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design: beautiful



Malofiej 23 Bronze award for 1% Difference information graphic.


visualization + design

Getting into Visualization of Large Biological Data Sets

The 20 imperatives of information design

Martin Krzywinski, Inanc Birol, Steven Jones, Marco Marra

Presented at Biovis 2012 (Visweek 2012). Content is drawn from my book chapter Visualization Principles for Scientific Communication (Martin Krzywinski & Jonathan Corum) in the upcoming open access Cambridge Press book Visualizing biological data - a practical guide (Seán I. O'Donoghue, James B. Procter, Kate Patterson, eds.), a survey of best practices and unsolved problems in biological visualization. This book project was conceptualized and initiated at the Vizbi 2011 conference.

If you are interested in guidelines for data encoding and visualization in biology, see our Visualization Principles Vizbi 2012 Tutorial and Nature Methods Points of View column by Bang Wong.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Getting into Visualization of Large Biological Data Sets. M Krzywinski, I Birol, S Jones, M Marra (poster presentation) (PDF)


The 20 imperatives of information design


ENSURE LEGIBILITY AND FOCUS ON THE MESSAGE

Create legible visualizations with a strong message. Make elements large enough to be resolved comfortably. Bin dense data to avoid sacrificing clarity.

Distinguish between exploration and communication.

Use exploratory tools (e.g. genome browsers) to discover patterns and validate hypotheses. Avoid using screenshots from these applications for communication – they are typically too complex and cluttered with navigational elements to be an effective static figure.

Do not exceed resolution of visual acuity.

Our acuity is ~50 cycles/degree or about 1/200 (0.3 pt) at 10 inches. Ensure the reader can comfortably see detail by limiting resolution to no more than 50% of acuity. Where possible, elements that require visual separation should be at least 1 pt part.

Use no more than ~500 scale intervals.

Ensure data elements are at least 1 pt on a two-column Nature figure (6.22 in), 4 pixels on a 1920 horizontal resolution display, or 2 pixels on a typical LCD projector. These restrictions become challenges for large genomes.

Show variation with statistics.

Data on large genomes must be downsampled. Depict variation with min/max plots and consider hiding it when it is within noise levels. Help the reader notice significant outliers.

Do not draw small elements to scale.

Map size of elements onto clearly legible symbols. Legibility and clarity are more important than precise positioning and sizing. Discretize sizes and positions to facilitate making meaningful comparisons.

Aggregate data for focused theme.

A strong visual message has no uncertainty in its interpretation. Focus on a single theme by aggregating unnecessary detail.

Show density maps and outliers.

Establishing context is helpful when emergent patterns in the data provide a useful perspective on the message. When data sets are large, it is difficult to maintain detail in the context layer because the density of points can visually overwhelm the area of interest. In this case, consider showing only the outliers in the data set.

Consider whether showing the full data set is useful.

The reader’s attention can be focused by increasing the salience of interesting patterns. Other complex data sets, such as networks, are shown more effectively when context is carefully edited or even removed.

USE EFFECTIVE VISUAL ENCODINGS TO ORGANIZE INFORMATION.

Match the visual encoding to the hypothesis. Use encodings specific and sensitive to important patterns. Dense annotations should be independent of the core data in distinct visual layers.

Use the simplest encoding.

Choose concise encodings over elaborate ones.

Help the reader judge accurately.

Accuracy and speed in detecting differences in visual forms depends on how information is presented. We judge relative lengths more accurately than areas, particularly when elements are aligned and adjacent. Our judgment of area is poor because we use length as a proxy, which causes us to systematically underestimate.

Use encodings that are robust and comparable.

In addition to being transparent and predictable, visualizations must be robust with respect to the data. Changes in the data set should be reflected by proportionate changes in the visualization. Be wary of force-directed network layouts, which have low spatial autocorrelation. In general, these are neither sensitive nor specific to patterns of interest.

Crop scale to reveal fine structure in data.

Biological data sets are typically high-resolution (changes at base pair level can meaningful), sparse (distances between changes are orders of magnitude greater than the affected areas) and connect distant regions by adjacency relationships (gene fusions and other rearrangements). It is difficult to take these properties into account on a fixed linear scale, the kind used by traditional genome browsers. To mitigate this, crop and order axis segments arbitrarily and apply a scale adjustment to a segment or portion thereof.

Use perceptual palettes.

Selecting perceptually favorable colors is difficult because most software does not support the required color spaces. Brewer palettes exist for the full range of colors to help us make useful choices. Qualitative palettes have no perceived order of importance. Sequential palettes are suitable for heat maps because they have a natural order and the perceived difference between adjacent colors is constant. Twin hue diverging palettes, are useful for two-sided quantitative encodings, such as immunofluorescence and copy number.

Never use hue to encode magnitude.

Hue does not communicate relative change in values because we perceive hue categorically (blue, green, yellow, etc). Changes within one category have less perceptual impact than transitions between categories. For example, variations across the green/yellow boundary are perceived to be larger than variations across the same sized hue interval in other parts of the spectrum.

