How do we visualise branches of knowledge?

This question is answered by the subtitle of “The Book of Trees” by Manuel Lima. I’m reviewing this as part of my 2021 project to review 20+ books on my shelves – a combination of those that are unread, and those that are brand new. For me, The Book of Trees falls into the first category. I already have the Book of Circles from Manuel Lima. It’s no secret that I love this book – I reviewed it, not as part of the formal reviews I am undertaking this year, but back in 2017 when I first bought it. You can see my reveiew on this blog right here.

Back in 2017 I bought the Book of Circles for all the obvious reasons. I loved circular visualisations and was drawn to the history, impact and geometry of the visualisations in the book. I was always aware that Manuel Lima had previously released a Book of Trees book too. I felt I had to buy the book – it had to be good, right? But I haven’t really tried to visualise in tree format or been quite as struck by visualisations that do. I consigned it to the shelves with every intention of reading it “soon”!

Now I’ve belatedly read through the book – in part because of my often-restated desire to be better at reading the books on my shelves, but in part because I am attempting a tree style visualisation of my own. My good friend in the Tableau Community (you know who you are!) and I are looking through an interesting dataset with the idea of visualising it in the form of a tree (and I’m only being vague and anonymous here in case the project never gets of the ground – if that’s the case it will be my fault and not hers!) This book is the obvious source of inspiration and next choice for my reviews of 2021.

So the easiest thing for me to do would be to look back on my “circles” review and basically recreate that in a similar format in this post. But that would be lazy. However, on reflection, that’s almost exactly what I am going to do! And the reasons for this are simple – there are a lot more similarities between the books than I realised. And the upshot is that this book is every bit as informative and joyful to read through as its companion book, but my preference for circles over trees meant that it took me a few years to realise that. These facts should have been obvious, or at least unsurprising, but you can’t learn anything about the contents of a book while it’s closed!

The (closed) Book of Trees – Manuel Lima

What I loved about the Book of Circles was its content page, which also acted as a really convenient taxonomy of all the circular chart types. And the Book of Trees has exactly the same thing which is every bit as useful. Perhaps even more so, because it’s here that I realised that the tree element of many of the images is more metaphorical. These charts are, as described in the book’s subtitle (and this blog post’s title), looking at branches of information. So we see a wide variety of types, from tree-style visuals through radial trees to tree maps and even sunburst charts. So it’s actually quite pleasing to see a crossover between the two books where the radial forms are considered. This therefore leads to a particularly wide range (and large collection) of charts, visualisations and images as inspiration, or just to consume for pleasure.

Contents – the taxonomy of trees

And as a flavour of its content – see below for two sample images. The first from mediaeval times shows a tree structure to represent family relationships, and the second from modern times is a radially stylised image. Both are similar in that they represent family “branches” but are worlds apart in design (with different categories in the taxonomy above).

Also, like the Book of Circles, we don’t dive straight into the images. Similarly, we devote a decent sized introduction to the symbolism and significance of trees. It’s unsurprising to learn that they have been revered in many religions and cultures for as long as we have evidence of civilisation. The significance of growth, strength, life and resurrection is not hard to imagine. But Lima also mentions that trees have signified law, heritage, society, multiplicity and many other metaphors. Their presence throughout our lives makes them prevalent throughout art, and it all goes to remind me that when I talk or present on design and inspiration, as I am wont to do, that I always recommend taking data visualisation inspiration from what is around us, whether it is art, science, pattern or the natural world. And there is no more obvious example of inspiration from the natural world than images inspired by trees.

If, like me, you love the Book of Circles, you’ll love this book. And you might not have realised that you only had half of a great collection of inspirational works. Your Manuel Lima collection isn’t complete without the Book of Trees as well.

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