VDS Digest

A weekly roundup of the visual press.

Composition VIII—Kandinsky (1923)

The Nested Blocks and Guidelines Model (VDS Learning 2/4)

By undefined, Dec 11 2023

The Nested Blocks and Guidelines Model

Structuring the design process may be the hardest part of any data project.

Last week, I introduced this 4-parts series about research & information design with Daniel Keim’s seminal paper, “Visual Analytics: Scope & Challenges”: A flowchart for "Visual Analytics", from data to knowledge with two branches: visualization (user interaction) and models (parameters refinement)

Defining Visual Analytics is a daunting task, as its scope is as vast as human knowledge and spans from biology to automotive design.

However, Visual Analytics is first-and-foremost a design process, and as such aims to place the user at its center. The “nested blocks” model first proposed by Munzner has turned to be one of the most influential paper in infovis, for it provides a systematic framework for tackling ill-defined real-world problems with a focus on visual representations.

4 nested blocks: Domain situation / Data & Tasks abstraction / Visual encoding & Interactions / Algorithms

This model for visualization design and validation comes with four layers, most useful in the conduct of data-intensive projects with a focus on visual representations:

  • characterize the task and data in the vocabulary of the problem domain,
  • abstract into data types and operations,
  • design visual encoding and interaction techniques, and
  • pick algorithms to create the visual layout

The abstraction layer answers "why", through actions and targets From Visualization Analysis and Design (Tamara Munzner, 2014)

Munzner’s original work has been cited over a thousand times, attesting to its significance in academia. It serves as a crucial framework

Meyer et al (2015) extend Munzner’s model by introducing the concepts of blocks and guidelines between and within levels: The four layers of the model: domain, abstraction, technique, algorithm. Arrows between-level and within-level are guidelines.

  • Blocks are the concrete outcomes of the design process at each layer,

They are a task description, a data schema, a visual encoding, or an algorithm.

  • Guidelines are the relationships between blocks How a task informs the data abstraction, or how a visual encoding supports an interaction technique.

This framework can help structure the design process, communicate the design rationale, and evaluate the design quality.

An exemplary illustration offering a comprehensive account of a Visual Analytics project in the automotive domain is “RelEx: Visualization for Actively Changing Overlay Network Specifications”, by Sedlmair et al. (2012, see on IEEE).

The model applied to "RelEx", in the automotive domain. The data layer is an "overlay network", and the task is "traffic optimization". The work is compared to previous work in social network analysis, where the data is a simple directed graph and the task is cluster identification.

However, delving deeper into this topic would be preempting next week’s discussion on “design studies” and the invaluable lessons they offer.

Stay tuned for more insights!

On the Spiritual in Art—Wassily Kandinski

Such notions of “blocks” and “guidelines” I have met in numerous fields, whenever one problem can be abstracted and typical solutions provided for reuse.

Since “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander, many fields built upon this notion of “design patterns”, a few of them being game design, typography, information design, screenwriting, journalism, harmony analysis…

A mosaic of squares with empty blocks to illustrate "Positive Outdoor Space" by Christopher Alexander in "A Pattern Language" illustration of Christopher Alexander’s ‘Positive Outdoor Space’ by Matt Noiseux

Such building blocks or design patterns can be reassembled at will.

One artist akin to finding them in his field was Wassily Kandinski (1866-1944). Like Mayan hieroglyphs are composed from individual components arranged in a square, Kandinski’s pieces are made of shapes and colors he used to speak what he intended to be the language of the soul.

A grid of 30 squares, each containing unique abstract black lines and shapes on a white background, showcasing various forms and designs that represent Kandinsky's exploration of visual language. Thirty (Wassily Kandinski, 1937)

Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque, Mexico Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque, Mexico (Wikimedia)

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VIII (1923) In the annals of human knowledge, no artist delved as enthusiastically into the profound connections between music and visual art as Wassily Kandinsky.

Ever since his synesthetic encounter with Wagner’s Lohengrin, Kandinsky has elevated music to the pinnacle of his artistic vision. Regarded as the least material of the arts, music transcends superficial representational objectives and instead articulates an innermost truth.

Kandinsky’s deep connection to music is underscored even in the titles he bestowed upon his most renowned works: ‘Impressions,’ ‘Improvisations,’ and ‘Compositions.’

1923 Circles in a Circle Kandinski’s obsessive search for a visual vocabulary was driven by the spiritual resonance that music imparts to the human soul.

Analogous to a musician mastering scales, Kandinsky adeptly mastered forms and colors, drawing from this rich palette to fuel his creative endeavors.

