What is Visual Encoding? How Can it Be Utilized in Business?

Visual encoding is described as the process of encoding images and visual sensory information. Creating mental pictures is a way people use visual encoding. The process involves temporarily storing visual sensory information in iconic memory before it is encoded into a permanent long-term storage.

In laments terms, it is translating data into a visual element on a chart or map. It needs to be done correctly that other people looking at the material can understand the data you are trying to show.

Encoding visuals is closely tied to data visualization. Encoding is the set of rules that must be followed. A right way of thinking about encoding, is every time you have data change some way, add something visual.

When you know the shape of your data, you can encode its numerous dimensions to appropriate visual properties. Visual encoding is how information is being mapped into optical structures that make it easy for us to understand.  Planar and retinal are the two types of visible encoding variables. People are susceptible to retinal variables as we differentiate colors, shapes, and sizes through our retinas.

Data Types

There are three basic types of data in visual encoding: something you can count, something you can differentiate, their terms are: quantitative, ordered/qualitative, and categorical.

Planar and Retinal Variables

Planar variables are known as x and y-axis. This variable works best with quantitative data. Also it can work for any data, but is best for two variables, when you get into more variables you want to use retinal.

  • Size – Sizes can be differentiated right away. Size is a sound visualizer for quantitative data
  • Orientation – you can identify vertical vs. horizontal lines, but it is hard to use for visual encoding
  • Color Value – color value can be moved around over a scale, it’s a helpful technique to visualized information
  • Color hue – colors are separated into different categories. Red is alarming, green is calm, and blue is peaceful. A rule of thumb is using no more than 12 colors to encode classes. After twelve, it becomes harder to differentiate between categories.

Visual Encoding and Business

You might be doing visual encoding already and are not aware of it. For example, take a standard column chart, its easy for people to understand, but that’s because it’s been encoded in a few different ways to make it easier to understand, such as:

  • Color – every time the category changes the color of the column changes, most popular colors used blue, orange and grey
  • Size – when the number goes up, the columns height increases
  • Groupings – when a month changes, a new cluster of columns is created

There are many ways to encode data in your day to day business, some of these include: size, shape, color, area, saturation, grouping, position, line pattern, angle, connections and line thickness.

Final Thoughts

Think about visual encoding with logic, formulas, and structure to figure out the best way to display your data, so it is easily understandable. Encoding variable power very clear and intelligent visualization when it used correctly.  Remember to be consistent, but essential data in the right order, and to choose encoding that are going to expressive and useful in displaying data that has been encoded correctly.

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