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Jacques Bertin’s Semiology of Graphics
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 84]

The work of Jacques Bertin, embodied in the theory of graphic representation, set in the 60s the principles of the semiology of graphics, indispensable to thoroughly understand the visual language.

Semiologie.jpg (32435 bytes)
Cover of the book "Semiologie graphique" by Jacques Bertin.
Click on the image to enlarge it.

Finally I’ve been able to get a copy of the book “Semiologie Graphique” by Jacques Bertin, lent for a week thanks to the good offices of the Library of the University. While reading it I’m comfortably waiting for the arrival of my personal copy.

For this book, edited for the first time in 1967, is one of the classical works of graphical visualisation. Finding a reprinted version of it in English is not an easy task. We must thank the L’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris for the 1999 French reprint as part of their “Les Re-impressions” collection.

It’s worth noting that a book that should have a place in the Library of anybody interested in the topic, is today very difficult to acquire and even access, especially in its English version.

Digressions apart, Bertin’s work, formally educated in cartography, stands out for its formal rigour and constitutes, for many people, a monumental one that is to graphics what the Mendeleev periodic element table is to Chemistry. That is, the organisation of the visual and perceptual components of the graphics according the features and relations between the data. 

Serge Bonin, who worked for many years with Bertin, explains that in the graphics lab they used to help the researchers that came with last minute drawings for their publications. They noticed that almost nobody looked at them and even less people understood those graphics. 

This situation forced them to decide between just redrawing with their expert hands what they were asked to and trying to analyse and understand the drawing’s contents, rebuild the data table and recreate the graphic pursuing the quick and easy understanding of the information and the appearance of visually relevant information. 

In the same way that other researches have done later in the environment of graphics, the quest for the reason of the ineffectiveness of the same lead them to reflect on how to make graphics in a way that could render them useful, identifying their visual variables and finding the rules to build graphics properly. 

Semiology, proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure, is the science that studies the signs used in communication. Linguistics is one of the fundamental parts of semiology. So, the research of Bertin and his group had them facing the definition of the study of the visual signs along with their “grammatical” rules.

The basis of Bertin’s work is the acknowledgement that (in the words of Serge Bonin) “graphics is a set of signs that allow you to transcribe the existing relations of difference, order or proportionality amongst qualitative or quantitative data”. Bertin restricts the field of semiology of graphics, excluding musical notation, language and mathematics, systems “bound to the temporal linearity”.

Among the systems aimed at the visual sense, that, unlike hearing, is non sequential (we can look at whatever part of the picture, but a song has a start and a finish), he discards symbolics and art, the meanings of which depend on the relationships between the signs and are, hence, disputable. This way what remains finally is the “rational part” of the visual signs, that can be structured with a determined grammar.

Graphic representation has a double function for Bertin: as an artificial memory and as a tool for discovery, bound to the huge power of visual perception.

It is, at the end, a seminal work that has influenced a great deal of the work in this field, and with the arrival of the PC, a fair amount of years later has opened up, as Bertin himself said, unlimited possibilities.

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