Information Visualization: Perception for Design.  Colin Ware.  San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann; 2000; 438 pp.; $59.95; (ISBN 1-55860-511-8.)


Vision, merely one of our six senses, dominates the world of information presentation and interaction.  Ware asks us to consider the whole world as an information display.  He uses this metaphor several times in reaching back to our primate past where there was need to be sensitive to the slightest motion, and where color vision helped our ancestors choose the ripest fruit.

Information visualization is a vast subject area that encompasses not only our brain's hard wiring and the structure of the eye with its rods and cones, but also the mechanics of computer monitors in presenting clear text and true colors.   Its many facets include pre-attentive processing (what we see before we begin looking), cultural sensitivities to colors, primitive graphemes and complex visual languages used in statistical displays, maps, entity-relationship diagrams, flowcharts and so on.  This is not to neglect multidimensional presentation and 3-D navigation metaphors.  No single book can cover this whole field in depth.

Sorting out this vast area of information visualization is one of the book's major accomplishments.  It is an excellent survey for the casual reader with many links to the scholarly literature.  Ware's ambition is to set out the field in terms of its scientific basis, hence the subtitle: "perception for design."  This ambition propels his greatest success: suggesting strategies for effective information presentation based on empirical results.  The net result is effective web page design based on the science of vision.  This ambition also leads Ware to open each of the early chapters with some fundamental science.  Unfortunately, this may be the least successful material in the book.  For example, there is a cursory look at brain functioning, a sketch of how are eyes work,  and scientific formulae tend to pop up on the page without sufficient hand holding for the casual reader.

The book is excellent when Ware summarizes the research literature by assembling lists of suggestions for word/image trade-offs, requirements for visual interrupts, recommended colors for labels, shapes for pre-attentive processing, and so on.  His treatment of Gestalt processing is masterful.  He discusses and gives examples of the laws of proximity, similarity, continuity, symmetry, closure, size and contours.  The treatment rises to a textbook on web page design.

Chapter 4 on "Color" is the single most impressive chapter in the book, perhaps reflecting Ware's own strong interest.  The discussion of chromatic aberration (different wavelengths of light focus at different distances within the eye) is an example where the science of sight feeds directly into web page design strategies.  We are given maxims to live by: "Pure blue text on a black background can be almost unreadable if there is white or red text nearby to attract the focusing mechanism." (p. 54)  The chapter discusses seven perceptual factors for creating color labels and issues for pseudocoloring maps.  It presents the case for the uniqueness of the color yellow, and the naming schemes of colors across cultures.  One could easily write a book about color alone.

                There are also strong discussions of visual acuities in relation to the precision of information presented on computer screens, and pre-attentive processing.  A series of illusions are presented and in discussing the Cornsweet effect, there is an application to the pointillist painter Seurat. 

                This is an excellent book that could serve as a textbook in the area.  It also is part of an interesting dialog between a visual guru like Edward Tufte over "chart junk." (The disagreement is over a plane and a surface.  Texturing makes a plane surface visible, but may be construed as unnecessary ornamentation.) 



Tufte, Edward T.   (1997).  Visual explanations: Images and quantities, evidence and narrative.  Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.


Terrence A. Brooks

School of Library and Information Science

University of Washington