The Aesthetic Function: The role of visual communication design in interface research

  1. 1. Stan Ruecker

    University of Alberta

  2. 2. Stéfan Sinclair

    McMaster University

  3. 3. Milena Radzikowska

    Mount Royal University (Mount Royal College)

Work text
This plain text was ingested for the purpose of full-text search, not to preserve original formatting or readability. For the most complete copy, refer to the original conference program.

Since the professionalization of various humanities disciplines in the latter part of the nineteenth century, humanities scholars have been primarily occupied with the interpretation and analysis of existing cultural artifacts, such as texts. The expertise and artistry required to produce the material form of the objects are generally outside the scope of a humanities education; print-making, for instance, is a separate craft. However, since the rise of personal computing and graphical interfaces, many humanities scholars have been empowered to create the interface through which their materials can be studied: the proliferation of digital collections such as Perseus and Rossettibears witness to this phenomenon. The distinctions between author, critic, editor and publisher have blurred. Significantly though, the knowledge and perspective of artists and designers have either largely been ignored by the digital humanities scholar, or else have contributed in a manner that has not been subject to direct analysis. Similarly, the growing interest in visualization systems for the humanities is another research area where design issues are relevant (Bradley and Rockwell). The significance of the visual is sufficiently evident in all of these cases that aesthetic factors become intrinsically woven with issues of functionality. Research interests in graphic design and presentation find a new relevance and weight, not only as a contributing factor in the design of computer interfaces and visualization systems, but also as an area of study in their own right.

We address the issue of graphic design contributions to visualization research by making reference to several recent interface design research projects at the University of Alberta and McMaster University. The emphasis is on the functional differences between early and later prototypes, including an analysis of what Frascara calls "the aesthetic function of design". We argue that aesthetic function is a composite that includes attracting viewers, holding their attention, and compelling their trust and respect. Design, in other words, is of utmost importance to the value and legitimacy of scholarly digital content.

Our first example is from the TouchGraph representation of XML data, where initial designs included boxes around each of the individual text items. Although this form of display is commonly used with topic maps, it is also unreasonable for several reasons: it draws the reader's eye to locations that are not particularly meaningful; it introduces unnecessary clutter; and it misappropriates a grouping affordance for a single element, which does not require grouping.

A second example is a prototype system for blocking and reading plays, called Watching the Script(Ruecker et al.). The interface design has gone through three distinct stages, beginning with a white parallelogram, moving to a four-colour square, and ending with a very attractive full-colour combination of stage, playback controls, and large coloured dots that clearly indicate character positions. Attention to the details of the graphic design is in this case intrinsically related to the details of the functions of the system, such as the location and movement of characters and text. However, the list of additional qualities would not be complete without acknowledging that part of the attraction of the most recent iteration is the aesthetic function. In its extreme form, this value can result in forms of interface that are in some senses autotelic — they can become an end in themselves for some users, who find their attractions sufficient to make the system worth further attention, outside the context of any particular research task.

The connection between graphic design and academic research also has implications for the ongoing need for improved communication between the academic world and everyone else. Several strategies are required at different levels, including public information campaigns, academic contributions to popular media, and a more significant presence of the academic in the community. One potential role that design has to play is in visually rewarding the reader of research results. However, there are barriers to be overcome, not least of all within the academy. It might even be argued that there is an anti-aesthetic subtext in certain research areas, since effort to engage readers through visual appeal (and its related functionality) might be understood as devaluing more essential research outcomes. However, Pujol points out that the visual qualities of professional design are one of the key signifiers by which we distinguish the individual voice from the institutional. If someone hand letters a sign to advertise a garage sale, we understand the sale as an amateur activity. If that same person employs graphic design skills and produces a glossy poster, we may interpret the same event, at least until we arrive at the site, as the establishment of a new retailer.

Karvonen takes this line of reasoning even further in her study of the relationship between trust and design. The cohort for her project was Scandinavian, with participants from both Finland and Sweden. The long-standing cultural awareness of design quality in those countries is probably a factor in her findings that people tended to find that web sites with a clearly professional design quality were rated as being more trustworthy than more vernacular sites. It would be indefensible to suggest that a professional standard of visual communication design could contribute to the perceived reliability of research results, since there are other, more important indicators that are applicable. However, it is not outside the domain of the possible that graphic quality is potentially a contributing factor not only in the evaluation of research results, but, particularly in the areas of visualization and information design research, also in the results obtained from user study. Careful attention to the details of graphic presentation can have a significant impact on the perceived value of a digital collection, the function of a visualization system, the research results available from analysis of visualizations, and the dissemination of findings both within the academic community and for the larger public audience.


Bradley, John
Rockwell, Geoffrey
What scientific visualization teaches us about text analysis
Consensus ex machina? ALLC-ACH 94 abstracts

Frascara, Jorge
User-centred Graphic Design
Taylor and Francis

Karvonen, Kristiina
The beauty of simplicity
Proceedings on the 2000 conference on Universal Usability
November 2000

Pujol, Monica
Design as a social practice
Public lectureTrans.
Frascara, Jorge
Department of Art and Design, University of Albert
1 Nov 2001

Ruecker, Stan
Homich, Eric
Sinclair, Stéfan
Watching the Script of Synge's Playboy of the Western World
Paper delivered at the COCH/COSH. Congress 2004. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba

Unsworth, John
Forms of Attention: Digital Humanities Beyond Representation
Paper delivered at CaSTA 2004: The Face of Text. 3rd conference of the Canadian Symposium on Text Analysis, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. November 19-21 2004

Conference Info

In review


Hosted at University of Victoria

Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

June 15, 2005 - June 18, 2005

139 works by 236 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double checked.

Conference website:

Series: ACH/ICCH (25), ALLC/EADH (32), ACH/ALLC (17)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None