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Howard Wainer (Philadelphia, PA)

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Semiology of Graphics: Diagrams, Networks, Maps
Semiology of Graphics: Diagrams, Networks, Maps
by Jacques Bertin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 70.02
23 used & new from CDN$ 59.95

5.0 out of 5 stars The Republishing of a Masterwork, Dec 3 2010
In the preface to the 1983 translation of the Semiology I emphasized the book''s importance as a guide to the future, for it seemed clear that we were on the cusp of an explosion in the use of graphical methods for both the exploration and communication of complex data. This prediction came true. In the intervening 27 years a huge amount of work has been accomplished to help us use graphical methods profitably. This work has been in hardware that can produce graphical displays quickly and inexpensively; software that can translate data files into graphical representations with the click of a mouse; and statistical and perceptual research that helps us know how to use these tools well.

Let me briefly comment only on the latter two aspects. I choose to refrain from any commentary on hardware because my remarks would almost surely be out of date before they were printed. So first, graphical software: thirty years ago I was enthusiastic and optimistic about the future of graphical use, for, I thought, software will be built that has sensible default options, so that when the software is set on maximal stupidity (ours not its), a reasonable graph would result. The software would force you to wring its metaphorical neck if you wanted to produce some horrible pseudo 3-D multicolored pie chart. Alas, I couldn''t have been more wrong. Instead of making wise, evidence-based, choices, default options seem to have been selected by the same folks who deny the holocaust, global warming and evolution. I could not have imagined back then that the revolution in data gathering, analysis and display that was taking place in the last decades of the 20th century would have resulted in the complexity of the modern world being conveyed in bullet-points augmented by PowerPoint and Excel graphics.

The irony of this sorry result is that since the original publication of the Semiology there have been many wonderful books on graphics ' each building on the work of Jacques Bertin paired with John Tukey''s practical epistemology. Bill Cleveland's work uses a combination of statistical savvy and experimental evidence to support and expand upon Bertin''s foundation. Edward Tufte''s brilliant series of books that self-exemplify the advice he gives on how to make evidence beautiful. Leland Wilkinson''s Grammar provides a codification that is invaluable for both how to think about the structure of graphics and how to automate their construction. And my own work, that has mixed together statistics, graphics and history to provide illustrations of what we can accomplish with this marvelous medium. Indeed, the growing popularity and importance of graphics even made it viable for a publisher to reprint William Playfair''s 18th century Atlas, the work that began it all.

But despite this accumulating graphic wisdom, practice continues to lag. I cannot help but believe that had Bertin''s masterwork not fallen out of print some of today''s graphical ignorance would have been ameliorated. This view was surely shared by the publishing arm of L'École Practique des Hautes Études, who republished a 4th edition of the French version in 2005. At about the same time the University of Wisconsin Press was seriously considering the republication of the English translation. Anne McKenna. one of their editors, explained,

"'University of Wisconsin Press had been considering bringing Semiology of Graphics back into print several years ago and had begun work to bring that about, checking into renewing rights from the French publisher, looking into arranging for a translation of new material from a newer French edition, getting cost estimates, etc. However, several retirements and staff changes sent the project to the back burner for a while.'"

This delay was unfortunate because the market for a republication seemed more than ready. A few months ago, on Amazon, I noticed that one could get a new copy for $550 and the price for a used one began at $399. These remarkable prices merely reflect supply and demand, for those of us who have our own copies are loath to part with them. Happily ESRI decided to do it. They approached the University of Wisconsin Press, and, as Anne McKenna related,

"'As we re-opened the file to get the ball rolling again, we were contacted by ESRI expressing their interest in licensing the book for a new English-language edition. When we realized that ESRI had a strong publishing program in cartography and cartographic design, the UW Press's director felt that ESRI would be a better home for Bertin's book, where it would receive much more active promotion. 'We well know that the Semiology of Graphics is an important book with an eager audience, and it seemed to us that ESRI would do a fine job of bringing the new edition to that audience.'"

This publishing generosity is as welcome as it is rare. The reappearance of the Semiology did not come too soon, for our need for improving the quality of displays increases apace with the increase in the number of graphs being produced. I am certain that the quality of displays that are prepared to communicate quantitative phenomena will improve in direct proportion to the extent to which this book is read and internalized by those who generate graphics, and, more importantly, by those who develop the software that are used to produce them.

The body of the text in this edition is identical to the previous edition: what is new is the postface, which is an update of work done over the decades since the Semiology was previously published and Bertin gives a chronology explaining what is new. But what is new is beside the point, for the original work was far ahead of its time. I remember many years ago as Bertin, Bill Berg (the principal translator) and I were discussing the translation Berg said, of one of Bertin''s expressions "Ça ne se dit pas, en Anglais" (We don't say that in English); Bertin replied: "Ne vous inquiétez pas: si ça ne se dit pas, ça se dira" (Don't worry; if you don't say it now, eventually you will).

Many of us are saying it now, and with the republication of the Semiology, many more soon will be.


Cleveland, W. S. (1994). The elements of graphing data. Summit, NJ: Hobart Press.

Cleveland, W. S. (1994). Visualizing data. Summit, NJ: Hobart Press.

Playfair, W. (1801). The Commercial and Political Atlas, & The Statistical Breviary. Edited and introduced by Howard Wainer and Ian Spence. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Tufte, E. R. (1983/2000). The visual display of quantitative information. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.

Tufte, E. R. (1990). Envisioning information. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.

Tufte, E. R. (1996). Visual explanations. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press .

Tufte, E. R. (2006). Beautiful evidence. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press .

Tukey, J. W. (1977). Exploratory data analysis. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Wainer, H. (1997). Visual Revelations: Graphical Tales of Fate and Deception from Napoleon Bonaparte to Ross Perot. New York: Copernicus Books, (reprinted in 2000, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates).

Wainer, H. (2005). Graphic Discovery: A Trout in the Milk and Other Visual Adventures. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Wainer, H. (2009). Picturing the Uncertain World: How to Understand, Communicate and Control Uncertainty through Graphical Display. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wilkinson, L. (2005). The Grammar of Graphics (2nd edition). New York: Springer-Verlag.

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