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Master statistician weaves Google images into visual quilts

A visionary statistician shares a free tool for data visualization

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Gallery Photo: ImageQuilts gallery
Gallery Photo: ImageQuilts gallery

Edward Tufte is a master of his field. The celebrated statistician is an information design and data-visualization expert, known for his many writings on the subject including Envisioning Information and Visual Explanations, which pioneered the idea that visuals were of the upmost importance when communicating ideas and information.

A vocal opponent against broadly used visualization tools like PowerPoint, Tufte discourages the use of decorative visuals when displaying data, arguing that they can distort and editorialize the facts. His writings have informed and inspired a generation of statisticians and designers alike, and now he's collaborated with software engineer Adam Schwartz to share a free web-app with the rest of us.

ImageQuilts is a Chrome extension that acts as a plug-in for Google Images. After installing the app, you'll see a new button appear above your image-search results, prompting you to make an ImageQuilt. Clicking on the button jumps you into an intuitive interface that lets you build a collage based on the results of your search. There are lots of customization options: you can change the image size, and order; zoom into images; remove images; and also choose between grayscale, inverted, or full-color displays. After tinkering around with the settings and removing irrelevant images, you're left with a coherent (and hopefully attractive) collage that represents your chosen subject.

There are some great examples of how powerful ImageQuilts can be over at the plug-in's website, but we've put a few of their examples together with a few of our own below. As you'll notice, some are more successful than others; but when choosing an architect, designer, or artist, ImageQuilts does a superb job of capturing their essence.

The same can (generally) be said for simple phrases and nouns, such as "scrap metal dumping" or "candy," but when searching for products you'll often get a mess of concepts and press shots mixed in with images that Google Images has pulled from news articles, making the job of curating the collage a little cumbersome. There's also no simple way to export or share your collages — you'll have to just take a screenshot of the results.

Complaints aside, ImageQuilts is a great tool for summarizing and organizing visual data. A viewer scanning over, for example, an artist's ImageQuilt will quickly understand what they're about. Tufte suggests that viewers will often learn more about a topic from ImageQuilts than conventional search results.

ImageQuilts gallery


'Subatomic particle collisions'

ImageQuilts is available free of charge from the Chrome Web Store.