Alberto Cairo's Visualization Wheel

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.