The utilitarian function of images: railroads, anatomy, and drosophila

Posted on 02/06/2011 by


When do images have a purely utilitarian function?  Reading through Edward Tufte’s Envisioning Information (an incredible book that I recommend to virtually every social scientist, available on here and via the author’s site here. Really. The images are nice, but his writing is fantastic), I came across a series of railway tables:

(Timetable for Java Railroad line, 1937. In Tufte 1990)

As Tufte notes, the image is busy, complicated, and difficult to read.  Yet it also encodes a massive amount of information. Certainly for the railway operators it served a very utilitarian purpose.  I think most would say, however, that these facts detract from its aesthetic quality.

What I find interesting in these visuals is the fact that I can honestly say I have no idea what is going on.  I mean, really no idea.

But it obviously served a purpose for someone.  So if it doesn’t serve a utilitarian purpose for me, then I guess it may be closer to purely aesthetic, i.e. closer to art than we first admitted. So lets look at more conventional rail maps:

(China Railway Timetable, Railway Ministry of the People’s Republic of China (Beijing, April 1985), index 4. “The numbers along the route lines are page numbers, showing where to look up the detailed schedule for that route.” In Tufte 1990)

Again, via Tufte (1990) we see another map with a similarly clear function (finding our way around China), but a less clear utilitarian form.  It reminds me of certain tree maps that I have featured in earlier posts as visual masterpieces.  So what’s going on here?

Here’s Seoul‘s metro map.  It is also very busy, but now colorful, and kind of…well, artistic.  It serves a function, guiding us through the city, but also captures our attention and engages us.

In a data visualization project I was involved with while working at the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, I kind of dealt with this issue by adding another dimension to the lines: color (for railway continuity), size of dots (for city hub size), and line thickness (for importance/usage).  This just encoded more information in the image…but did not make it any more difficult to read.

(Difficult to read. Operation diagram for 12:00 noon, July 25, 1985, Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen Lines (bullet train), Japanese National Railroad control room, Tokyo. In Tufte 1990)

Thinking about that information-encoding conundrum, maybe its just a question of audience, in that some of these maps are for individuals who are acclimated to their form of visual data encoding, and some are for an audience that needs to access them for travel purposes.  Simple.  But I think there is also an element of art.  Consider Da Vinci’s anatomy sketches: in one sense, they are really just a technical manual for dissection, although most viewers today approach them as pure art.

(via Visit them for a good source of classical images of the human form)

In the same sense, flipping through an issue of Science and similar journals yields some pretty esoteric–and rather artistic–images:

(Via Mathur et al. 2010)

That are nonetheless functional and utilitarian to others.

Just something to think about.


Mathur et al. 2010. A Transient Niche Regulates the Specification of Drosophila Intestinal Stem Cells. Science 327(5962): 210–213. Available at

Tufte, Edward. 1990. Envisioning Information. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.


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graphic timetable for a Java railroad line,

Soerabaja-Djokjakarta, drawn in November 1937 (annotated in Dutch,

then in Japanese).