Jacques Bertin: Semiology of Graphics

Semiology of Graphics: Diagrams, Networks, Maps by Jacques Bertin was a real eye-opener for me back when I wrote my doctoral thesis about flexible visual systems in communication design. Although Bertin was a cartographer and Semiology of Graphics is a book about the theory of information design, it shows how to build flexible visual systems with graphics like no other book I have read.

Originally published in 1967, the book is divided in two parts. Part one synthesises the principles of graphic communication where the logic of standard rules is applied to writing and topography. In part two, Bertin demonstrates how to use the variable shapes, orientation, colour, texture, volume and size in an array to visualise data. The applications presented are diagrams and maps. As mentioned earlier, Bertin’s approach focuses on information design and the visualisation of data, but to me, he simultaneously provides an important lesson about the balance between diversity and coherence of visual elements; a key problem when developing flexible systems for visual identities.

On one hand, a visual identity needs to be visually coherent in order to be recognisable. On the other hand, it needs diversity to adapt to the different contexts of application. Bertin’s systemic approach also connects with generative design. It defines variables and their behaviour – such as scale, rotation, brightness and so on – and assigns value to each of these elements. The book is able to teach and inspire graphic, information and generative design, and being from the 1960s is also something special.