Designing Effective Bivariate Symbols: The Influence of Perceptual Grouping Processes

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Elisabeth S. Nelson, Associate Professor (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:

Abstract: The purpose of this research was to empirically assess perceptual groupings of various combinations of symbol dimensions (e.g., graphic variables) used in designing bivariate map symbols. Perceptual grouping ability was assessed using the theory of selective attention, a construct first proposed in psychological research. Selective attention theory contends that one's ability to analyze a symbol's dimensions—such as color or size—is affected by other dimensions present in the same symbol. Symbol dimensions are described as either separable (capable of being attended to independently of other dimensions), integral (cannot be processed without interference from other dimensions), or configural (i.e., show characteristics of both integrality and separability, which may also form new, emergent properties). Without empirical evidence describing such interactions for various combinations of symbol dimensions, cartographers cannot truly evaluate the functionality of the symbols they use on maps. The symbol dimensions or graphic combinations chosen for this study were selected to incorporate a wide range of traditional cartographic symbolization, including line and lettering symbolization, areal shading, dot patterns, and point symbols. Combinations were examined in an abstract setting using a speeded classification task, which is the traditional means of studying selective attention. Subject reaction times provided an assessment of the levels of integrality, separability, and configurality. Results suggest that most symbol dimension combinations are either separable or exhibit evidence of asymmetrical dimensional interactions. Findings from this study will be integrated into subsequent experiments, the results of which will assist cartographers in the design of complex map symbols.

Additional Information

Cartography and Geographic Information Science, v. 27(4): 261-278.
Language: English
Date: 2000
Bivariate symbols, Map design, Visual search, Selective attention theory, Perception

Email this document to