Google Research

Understanding Visualization: A Formal Approach using Category Theory and Semiotics

  • Joe Faith
  • Paul Vickers
  • Nick Rossiter
IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics (2012) (to appear)


This article combines the vocabulary of semiotics and category theory to provide a formal analysis of visualization. It shows how familiar processes of visualization fit the semiotic frameworks of both Saussure and Peirce, and extends these structures using the tools of category theory to provide a general framework for understanding visualization in practice, including: relationships between systems, data collected from those systems, renderings of those data in the form of representations, the reading of those representations to create visualizations, and the use of those visualizations to create knowledge and understanding of the system under inspection. The resulting framework is validated by demonstrating how familiar information visualization concepts (such as literalness, sensitivity, redundancy, ambiguity, generalizability, and chart junk) arise naturally from it and can be defined formally and precisely. This article generalizes previous work on the formal characterization of visualization by, inter alia, Ziemkiewicz and Kosara and allows us to formally distinguish properties of the visualization process that previous work does not.

Learn more about how we do research

We maintain a portfolio of research projects, providing individuals and teams the freedom to emphasize specific types of work