Every work of art comes into being in the same way as the cosmos-by means of catastrophes, which ultimately create out of the cacophony of the various instruments that symphony we call the music of the spheres. The creation of the work of art is the creation of the world.—Reminiscences, 1913

Each letter with arrows showing flows of energy. For example, in the letter "O", a force from the center is pushing outward.

Principle of opposition in logotypes. Principle of opposition in logotypes (from “The Art of Typography”, Martin Solomon, 1986)

The Principles of Design

Diving into “The Art of Typography” by Martin Solomon (1986) revealed a surprising similarity in the vocabulary shared across different design practices.

Solomon outlined six “Principles of Design,” including Relationship, Transition, Repetition, Opposition, Priority, and Position.

The list bears strong resemblance to the “rules of harmony” outlined in a 1896 book on image composition. Opposition, transition, repetition, and subordination (or relationship) appear in both.

For each year, balanced curves above and under the horizontal axe will represent the number of letters written by Engle (below in red) or Marx (above in blue). The higher the curve the bigger the number of letters. Above or under the curves can be colored circles whether the authors published a book. The circle is green if the work is written by both of them, appears both above and under the curves and is connected with a dashed line. (Principle of Symmetry: top) Cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris. bottom) Correspondance between Marx and Engels, Federica Fragapane)

In essence, whether in visual arts, music, typography, or information design, there exists a common thread—a set of foundational principles that transcend disciplinary boundaries. Recognizing these shared elements can deepen our understanding and application of design across diverse creative fields.


  • Composition: A series of exercises in art structure for the use of students and teachers, Dow, Arthur Wesley (1897)
  • A Nested Model for Visualization Design and Validation, T. Munzner (2009)
  • The nested blocks and guidelines model, Meyer et al. (2013)
  • RelEx: Visualization for Actively Changing Overlay Network Specifications, M. Sedlmair et al. (2012)
  • On The Spiritual in Art, Wassily Kandinski (1911)
  • The Art of Typography, Martin Solomon (1986)

VDS Digest

Brazil’s history was been shaped by a violent process of “whitening” (branqueamento) in the 19th century, an ideology which sought to erase black features from the Brazilian population. Voronoi treemaps show the maternal lineage in Brazil is mostly of African and Native American origin, paternal lineage is predominantly European.

This chart by Diana Yukari, featured on A Folha de Saõ Paulo starkly illustrates how the 19th-century eugenic ideology metamorphosed into a system aimed at erasing African features.

This racialist politics in Brazil is recorded by the painter Modesto Brocos (1895). This portrayal amounts to a negation of African culture, not only in the European attire worn by the female characters, but also in what looks like relief from the grandmother seeing the child white. A Redenção de Cam, Modesto Brocos (1895)

Opening Sequence

A glorious gradient in Reuters: (By Gloria Dickie, Travis Hartman, and Clare Trainor) The opening sequence of Reuters' "The Hottest Year" is an animated gradient with warm colors.

Journey back to the vibrant days of Web 1.0 with a nostalgic flashback featured in The Straits Times—no Bloomberg, but a vibrant tapestry of fully saturated colors. By Alex Lim and Stephanie Adeline. Web 1.0 saturated colors and visual style Data transferred on this page

War Room

In Reuters, always a wide range of visual forms to illustrate the conflict between Gaza and Israel.

By Prasanta Kumar Dutta and Mariano Zafra

In the Washington Post, an elegant detail in the opening where Gaza’s shape is animated like an audio wave. by Carson TerBush. Life under bombardment, with an animated map of Gaza as au audio wave

The New-York Times [1, 2] used an isotype visualization to report about the prisoners and hostages situation (by Elena Shao & Lazaro Gamio)

The New York Times, through isotype visualization by Elena Shao and Lazaro Gamio, reported on the Palestinian prisoners’ release and the hostages’ situation in Gaza. You can explore the detailed coverage in their articles from November 28, 2023 and December 1, 2023. 240 palestinian prisoners and detainees released by Israel

Energy & Global Warming

This advancement of renewables must be accompanied by a slowdown in the exploration and production of coal, oil, and gas, as shown in this area bump chart by Laura Navarro for El País, with absolute values, has smoother curves than this article by Harry Stevens for The Washington Post.

Fascinating correlation between fast food restaurants and revenues (Le Monde):

Bloomberg used familiar grocery displays as shop windows or a ticket to charge them with quantitative meaning. By Reade Pickert and Jennah Haque.

%% by Reade Pickert and Jennah Haque @readep @JennahHaque %%

Next week will be penultimate episode of this installment and I will a the methodology of “design studies”, how it relates to design thinking, and how it spans beyond the limits of academic circles.

Mathieu Guglielmino

VDS Digest

A weekly roundup of the visual press.