Student Spotlight: Melanie Wang
Melanie Wang recently completed her Master of Design degree at the University of Washington School of Art, where she focused on data visualization and generative design. Her project "Things, bridges, and towers" caught our eye, so we reached out to Melanie for a closer look.
Tell us about "Things, bridges, and towers."
"Things, bridges, and towers" is a project that maps basic syntax structures in literature. I had a hunch that certain books were really memorable to me, not just for the plot and character, but because they had a strong sense of pacing — actions or emotions seemed to accelerate at certain moments in the story. I was curious if this sense of pacing was related to changes in sentence structure. For example, a book that mostly used long, winding sentences might become increasingly staccato – or, vice versa, a book that had short, concise sentences might start to ramble – to emphasize key points in the narrative arc. By translating an entire book into a map of its sentence structures, I wanted to see if I could call out those moments.
What processes, techniques, and/or tools were used or which ones were most helpful for the project?
I used a natural language programming parser developed by the Stanford Natural Language Processing Group to identify clauses, and I wrote a program in Processing to draw the maps. The parser and Processing were both essential to the project. I could draw patterns of shorter excerpts of text by hand, but I would not be able to map entire books without using a program.
What were some of the challenges you encountered and how did you overcome them?
The biggest challenge was that I needed to learn Processing in a few months, and I’d never coded before. I took a class offered as an elective in my design program, and I relied heavily on a few books and the processing.org website. The other technical challenge was cleaning up the marked up text created by the parser.
What books did you choose to visualize and why?
I wanted a range of authors commonly known to have distinct styles, so I chose to visualize To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It was important to me to choose authors who were widely read and books that I had read. The project wasn’t saying anything new about these authors (Woolf and stream-of-consciousness, Pynchon’s elaborate sentences and puns, and McCarthy and short, simple sentences) — it just shows visually how that style changes over the course of a book. I added Invisible Man because the momentum of the opening passage has stuck with me since I read it as a high school student, and Harry Potter was included as a kind of a control for the whole experiment.
What insight or understanding about the books and their grammatical patterns did you gain through the project?
The project showed that some books have a consistent style throughout, such as To the Lighthouse and The Road. It also showed that some styles we consider characteristic of an author are actually used sparingly. So for The Crying of Lot 49, much of the writing does not use complex sentences; however, it’s the 100-word sentences that we remember. (There are several sentences in that book that were over 300 words long.) What was also interesting is that from a distance the patterns of Invisible Man and Harry Potter look similar, even though the subject matter of these books was so different.
The project is your thesis for the Master in Design program at the University of Washington. What from your educational program ended up being most valuable in your creation of this project (i.e. a particular class, teacher, or skill)?
Several design classes were essential in teaching me foundations needed for this project: publication design with Professor Annabelle Gould, information design with Professor Karen Cheng, and computational design (the Processing course) with Professor Tad Hirsch. These professors also comprised my thesis committee and their input was essential. Outside of the design program, I took a course called "Digital Textuality" taught by Professor Brian Reed, which examines textual theory in relation to new media. The course was really amazing, and discussed topics way beyond the scope of my project, and Professor Reed was really helpful as a sounding board.
What is the next infographic you might be working on now or want to work on in the future?
I’d like to refine this project to break down the content into chapters and paragraphs and to add other visualizations. I’d also like to expand the project to look at rhetorical devices, but I would need to work with a linguist and a programmer to make that happen.