Alberto Cairo presents a concept he calls the Visualization Wheel in his book The Functional Art. The Visualization Wheel is a tool for thinking about tradeoffs in visualization.
It consists of two halves that represents a fundamental spectrum on which data visualizations may be placed.
- The top half represents visuals which contain deep, complex data.
- The bottom half represents visuals that provides accessible, but shallower, data.
In addition to this basic spectrum, there are also several other tradeoffs Cairo presents:
- Abstraction and Figuration:
- Figurative visuals use physical representations, such as photographs or drawings.
- Abstract visuals would use more conceptual, and less real, representations of phenomena.
- Functionality and Decoration:
- Functional graphics have no embellishments and are closer to a direct representation of the data.
- Visuals with significant decoration contain more artistic embellishments.
- Density and Lightness:
- Dense visuals convey a lot of information, and are intended to be studied in some depth. Good examples can be found in scientific journals.
- Light visuals convey less nuance and less information, but get their point across quickly. Generally these are used to quickly augment a written narrative.
- Multidimensional and Unidimensional:
- Multidimensional visuals illustrate many different aspects of a phenomenon, and likely illustrate the phenomenon as a whole better than unidimensional visuals.
- Unidimensional visuals illustrate only single items associated with a phenomenon.
- Originality and Familiarity:
- Original graphics do not readily conform to our most common visualization patterns.
- Familiar, commonplace, broadly-understood visuals include bar charts, line charts, and scatterplots.
- Novelty and Redundancy:
- Redundant graphics use multiple modalities to tell the same story. A common example is for the data represented by one bar to be both the tallest in height and also be highlighted in a different color.
- Novel graphics describe each phenomena in the graphic in only one way.
Different audiences and professions are likely prefer different types of visuals.
- Scientists and engineers are likely to prefer visuals that are dense, multidimensional, and have high functionality.
- Artists, graphic designers, and journalists are likely to prefer visuals that include decoration, lightness, and figuration.