Jacques Bertin

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Jacques Bertin, 1971.

Jacques Bertin (July 27, 1918May 3, 2010) was a French cartographer and theorist, known from his book Semiologie Graphique (Semiology of Graphics), published in 1967. This monumental work, based on his experience as a cartographer and geographer, represents the first and widest intent to provide a theoretical foundation to Information Visualization.



Semiology of graphics (1967/83)


J. Bertin (1983) Semiology of graphics: diagrams, networks, maps. University of Wisconsin Press. Originally in French: Semiologie Graphique, 1967

Part one - Semiology of the Graphic Sign-System
  • Graphic representation constitutes one of the basic sign-systems conceived by the human mind for the purposes of storing, understanding, and communicating essential information. As a "language" for the eye, graphics benefits from the ubiquitous properties of visual perception. As a monosemic system, it forms the rational part of the world of images.
    • p. 2
  • To analyse graphic representation precisely, it is helpful to distinguish it from musical, verbal and mathematical notations, all of which are perceived in a linear or temporal sequence. The graphic image also differs from figurative representation essentially polysemic, and from the animated image, governed by the laws of cinematographic time. Within the boundaries of graphics fall the fields of networks, diagrams and maps. The domain of graphic imagery ranges from the depiction of atomic structures to the representation of galaxies and extends into the spheres of topography and cartography.
    • p. 2
  • Graphics owes its special significance to its double function as a storage mechanism and a research instrument.
    • p. 2
  • And now, at the end of the twentieth century, with the pressure of modern information and the advances of data processing, graphics is passing through a new and fundamental stage. The great difference between the graphic representation of yesterday, which was poorly dissociated from the figurative image, and the graphics of tomorrow, is the disappearance of the congential fixity of the image.
When one can superimpose, juxtapose, transpose, and permute graphic images in ways that lead to groupings and classings, the graphic image passes from the dead image, the 'illustration,' to the living image, the widely accessible research instrument it is now becoming. The graphic is no longer only the 'representation' of a final simplification, it is a point of departure for the discovery of these simplifications and the means for their justification. The graphic has become, by its manageability, an instrument for information processing.
  • p. 4
I. Analysis of the information
  • [Overall level questions involved an] understanding of the deep structure of the data being presented in their totality, usually comparing trends and seeing groupings.
    • p. 16; as cited in: Stacy Kathryn Keller (2008) Levels of Line Graph Question Interpretation.... p. 6
II. The properties of the graphic system
  • The plane is the mainstay of all graphic representation. It is so familiar that its properties seem self-evident, but the most familiar things are often the most poorly understood. The plane is homogeneous and has two dimensions. The visual consequences of these properties must be fully explored.
    • p. 44
  • When the correspondences on the plane can be established between:
- all the divisions of one component
- and all the divisions of another component, the construction is a DIAGRAM.
  • p. 50
  • When the correspondences on the plane can be established among all the divisions of the same component, the construction is a network.
    • p. 50
  • [Bertin's 'color' refers to] the repertoire of colored sensations which can be produced at equal value.
    • p. 61, as cited in: Jörg von Engelhardt (2002). The Language of Graphics: : A Framework for the Analysis of Syntax and Meaning in Maps, Charts and Diagrams. p. 27
  • Value perception dominates color perception.
    • p. 87
III. The rules of the graphic system
  • If, in order to obtain a correct and complete answer to a given question, all other things being equal, one construction requires a shorter observation time than another construction, we can say that it is more efficient for this question.
  • The aim of the graphic is to make the relationship among previously defined sets appear.
    • p. 176
Part two - Utilization of the Sign-System
  • A graphic is a diagram when correspondences on the plane can be established among all elements of another component.
    • p. 193

Graphics and graphic information processing (1981)


J. Bertin (1981) Graphics and graphic information processing Originally published in French in 1977.

  • As with any graphic, networks are used in order to discover pertinent troups of to inform others of the groups and structures discovered. It is a good means of displaying structures, However, it ceases to be a means of discovery when the elements are numerous. The figure rapidly becomes complex, illegible and untransformable.
    • p. 129: About why draw a network?
  • The author has the reputation of being against color. I am indeed against color when it masks incompetence; when it allows the superimposition of characteristics to the point of absurdity; when people believe it capable of representing ordered data.

Interview with Jacques Bertin (2003)


"Interview with Jacques Bertin" by Juan C. Dürsteler (2003) on infovis.net

  • The use of computers shouldn’t ignore the objectives of graphics, that are:
    • Treating data to get information.
    • Communicating, when necessary, the information obtained.
Computers are able to multiply useless images without taking into account that, by definition, every graphic corresponds to a table. This table allows you to think about three basic questions that go from the particular to the general level. When this last one receives an answer, you have answers for all of them. Understanding means accessing the general level and discovering significant grouping (patterns). Consequently, the function of a graphic is answering the three following questions:
  • Which are the X,Y, Z components of the data table? (What it’s all about?)
  • What are the groups in X, in Y that Z builds? (What the information at the general level is?
  • What are the exceptions?
These questions can be applied to every kind of problem. They measure the usefulness of whatever construction or graphical invention allowing you to avoid useless graphics.
  • About the role of computers in Information Visualisation.
  • The problem that still remains to be solved is that of the orderable matrix, that needs the use of imagination... When the two components of a data table are orderable, the normal construction is the orderable matrix. Its permutations show the analogy and the complementary nature that exist between the algorithmic treatments and the graphical treatments.
    • About the traditionally low interest in theory of graphics
  • Data is transformed into graphics to understand. A map, a diagram are documents to be interrogated. But understanding means integrating all of the data. In order to do this it’s necessary to reduce it to a small number of elementary data. This is the objective of the “data treatment” be it graphic or mathematic.
    • About the true value of graphics

Quotes about Jacques Bertin

  • His books Semiology of Graphics and Graphics and Graphic Information Processing have been stimuli for my own thinking about the representation and analysis of geographic information. I have also used both books as core readings for graduate seminars and they have generated lively discussion and prompted innovative research. I often ask graduate students to consider how cartographic research and practice in the U.S. might be different today if the English edition of Semiology of Graphics had appeared in 1967 (when it was published in French), rather than in 1983. I know that my own work would have been dramatically different if I had encountered these ideas a decade and a half sooner.
  • Although his work was very original, it is typical of the 50s to 70s. He was not the only one to analyze images. Roland Barthes has worked on advertisements, Pierre Bourdieu on photography... His work can be considered as a typical structuralist analysis, because he focuses on the relationship between elements of graphics, and not on the elements themselves. And it is a very modern work, which proclaims that graphics are not static. Graphic mobility is a way of processing information, as all those who have used Bertin's matrices have noticed. His heritage goes far beyond Geography and has been very useful in visual data analysis.
  • While the early days of visualization go back over 200 years, actual research to understand how it works really only started in the 1960s. Jacques Bertin’s Sémiologie Graphique (Semiology of Graphics), published in 1969, was the first systematic treatment of the different ways graphical representations encode data. Bertin coined many terms of the trade, such as the mark, which is the basic unit of every visualization, like a bar, line, or circle sector. He also defined a number of retinal variables, which are the visual properties we use to express the data; these include color, size, location, etc.
In the early 1980s, Bertin’s work was picked up by researchers in statistical graphics and the nascent field of visualization (which didn’t quite have its name yet). William Cleveland and Robert McGill performed experiments to find out which of Bertin’s retinal variables were best suited for particular types of data, while Jock Mackinlay built a system that put Bertin’s and their work to use to create visualizations from data.
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