USE EFFECTIVE DESIGN PRINCIPLES TO EMPHASIZE AND COMMUNICATE PATTERNS.

Well-designed figures illustrate complex concepts and patterns that may be difficult to express concisely in words. Figures that are clear, concise and attractive are effective – they form a strong connection with the reader and communicate with immediacy. These qualities can be achieved with methods of graphic design, which are based on theories of how we perceive, interpret and organize visual information.

Reduce unnecessary variation.

The reader does not know what is important in a figure and will assume that any spatial or color variation is meaningful. The figure’s variation should come solely from data or act to organize information.

Encapsulate details.

Including details not relevant to the core message of the figure can create confusion. Encapsulation should be done to the same level of detail and to the simplest visual form. Duplication in labels should be avoided.

Use consistent alignment. Center on theme.

Establish equivalence using consistent alignment. Awkward callouts can be avoided if elements are logically placed.

Respect natural hierarchies.

When the data set embodies a natural hierarchy, use an encoding that emphasizes it clearly and memorably. The use hierarchy in layout (e.g. tabular form) and encoding can significantly improve a muddled figure.

Palette for color blindness / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
This 15-color palette provides good discrimination for common color blindness types. Individuals with tritanopia cannot distinguish colors marked with ● and ◥. (hires)

Be aware of the luminance effect.

Color is a useful encoding – the eye can distinguish about 450 levels of gray, 150 hues, and 10-60 levels of saturation, depending on the color – but our ability to perceive differences varies with context. Adjacent tones with different luminance values can interfere with discrimination, in interaction known as the luminance effect.

Be aware of color blindness.

In an audience of 8 men and 8 women, chances are 50% that at least one has some degree of color blindness. Use a palette that is color-blind safe. In the palette below the 15 colors appear as 5-color tone progressions to those with color blindness. Additional encodings can be achieved with symbols or line thickness.

I have designed 15-color palettes for color blindess for each of the three common types of color blindness.

news + thoughts

Happy 2015 Pi Day—can you see `pi` through the treemap?

Sat 14-03-2015

Celebrate `pi` Day (March 14th) with splitting its digit endlessly. This year I use a treemap approach to encode the digits in the style of Piet Mondrian.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Digits of `pi`, `phi` and `e`. (details)

The art has been featured in Ana Swanson's Wonkblog article at the Washington Post—10 Stunning Images Show The Beauty Hidden in `pi`.

I also have art from 2013 `pi` Day and 2014 `pi` Day.

Split Plot Design

Tue 03-03-2015

The split plot design originated in agriculture, where applying some factors on a small scale is more difficult than others. For example, it's harder to cost-effectively irrigate a small piece of land than a large one. These differences are also present in biological experiments. For example, temperature and housing conditions are easier to vary for groups of animals than for individuals.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Nature Methods Points of Significance column: Split plot design. (read)

The split plot design is an expansion on the concept of blocking—all split plot designs include at least one randomized complete block design. The split plot design is also useful for cases where one wants to increase the sensitivity in one factor (sub-plot) more than another (whole plot).

Altman, N. & Krzywinski, M. (2015) Points of Significance: Split Plot Design Nature Methods 12:165-166.

Background reading

1. Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2014) Points of Significance: Designing Comparative Experiments Nature Methods 11:597-598.

2. Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2014) Points of Significance: Analysis of variance (ANOVA) and blocking Nature Methods 11:699-700.

3. Blainey, P., Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2014) Points of Significance: Replication Nature Methods 11:879-880.

...more about the Points of Significance column

Color palettes for color blindness

Tue 03-03-2015

In an audience of 8 men and 8 women, chances are 50% that at least one has some degree of color blindness1. When encoding information or designing content, use colors that is color-blind safe.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
A 12-color palette safe for color blindness

Points of Significance Column Now Open Access

Tue 10-02-2015

Nature Methods has announced the launch of a new statistics collection for biologists.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Nature Methods Points of Significance column is now open access. (column archive)

As part of that collection, announced that the entire Points of Significance collection is now open access.

This is great news for educators—the column can now be freely distributed in classrooms.

...more about the Points of Significance column

Before and After—Designing Tiny Figures for Nature Methods

Tue 13-01-2015

I've posted a writeup about the design and redesign process behind the figures in our Nature Methods Points of Significance column.

I have selected several figures from our past columns and show how they evolved from their draft to published versions.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Fig 2 from Points of Significance: Nested designs. (Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2014) Nature Methods 11:977-978.) (...more)

Clarity, concision and space constraints—we have only 3.4" of horizontal space— all have to be balanced for a figure to be effective.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Fig 2c (excerpt) from Points of Significance: Designing comparative experiments. (Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2014) Nature Methods 11:597-598.) (...more)

It's nearly impossible to find case studies of scientific articles (or figures) through the editing and review process. Nobody wants to show their drafts. With this writeup I hope to add to this space and encourage others to reveal their process. Students love this. See whether you agree with my decisions!