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Beautiful Theology

Signifying truth in more than words alone

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Visual Explanations part 2

Beginning with chapter 4, Tufte articulates principles for interacting with another’s perception. The principle of the “smallest effective difference” emphasizes the value of permitting an observer to recognize distinctions based on differences that a diagram (or performance, or text) shows; if one designs pointing-lines with the same weight as the lines that compose a diagram, the reader will have a harder job telling these grammatically-different lines apart from one another — and as we know in Writing Boot Camp, the harder we make the reader’s job, the less charity the reader will extend to us, and the less ground we have for expecting the reader to arrive at the conclusion we desire (for which we’ve invested so much energy in composing the image, or text, or performance, in the first place). Differences displayed help us articulate differences explained.

Chapter 5 walks us through the power of parallelism in reinforcing similarity and heightening difference (not incidentally, Tufte — whose mother has written a valuable book on English composition — cites as the paradigm example of parallelism a passage from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). Throughout, he affirms (and repeats) the power of adjacency in communication — picking up a point that McCloud makes in his work on comics.

Isn’t the development in the information desnsity allowed by contemporary computer screens striking? The screen on p. 88f. looks to be a 640 × 480 screen; I’m typing this through a screen whose native resolution is 1440 × 900 pixels, giving a tremendously richer field for communication (and that’s not even counting the difference in color resolution in the newer screens). The fact that Tufte can commend this interface as “superb” underlines how far the technology to which we have access has come.

In the context of, and as a supplement to, the marvelous Garofalo/Rarey graphical history of rock, I commend to you Jeffrey Lewis’s “History of Punk on the Lower East Side” (which I may play in class, fair warning). Observe Tufte’s point that the illustration displays the growth of the market for rock music over time (which would be a fair two-axis graph in itself), but also the relation of various performers to one another, to the [always somewhat arbritrary] categories within rock to which they belong, to their history and future, and various other dimensions. The chart doesn’t assign various performers their space in proportion to their market share; that would make it impossible to see some acts, while others occupied large spaces — but it’s a terrific exercise that invites us to consider other possible examples. (I have no recollection of “Brenda and the Tabulations.”:) The cosmonauts’ graphical record of their space flight uses color to add dimensions of information to a layout that fundamentally resembles the history of rock.

[Participants in Gospel Mission class should appreciate Tufte’s comment on the NY Times photo on p. 102. Participants in this seminar will delight to see Tufte cite McCloud on p. 108, n. 3. People with an interest in infromation design and a sense of whimsy will enjoy the video for Royskopp’s song, “Remind Me.”]

Tufte illustrates ways that we can use multiples for effective (and ineffective, misleading) communication with special attention to the grammatical dimensions of tone, color, scale, arrangement, and so on. (Note that the concluding frame of the Ad Reinhardt multiple on pp. 188-119 reminds readers, “Ye must be born again.”) All this analysis serves the end of enhancing our understanding of how visual communication works (and we can easily infer from this conclusions relative to auditory and tactile communication; gustatory and olfactory communication I leave to the side for the moment). If we understand what we’re trying to express and how we’re trying to express it, and if we attend to the grammar of images as well as of language (and the two are not as radically distinct as custom might impel us to think), we have available a stronger, richer repertoire of expression that we can deploy more effectively. And if we care about expressing the truth, our expressions should, presumably, bespeak some of the beauty of holiness about which we’re talking, for which we’re designing, which we’re enacting. (Hence, “Beautiful Theology.”)

That leads us to the last chapter on “confections,” for which I’ll leave a separate post.


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