Visual Cadence

Cadence is something that's hard to define, harder to do, but easy to recognize. There's a plethora of definitions online, each highlighting slightly different features. However, they all deal with pacing, rhythm, and the beauty of the sounds in a text. 

A good example is in Donnie Darko, where Drew Barrymore (playing Karen Pommeroy), recalls a linguist stating that "...of all the phrases in the English language...that Cellar Door is the most beautiful." Even though it's a short phrase, one could say that Cellar Door has a beautiful cadence. In fact, there's an entire Wikipedia article about writers and linguists commenting on the beauty of the phrase Cellar Door

Matthew Arnold provides an example of an eloquent cadence in his poem Dover Beach. As you're listening (and reading along), notice the tendency for punctuation to break up the lines:



First off, I'm not crazy about this reading - I think there are some liberties the reader is taking with some pauses that aren't supported by the text. But, the overall cadence is preserved: a combination of punctuation and line breaks, along with the pronunciation of the words themselves, creates a beautiful pacing. This is because of the combination of line breaks, which create a natural pause (as the eye drops and moves back to the beginning of the next line), and punctuation in the middle of the lines (known as caesura). 

So in the reading, we get something like: 

Phrase,
phrase, short pause, phrase, slight pause,
phrase, long pause, phrase, short pause,
phrase, long pause, phrase, long pause,
etc.

It has been noted that, when read aloud (and perhaps in a fashion truer to the text than the one I found above), the poem actually sounds like waves. We have a sort of back and forth rhythm, but with uneven pauses - much like a wave tumbles in, hesitates, withdraws, and then pauses before another wave rolls in. Of course, waves aren't perfectly regular. The time between waves varies naturally, and then larger rhythms such as tides affect the regularity of waves. We see this in the poem. 

The cadence of this poem accomplishes a couple of things: first, it calls out to a bigger motif the poet is using (waves, leading to the progression of time and history); and second, it forces us to pause at particular moments, which draws a heavier attention to particular words, scenes, and ideas in the poem.

Data visualization can have a cadence, too - a sort of visual cadence. This is an aesthetic around rhythm, repetition, and pacing that can contribute to an overall beauty of the visualization. Visual cadence, much like cadence in poetry, is best shown through an example.

Cadence in data visualization

The aesthetics in the Tableau Public dashboard by Chantilly Jaggernauth below are absolutely stunning.



Much like Dover Beach, cadence is contributing in two major ways here: it creates an overall look and feel that connects to an overall theme, and it draws an attention to particular moments. 

First, notice the two symbols that are frequently used: the sort of "bulls-eye" first seen in the upper left, and the lines that look like heart monitors. Both of these symbols are used in seismology when displaying the magnitude and range of earthquakes. The repetition of these elements continually draws back to the theme of this dashboard in a very beautiful way. This is particularly true of the line chart in the middle, which draws a strong similarity to the repeated "heart-monitor" line chart icon we see through this visualization. 

But more than anything else is the way that line chart divides the entire dashboard: in the top we have strong blue colors, and in the bottom stronger red. This strongly suggests a sort of alignment where the top is the sky and the bottom is the earth, creating a strong representation of a slice of the Earth. To me, it's a very strong, apparent effect that floors me each time I see this dashboard.

The second way cadence contributes to this dashboard is in the way the repeated elements are used to call attention to specific parts of this dashboard. The "bulls-eye" icon is used to highlight specific components of the line chart in the middle, with an annotation that enforces a bit of pacing on the reader (highlighting a natural rhythm in the data). This is a strong element that, more than just an annotation, draws attention to some critical elements I the dashboard. 

When I say visual cadence, it's a bit hard to define. However, this dashboard's got it. Every part contributed to a bigger picture (literally) that echoed the core theme. The cadence through the dashboard established a pace with pauses to allow reflection on specific data points. I didn't want to rush through this dashboard, I wanted to relish it, to let it guide me through this data, and to cherish every new insight it provided. 

When the author's work is so strong that the reader feels like the author is there, guiding the reader/user through their work, that's strong cadence. I feel that in Dover Beach, and I certainly feel it Chantilly Jaggernauth's stellar dashboard. 

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