| August 17, 2010 4:10 am

Evolution of Abstract ArtOne of my all time favorite charts is entitled “Cubism and Abstract Art.”  It was a lithograph created by Alfred Barr (then director of the Museum of Modern Art) as the catalog cover image for a 1932 exhibit of the same name.

I love the image for three reasons reasons:

  1. It’s simply awesome.  Barr’s chart manages to take 45 years of tumultuous history and condense it down to 13 categories, 80 words and 51 arrows.
  2. The graphic is simultaneously informative, provocative, controversial and insulting.  It stressed the evolution of art at the expense of the people responsible, a significant blow to monumental egos.  Only six artists are even listed by name!
  3. The chart beautifully accomplishes an ambitious goal.  Alfred Barr attempted to map the evolution of artistic ideas and cultural movements, both of which are notoriously difficult to chronicle.  Yet, he manages to provide information about how the trends are related to one another, how they evolved through time, and which influences were internal to the art world (depicted in black) and those which were external (red).

It’s a fantastic example of a concept map, network diagram, and process chart all rolled into one.  (Edward Tufte has a great write up about the chart on page 64 of Beautiful Evidence.)

I was reminded just how fantastic again this morning.

* * *

Through mysterious circumstances (and because I have chronic gift for volunteering myself for things), I have agreed to give an hour long presentation to the local Linux User’s Group about research, writing, typography and design (the same topics covered by the Open Source Writing book).  The subjects work wonderfully for a book because there’s lots to talk about.  You can forage through history, design, culture, and technology.  I’m not sure that they work as well in an hour long presentation, however.

I spent much of today trying to figure out how I could synthesize so much material into an hour and still make it interesting.  While doing so, I was leafing through “Beautiful Evidence” and came across Barr’s chart.  As I was following the various arrows, I realized that Modern Art and the process of writing share a lot in common.  I also realized that Barr’s chart might serve as a good model for organizing my talk.

For that reason, I created a knock-off graphic which attempts to show how research, ideas, notes, and the process of writing are related to the tools we use to do those jobs.  And because I thought the result mildly interesting, I decided to post it.


As you move from top to bottom through the chart, you progress through the various stages of a project.  Important strategic milestones are shown in black, open source tools are shown in red.  Solid arrows show they relate to one another, while dotted lines indicate places where iteration and backtracking might occur.

What do you think?  Am I missing anything important?


5 Responses to “Relational Map: Open Source Writing”

Lucas wrote a comment on August 17, 2010

This is very cool — I love this blog. I’ll respond more after I finish my current writing project.


menelic wrote a comment on August 24, 2010

Hi, I just came across this page via your very helpful omg comment on useful software in ubuntu. Even though I’ve spent only a few minutes here, this site already proves to be a treasure trove for a social science researcher writing his phd on ubuntu. The above chart and your lug presentation are just beautiful Could you please detail your workflow? Did you really just use dia and inkscape? please sare!

Rob Oakes wrote a comment on August 24, 2010

@menelic: Thanks for the kind comment. Yes, I really used Inkscape and Dia. The “inspiration” came from the Abstract Art diagram mentioned in the article (inspiration is in quotes because I stole the layout, font and colors wholesale).

There was one step where I cheated in the creation of the figure. I was having a hard time getting the font to embed correctly. So, I used Adobe Illustrator to generate the black/white PDF version that was eventually included in the presentation slides.

The chart uses the Futura font. So, that’s what I used to design the slides in Scribus. (Because Futura is a proprietary font, I substituted Liberation Sans for the template released in the other article.) While I initially tried red with a gray background, I liked the look of the white on black better; which is what I eventually ended up using.

Dener L. Silva wrote a comment on February 7, 2012

Hello M. Oakes, it’s a big pleasure to read your ‘amount of delighting ideas’ that you call your blog. I really loved this chart because it help us to understand a kind of way to achieve the goal. Well, if you can became it better I just will remember Mendeley is not a 100% opensource program; in addition to organize is, to me and I suppose its still for you, one of the first steps them I will put it at the bottom, and will joint the so helpful Kdissert/semantic program, a most to have.

Rob Oakes wrote a comment on February 8, 2012

Hi Dener,

Thank you very much for the kind regards and comment. I also realize that Mendeley is not 100% open source. I included it because, at the time that the chart was created (2009), I considered it a vital lynchpin in the research/references branch of the workflow.

Since version 3.0, Zotero finally has a stand-alone client and LyZ (a plugin for LyX/LaTeX users) picks up a lot of slack that Mendeley used to cover. With all that said, Mendeley is a fantastic piece of software and you really can’t go wrong using it.



Care to comment?