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The Re-Emergence of Emotional Appeals in Interactive Data Visualization

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Purpose: I argue that emotional appeals, prevalent in charts and graphs during the later nineteenth century but largely dormant since then, have rapidly re-emerged in contemporary data visualization. Changing the relationship between designer and user, this new form of data design has intensified the affective impact of data displays by eliciting emotions ranging from excitement and empathy to anxiety and fear.

Methods: This article draws on historical and contemporary sources to build its case. It gives an overview of emotional appeals in the rhetorical tradition, from Aristotle to modern theorists like George Campbell, who emphasized sensory responses through personalization and proximity. The article provides an historical overview of pathos appeals in data design during the later nineteenth century and the shift to modernist minimalism in the twentieth century. Contemporary examples from companies, nonprofits, government agencies, and individual designers illustrate how data visualization arouses emotion.

Results: Emotional appeals during the nineteenth century focused primarily on color and design novelty, which, by appealing largely to the senses, fostered emotional responses such as excitement and curiosity. Contemporary data visualization makes similar emotional appeals through the use of color, novelty, and multimodal features; however, digital technology also allows designers to appeal to the emotions by personalizing displays through interactivity, spatial and temporal proximity, and aesthetic and expressive elements.

Conclusion: Pathos (emotional) appeals have become an integral part of contemporary data visualization, largely because of the multimodal and interactive affordances of digital technology. Designers who understand this dimension of data design can deploy technology to make their displays more engaging, humane, and usable.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: May 1, 2016

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  • Technical Communication, the Society's journal, publishes articles about the practical application of technical communication theory and serves as a common arena for discussion by practitioners. Technical Communication includes both quantitative and qualitative research while showcasing the work of some of the field's most noteworthy writers. Among its most popular features are the helpful book reviews. Technical Communication is published quarterly and is free with membership.
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