Academic bookshelf, The

academic bookshelf, The

Smith, Karl A


The inspiration for this column came primarily from John Lienhard’s Engines of Our Ingenuity radio program and web site.

For years I’ve listened to the radio broadcast of the Engines of Our Ingenuity and have been intrigued by the range of topics, the technical depth, the wonderful historical connections, and the extraordinary storytelling that John Lienhard provides. Recently, I discovered the Engines of Our Ingenuity web site ( engines) and it opened up a whole new world. There are the texts from more than 1400 radio broadcasts and, as I explored the web site, I found a whole lot more.

Among many treasures I found the full text of a several talks Lienhard has given, such as the one he gave for the ASME Design Conference in Boston, Wednesday, September 20, 1995 titled “The future of design: A question of visualization.” Lienhard ties his talk to the story of the computational fluid dynamics modeling and simulation used to redesign the boats used in the Americas Cup races. He noted that three things came together in the design of successful boats-rapid trial and error, powerful cooperation, and a new way of seeing.

The role of trial and error has been articulated by many engineers-Henry Petroski in To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Engineering Design (Vintage, 1992) and Jack Matson in How to Fail Successfully: fl Bold Approach to Meeting Your Goals through Intelligent Fast Failure (Dynamo, 1991). Powerful cooperation is rapidly becoming a formal part of engineering education as we recognize that most engineering accomplishments are the result of a team effort. It’s the role of visualization that I want to explore more fully in this column.

The first books that came to mind in this area were Edward Tufte’s three beautifully produced books-The Visual Display of Quantitative Information; Envisioning Information; and Visual Explanations.: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narration.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R.Tufte

Graphics Press, 1987, 197 pages. Envisioning Information by Edward R. Tufte Graphics Press, 1990,128 pages.

Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative

By Edward R. Tufte

Graphics Press, 1997,160 pages.

Tufte is somewhat of a legend in his own time. He wasn’t pleased with the quality of commercial printing when he was looking for a publisher for The Visual Display of Quantitative Information so he started a printing company-Graphics Press. I had heard from participants in the University of Minnesota’s MS in the Management of Technology that Tufte conducts workshops, and I set about to explore more fully what occurs during these sessions. Elaine Yakura, professor a Labor and Industrial Relations at Michigan State University and a Lilly Teaching Fellow, provided a vivid and detailed account of the workshop. Here is an excerpt from her e-mail message:

I did attend a seminar (day-long) at which Tufte held forth to an audience that filled one of the very large ballrooms at the suburban Detroit Ritz.

He does not believe in using overhead transparencies: One of my favorite lines of the entire day “why would anyone want to give a presentation which leaves no trace-or even worse, a striptease presentation?” This later in reference to presentations where the presenter slides a piece of paper down his or her slide, revealing point after point. . . Tufte simply talked. Once in a while he would refer to a page or an illustration in one of his books, but mostly he talked.. .For me, it was useful to hear him say, in a distilled form, what his books said in a more richly illustrated and detailed format. So, good design is good thinking made visible (and the same for bad design and bad thinking).

I was blown away by this. I thought I was going to a seminar on characteristics of good design, good visual display. I didn’t realize that I would get a lecture on meta-cognitives that sounded just like what I was trying to say to my students about how to think critically! He talked about seven design principles, including things like “showing causality,” “integrate text, numbers and figures,” which again echoed my own exhortations to students in class about problem solving and critical thinking.

Tufte describes the three books as “pictures of numbers,” “pictures of nouns,” and “pictures of verbs,” respectively. He writes (Visual Explanation, p. 10):

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is about pictures of numbers, how to depict data and enforce statistical honesty.

Envisioning Information is about pictures of nouns (maps and aerial photographs, for example, consist of a great many nouns lying on the ground).

Envisioning also deals with visual strategies for design: color, layering, and interaction effects.

Visual Explanations is about pictures of verbs, the representation of mechanisms and motion, of process and dynamics, of causes and effects, of explanation and narrative. Since such displays are often used to reach conclusions and make decisions, there is a special concern with the integrity of the content and design.

Each embody his mantra that “clear graphics make for clear thinking.” Of all the extraordinary stories and illustrations in his books, the one that stands out most poignantly for me is his replotting of the “number of damaged O-rings per launch” versus “temperature” data for the space shuttle launches. Several others have picked up on this too, including Wainer (below) and Richad Human World (1999, Simon & Schuster, 400 pages). Tufte states “Had the correct scatterplot or data table been constructed, no one would have dared to risk the Challenger in such cold weather” (Visual Explanations, p. 52).

Tufte’s books have been declared “The da Vinci of data” (New York Times), “A visual Strunk and White” (Boston Globe), “A beautifully illustrated, well-argued volume” (Scientific American), “The visual style book” (Next Whole Earth Catalog). These are coffee-table sized books that are urgently needed to help bring clarity to our increasingly visually-mediated instructional worlds.

Visual Revelations: Graphical Tales of Fate and Deception from Napoleon Bonaparte to Ross Perot by Howard Wainer

Copernicus Books, 1997, 180 pages.

Howard Wainer’s Visual Revelations is related to Tufte’s books (and he credits Tufte as well as John Tukey) but is filled with alternative representations of the same data. In Chapter One, How to Display Data Badly, Wainer reinforces his visual points with Twelve Rules for Bad Data Display:

Rule 1: Show as little data as possible (minimize the data density).

Rule 2: Hide what data you do show (minimize the data/ ink ratio).

Rule 3: Ignore the visual metaphor altogether.

Rule 4: Only order matters.

Rule 5: Graph data out of context.

Rule 6: Change scales in mid-axis.

Rule 7: Emphasize the trivial (ignore the important).

Rule 8: Jiggle the baseline.

