The Periodic Table as a Design Paradigm

info visualization | Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007

Juan C. Duersteler writes that Mendeleev’s periodic table is brilliant information visualization …

When the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev published the first version of his Periodic Table of the Elements in 1869 he couldn’t imagine that it would become in due time one of the most outstanding information visualisations and that many fields would use it more than one century later as a visual metaphor.

… but the paradigm doesn’t transfer to other fields of information. For example, the Periodic Table of Visualization Methods falls short:

Despite the good work in classifying more than a hundred different visualisation methods, using the scheme of the periodic table and the exact shape of the same for displaying the methods is more than disputable since the paradigm the periodic table adheres to (atomic number, chemical properties, orbitals, etc) has no parallelism to the case of visualisation methods, which invalidates the visual metaphor it intends to be. Stephen Few discusses this point very cleverly in his blog Visual Business Intelligence. Hence I will not abound on this here.

The fact is that mimicking existing paradigms just because they provide a familiar lay-out doesn’t add any insight into what we are looking for, that is regularities in the methods of visualisation. Trying to map the regularities of the chemical elements into those of desserts, or visualisations, is misleading since it hampers finding true regularities and although it covers the transmission of knowledge it doesn’t contribute to pattern detection and even less to knowledge discovery, outstanding outcomes of Mendeleev work.

Building a taxonomy of visualisation methods is not a simple issue and having an equivalent of the in depth work done by Mendeleev for chemistry in Information Visualisation would be a major advance, that, in my opinion we should pursue by finding the main features of each method, building a new paradigm and representing them in original and meaningful ways in accordance with said paradigm.

See also: Periodic Table of Visualization Methods

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