Pictures that show us the Way: Geographic Information Systems and Visual Languages

Werner Kuhn  

 About the Author


A persistent goal in the study of visual languages is to understand how pictures acquire meaning. It has become clear that meaning does not reside in pictorial (or any other) representations as such, but in the application context. Plugging an application domain into an abstract visual vocabulary and syntax can generally not create useful and usable domain languages. What is needed is a careful study of applications and their needs for visual and multi-modal communication. This talk will present a rapidly growing field where multi-dimensional and multi-sensorial communication is essential: Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The needs and contributions of GIS in the area of visual languages will be discussed, leading to some thoughts on the foundations of pictorial semantics in this and other domains.

Geographic Information Systems support people in spatial problem solving tasks of all kinds (Maguire and others 1991). GIS acquire, manage, analyze, and present information about the natural and built-up human environment. Typical applications include urban and rural planning, cadastres, utility management, environmental monitoring, natural resource management, and car navigation. The tasks in these areas vary widely, ranging from land registration to real-time driver assistance, but they share a spatial (and often a temporal) component in the meaning, organization, and presentation of data.

Like many application domains, GIS come with their own tradition and semantics of visual languages. Cartography is the discipline that has, over centuries, studied how spatial information is best communicated visually (MacEachren and Taylor 1994). It offers a large body of knowledge about maps and how they communicate that can be exploited for the design of computer-based visual languages. A common effort of cartographers and visual language experts is needed, however, to formalize this knowledge and make it accessible for information designers.

The technical challenges regarding the design of visual languages for GIS include

The last part of the presentation will review some of the cognitive aspects of visual languages, particularly the role of spatial metaphors (Kuhn and Frank 1991). It will lead to the conclusion that we expect a strong mutual benefit for visual languages and GIS from a joint investigation of how languages use space and how space is communicated in languages.

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