Organizing a visualization book

I’d previously created a book, with David Jonker, regarding Graph Analysis and Visualization in 2015. It was a lot of work. With lots of visuals and text, a word processor is pretty good to see a page or two, but you don’t see the whole thing. To get a sense of the book, I printed out a rough draft and taped it up on the wall of basement. It helped a lot in terms of figuring out how to move things around.

Similarly,  over the course of my thesis and my upcoming book, Visualizing with Text, due in October 2020, I wanted to get a better sense of how everything fit together, not just page by page views. However, this time I invested in a 32″ 4K monitor. I could look at, and read, 12 pages at a time. That was good for working on chapters and sections, to see how groups of images worked together. An unexpected side effect was that this large monitor allowed me to sketch out many different alternatives on the screen to help bring together and organize many aspects of the work.

Paper Outlines and Sketches

Before reworking everything on screen or in printouts, the process often starts with some lists and diagrams on paper.  I don’t have many of the rough scribbles, as the loose paper tends to get thrown away. Here’s a few sheets that haven’t hit the trash yet:


Organizing the Design Space

The crux of the book (and the earlier thesis) rely on creating an organized design space for all the bits and pieces of text being used within visualization. Over the last 7 years, pieces emerged by looking at historic examples, talking with experts in different fields, creating bits of code and noting what worked or failed and so on. The organization of these different pieces into a whole was emergent: it was not a linear process.  There were false starts, things that sort-of worked but not quite, and even when the organization got close to the final form, many tweaks and variants. I spent many weekends over many years on a few diagrams that organized everything text and visualization. In effect, these iterative diagrams represent a research through design process. The effort for these diagrams surpassed the writing effort associated with a chapter.

Here’s a diagram of the many iterations, as a timeline, where you can see some historic starting points, successive iterations, and a few dead-ends. You can see near the end, the diagrams become bigger and more complex: more ideas can be explored on a 4K screen rather than paging through many screens.


One recent dead-end is labelled “everything” in the above diagram. It attempts to fuse the entire process into a single diagram. The left page in the photo has notes regarding text interaction, the research sources and relation to the everything diagram. In doing so, I realized that some elements in the diagram are less researched and less examined than others (e.g. interaction, cognition). Attempting to add these other pieces into the book would have added another 40-80 pages and possibly two years of new research: working with editors, we agreed that these were out-of-scope for this book (but it helped organize the related content and spurred a few enhancements to parts of the book).

Organizing the Chapters

The design space is the first third of the book. The rest of the book is all about new kinds of text visualizations, heavily illustrated with example visualizations that I’ve created. In late 2019, I had a lot of the content, but I didn’t like how it was fitting together and felt that there were still some gaps. Some of the content was orphaned, some was duplicative, and so on. Furthermore, some examples were throwaway and could have been better constructed to link to broad themes in the book.

At this point, I decided to take one image from each of the examples, create a map of the existing book, and then scribble over top where things should move into different groupings, items to remove, items to add, items that were missing.


The lower half of the above screenshot represents all the examples in the final 8 chapters. In the upper half are some reference images that organize, structure and introduce these 8 chapters. The references and the content are interdependent: adding / removing / moving examples changes the chapters and changes the introduction. And the organization implies aspects about the design space: the book evolved into Visualizing with Text instead of Text in Visualization, because through these design processes I realized that the design space was bigger than the traditional palette of what most people think of as visualization today.

This process was stressful, because it meant re-writing sections that had already been written, and there was a looming deadline. But, in the end, I am much happier with the result. And I think the extra pixels helped with this reorganization more effectively than rearranging pages or post-it notes on a wall.

About richardbrath

Richard is a long time visualization designer and researcher. Professionally, I am one of the partners of Uncharted Software Inc. I have recently completed a PhD in data visualization at LSBU. The opinions on this blog are related to my personal interests in data visualization, particularly around research interests related to my PhD work- this blog is about exploratory aspects of data visualization not proven principles.
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