Rule 9: Alabama first!

Rule 10: Label: (1) illegibly, (b) incompletely, (c) incorrectly, (d) ambiguously

Rule 11: More is murkier: (a) more decimal places and (b) more dimensions.

Rule 12: If it has been done well in the past, think of a new way to do it.

As you can no doubt tell from this list of rules, Wainer provides lots of insights into visual representation and does so with a sense of humor and perspective that not only informs and teaches but also entertains.

Visual Revelations is organized into five sections-Graphical failures, graphical triumphs, graphical forms, using graphical methods, and improving graphical presentations-and has 20 short chapters, with between 2 and 6 chapters per section. Here’s the beginning of the jacket description:

This book takes the reader on an eye-opening tour of the methods and history of presenting data by visual means, showing the reader how to be both a better producer and consumer of graphics. Visual Revelations sheds light on how well-done graphic representations illuminate subtle and significant elements of the information they represent, how poorly conceived graphical devices can misrepresent and distort facts and data, and how deverly designed displays can be potent tools for manipulating the viewer’s perception and opinion.

Howard Wainer posted the following comment about the book on “Naturally I think this is a wonderful book, full of wit and wisdom. But I would be grateful for comments from readers (or even those who just look a the pictures). A reader commented: “I read this book, cover to cover, after flipping through looking at the pictures. What a great read! I will never look at a chart again, without a newfound (and critical) eye towards the graphical representation of information. I am also glad to see the author writing for the on-line e-zine Intellectual Capital.”

As I explored this area, specifically searching for research on visualization in engineering, I came across a new book by Kathryn Henderson that not only emphasized visualization, but also highlighted the application of ethnographic research methodology.

On Line and on Paper: Visual Representations, Visual Culture, and Computer Graphics in Design Engineering by Kathryn Henderson MIT Press, 1998, 256 pages.

Kathryn Henderson, art critic and technical writer, and currently a professor of sociology at Texas A&M, brings remarkable insights into the impact of computer graphic systems on the visual culture of engineering design. The publisher, MIT Press, described the book as follows:

The role of representation in the production of technoscientific knowledge has become a subject of great interest in recent years. . .Kathryn Henderson offers a new perspective on this topic by exploring the impact of computer graphic systems on the visual culture of engineering design. Henderson shows how designers use drawings both to organize work and knowledge and to recruit and organize resources, political support, and power.

Henderson’s analysis of the collective nature of knowledge in technical design worlds is based on her participant observation of practices in two industrial settings. In one, she follows the evolution of a turbine engine package from design to production, and in the other, she examines the development of an innovative surgical tool. In both cases, she describes the messy realities of design practice including the mixed use of the worlds of paper and computer graphics. One of the goals of the book is to lay a practice-oriented groundwork for the creation of more usable computer tools. Henderson also explores the relationship between the historical development of engineering as a profession and the standardization of engineering knowledge, and then addresses the question: Just what is high technology, and how does it affect the extent to which people will allow their working habits to be disrupted and restructured?

Finally, to help explain why visual representations are so powerful, Henderson develops the concept of”meta-indexicality”-the ability of a visual representation, used interactively, to combine many diverse levels of knowledge and thus to serve as a meeting ground (and sometimes battleground) for many types of workers.

On Line and on Paper is a high quality, scholarly addition to the ethnographic research that seeks to reveal how engineers work in practice. It is especially enlightening in terms of the role of paper and computer-based visual representations.

An interesting complement to Henderson’s point about the “appropriate use of both paper and digital media” is a recent article in the New York Times, “Castles, and planetariums, in the air: With floating spheres and curved skyscrapers, computers add to the wow factor in design,” by David W. Dunlap, March 11, 1999. Dunlop reports that “In ways big and small, computer-aided design–CAD for short-is changing the built environment” and has many examples and illustrations of more complex geometries in build that support this notion.

I also found close connections on the topic of visualization here at the University of Minnesota. Thomas Chase, professor of mechanical engineering, heads the Engineering Visualization Laboratory that provides “support for research and instruction in areas where computer-based visualization methodologies can be effectively used to enhance our understanding of complex systems.” Will Durfee, Director of Design Education in the mechanical engineering department uses Drawl: A Visual Approach to Thinking, Learning and Communicating by Kurt Hanks, Phil Gerould and Larry Belliston (Wllliam Kauffman, 1976) to help students in Introduction to Mechanical Engineering learn to visualize. More courses like Will’s will no doubt be appearing at the University of Minnesota since President Yudof recently launched a “Design Initiative” where one of the goals is for every student at the University of Minnesota to have at least one design experience.

As you consider the role of visualization in engineering, I encourage you to flip the pages and perhaps explore more deeply books like Tufte’s or Wainer’s for their powerful illustrations and sage advice. I suggest that you investigate the exciting area of organizational ethnography and anthropology, such as in Henderson’s On Line and on Paper, or John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s “Organizational knowledge and communities of practice: Toward a unified view of working, learning, and innovation,” (Organizational Science, vol. 2, no. 1, 1991, pp. 40-57 or browse it on the www at orglearning.html). But most of all, I encourage you to read the full text of John Lienhard’s “The Future of Design: A Question of Visualization” where he elaborates on three elements that must characterize engineering design in the 21st century-trial and error, cooperation, and spatial visualization. He closes the talk with the following advice and caution:

So today, I call upon you to capitalize on the powerful realization that we accomplish far more by building cooperation into our working methods. I call upon you to keep the error in trial-and-error.

But the most important thing I call upon you to do is to find a place for the eye of the mind-the human mind-in engineering design. For, believe me, it is under attack, and it is the most precious thing you all have in your tool kit.

KARL A. SMITH Civil Engineering University of Minnesota

Copyright American Society for Engineering Education Jul 1999

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