effective positioning,

The Horizontal Type Tool also has a companion tool for vertical writing. Moreover, both the Horizontal and Vertical Type tools have a masking iteration that can blend text with aspects of the photograph. The tools are helpful, as they will both familiarize members of my audience to important characters in my story.

Addendum: I commented on Geoff’s Synchronize Watches.

I commented on David’s Addendum: Making my own information more accessible.


Filed under Digital History, Web Design

6 responses to “Every Picture Tells a Story

  1. Richard–as always, great post! You hit the nail on the head by showing the importance both of good design and good visualizations, of having multiple ways for audiences to get your messages. As we’re learning–differently from how we’re socialized otherwise in the history profession–text is not the only way to convey an argument. Your post makes these connections really well.

  2. I too found the Challenger example one of the most interesting parts of the Visual Explanations book. (Excluding the pop-ups which were clearly the best part of the book!) But I think that the point of the 13 charts used by the engineers was not that they failed to show correlation, which I believe they did. But instead that they failed to show causation. That is where the matrix created by Tufte comes in because this chart type shows not only correlation, but also causation and has a large amount of examples, where as the NASA engineers only had a case study of one. This example has such a sad outcome, but no wonder no one listened to them.

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  5. Chapter 2 that had the Challenger example and the final chapter on Confections really were the best chapters. Tufte did an excellent job comparing the advantages and disadvantages of both the Cholera map by Dr. John Snow and the Challenger charts. The fact that he was critical of both examples really helped me to understand what to do and what not to do. I also thought it was really great that Tufte used to examples that had life or death consequences-poor informational graphics can cause lives.

  6. I vaguely remember the Challenger mission receiving a lot of attention in my hometown, as a teacher at the local middle school applied to the Teacher in Space Project. However, in class, we never watched the launch. I recall finding out about the tragedy when returning home from school. At the time, I did not fully understand how this happened.

    I see the Challenger tragedy as a significant example of the need for clear, effective communication. Here, the stakes were high. Seven lives hung in the balance and were ultimately lost, as poorly presented and communicated information resulted in a disastrous decision. To be sure, the Challenger tragedy represents an extreme. Everything we present or communicate does not have a life or death outcome. Still, the point remains that effective presentation and communication is needed, whether in the classroom, the archive, the museum, or the day-to-day activities of life. Strong, effective communication and presentation has the ability to highlight and accentuate great ideas and important conclusions. Equally important, effective communication and presentation has the ability to persuade, to show how one course of action represents a better option. That, to me, symbolizes Tufte’s point, as he drives it home through his discussion of the Challenger tragedy.

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