Spatial Metaphors in Graphic Displays

Barbara Tversky, Department of Psychology, Stanford University

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University April 22, 1994


Long before there was written language, there were pictures, maps, tallies, cave paintings, and depictions of sayings, legends, and songs. Writing began as pictures, and gradually developed sound indicators. Depictions are compelling: they are easy to produce and easy to read.

Graphic representations form a continuum, from those, like maps, that are essentially miniaturizations of visual things to those, like graphs, that are visualizations of non-visual things. Studies of children's graphic inventions and of historical examples reveal provocative parallels in the ways that elements and spatial relations among elements are used to convey meaning. Communalities in the expression of some abstract concepts and relations across children and across cultures, in depictions as well as in language and gesture, suggest that these are cognitively appealing and natural.


Barbara Tversky is a professor of psychology at Stanford. She studied cognitive psychology at the University of Michigan and taught at Hebrew University in Jerusalem before coming to Stanford. She started working on visual and spatial cognition early on because the prevailing view was that that visual and spatial things could all be explained by words or propositions. This led to studying a variety of topics, picture memory, cognitive maps, categorization, eye witness memory, spatial thinking and reasoning, spatial language, and visual and spatial representations on paper instead of in the mind.


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