Thursday, February 21, 2008

Picture or Graph? A Conceptual Tussle

My recent post on informational images addressed the unambiguous world of pictures, as opposed to other forms of informational graphics. Occasionally these forms cross-breed and produce unhappy results. A case in point: this image, from a set of graphs designed to supplement a LIFE magazine feature on the economic outlook in 1953.

If you read the text, the graph has been created to compare economic performance data from the period 1929-1935 with data from 1950-51 and projections for 52-55. But the thing we're looking at takes us somewhere else. Indeed here's a case study of how pictorial logic can gum up an altogether different visual form.

The cityscape at the top of each visual field creates an implied space across which various characters (inluding Paper Sack Man, Milk Bottle Man, and Mr. Telephone Services) travel. Alas, this same visual field is asked to function as a Cartesian graph tracking time on the x axis and dollars on the y (but without numerical information of any kind). We are left with a weird perception that perhaps the black non-durable goods line occupies a position more distant from us than does the gray-green durable goods line. I'm so wrapped up in trying to interpret an image that ought not be an image that I can't get to the data, let alone an analysis of it. In short, three-dimensional inferences goof up the two-dimensional information.

Images: economic data graphs, LIFE Magazine, January 1953.

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