The dashed line in use

In previous work I have advocated for the use of dashed lines, my paper for Mobile HCI 2006 [pdf] represents Touch-based interactions with dashed lines, and work on ubicomp iconography uses the dashed line to represent borders, or seams.

I’ve had trouble justifying my excitement about this intricate visual detail, so I thought it would be good to collect a bunch of examples from over fifty years of information design history, to show it as a powerful visual element in ubicomp situations.

Even though the dashed line has emerged from a designer’s shorthand and from the limitations of monotone printing techniques, it has a clear and simple visual magic, the ability to express something three- or four-dimensional in two dimensions.

The dashed line as hidden geometry

The dashed line

The dashed lineThe dashed line

Examples from Open Here: The Art of Instructional Design, Paul Mijksenaar, Piet Westendorp, 1999.

The dashed line as movement

The line is used to indicate temporal positions:

The dashed line

The dashed lineThe dashed lineThe dashed lineThe dashed lineThe dashed lineThe dashed line

Examples from Open Here: The Art of Instructional Design, Paul Mijksenaar, Piet Westendorp, 1999.

The dashed line as paths

Very similar to the representations of movement, but the line is used as the path itself:

The dashed line

The dashed lineThe dashed lineThe dashed lineThe dashed lineThe dashed lineThe dashed line

Examples from Open Here: The Art of Instructional Design, Paul Mijksenaar, Piet Westendorp, 1999.

A more modern image showing an overview of Auto ID RFID supply chain management, by Xplane:

xplane_autoid_epc_web.gif

Colin Ware defines dashed, dotted or wavy lines as linking lines:

“A linking line between entities represents some kind of relationship between them. A line linking closed contours can have different colours or other graphical qualities such as waviness, and this effectively represents an attribute or type of relationship.”

The dashed line

From the perceptual syntax of diagrams in Information Visualisation: Perception for Design, Colin Ware, 1999.

The dashed line as expectation

Ellipsis from Mac OS X interface

I’ve spoken to some people that have made an association between the dashed line and an ellipsis. This example is taken from the Mac OS X interface, conventionally used to indicate that the action will be followed by another action.

The dashed line as ephemeral material

The dashed line

The dashed lineThe dashed line

Examples from Open Here: The Art of Instructional Design, Paul Mijksenaar, Piet Westendorp, 1999.

The dashed line as border or seams

map_symbols_web.gif

orienteering_symbols.gif

map_symbols_web2.gif

mapsymb.jpg

The dashed line

A table of commonly used conventions from Information Graphics, Robert Harris, 1996.

Other examples

The dashed line

This is an example of dashed lines in information design from The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward Tufte, 1983. I get the sense that Tufte prefers a simple, solid line, considering the overuse of patterns a form of chart-junk:

The dashed line

And lastly, an interesting thought from a conversation with Dave Gray, of Xplane and Communication nation:

“I think of lines: double-line, solid, dashed, dotted Similar to typeface conventions such as black, bold, regular, light. It’s a matter of emphasis. The thicker and more solid the line, the stronger the emphasis. A dotted line usually does not indicate “cut here” unless it is combined with a scissors icon. I think that trying to make a direct connection between the dashed line and what it represents may be a red herring. Think of a map, for example: Whether type is bold, all caps, or light relates directly to the designer’s decisions about emphasis, but I am not sure it relates so directly to the subject matter. There are a few direct correlations of this type: for example, type representing water is usually set in italic. I like your use of the dashed line – it is clear that they serve as a guide and invitation to “place things there”.”

Related things:

  1. The dashed line I can trace my enthusiasm for the dashed line back to this poster in Norway. The poster advertises the multiple ways of submitting your tax return: via SMS, internet or post. Something resonated here,......
  2. From ubicomp to service design Mike Kuniavsky presented at ETech 2009 on the Dotted-Line World on the links between ubiquitous computing and service design, where subscription-based services are based on everyday objects. (I’m a big fan of dotted or......
  3. Wireless in the world An ongoing Touch theme is about making invisible wireless technologies visible, in order to better understand and communicate with and about them (see a Graphic Language for RFID, Dashed lines and Fictional radio spaces).......
  4. Images of touch interfaces I’m happy to say that with great contributions from Nicolas Nova, Matt Jones and many others, the pool of images of ‘touch interfaces’ on Flickr is growing nicely. I originally asked for contributions in......
  5. A graphic language for RFID This is a design brief, one of many themes that the Touch project is investigating. RFID is being used for an increasing number of interactions with everyday infrastructures. From travelcards, keyless entry, passports and......

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21 Comments

  1. Posted 28 September 2006 at 18:52 | Permalink

    This is really sound Timo; you should go further and develop those insights in a book “in the mood for dashed lines” or sth. And I am dead serious, there is a lot to draw from you discuss here (and a niche that Tufte did not seem to have tackled ;) ).

    Specifically, I am intrigued by dashed lines in real space (leading people to a certain trails) with different levels of spaces between the lines; and of course the relation between dashed lines and elephant paths.

    What about dashed lines as scalpel lines?

    I’d love to see dashed lines on the back of my computer with the curious part that I cannot see (position of the wifi card, the hard drive and the Ram): the stuff I may need to change and that I have to no cue about their positions.

  2. Posted 29 September 2006 at 17:37 | Permalink

    I love these examples you’ve posted. The dashed line is indeed (erm) dashing!
    My pal Rob Cruickshank tells me to remind you of the dashed lines used to indicate direction of a gaze in comic books. Not done as often these days, more of a vintage comic thing.

  3. IH
    Posted 29 September 2006 at 21:35 | Permalink

    ... and don’t forget the dashed line classic - coupon outlines [with obligatory scissors clip art]!

  4. Ugo
    Posted 29 September 2006 at 21:43 | Permalink

    Great topic, funny how we forget how that dashed line is seen avery day for every and any thing almost.

    another example, following MK’s comment, in comic books, the speech bubble is not solid but dashed to indicate thoughts or soomeone talking under his breath.

    U

  5. Giusto
    Posted 30 September 2006 at 0:55 | Permalink

    Looking to the environment in which we navigate … dashed lines are also paths to follow. They can get us to the appropriate wing of the hospital (some dashed some solid) and they keep us in our lanes while driving.

    Thanks for this great post.

  6. Neale
    Posted 30 September 2006 at 17:47 | Permalink

    Although, the dashed line is nowhere near as flexible as the un-dashed line.

  7. Posted 30 September 2006 at 23:56 | Permalink

    Also there is the dashed line as indication of folded paper, such as in origami instructions.

  8. Posted 1 October 2006 at 1:38 | Permalink

    Excellent Timo. Also, don’t forget the classic comic book convention of the dashed line as the line of sight between the main character’s eyes and the object he/she is looking at. It always seemed to be used in the sense of suddenly having observed a desired target (a good looking girl across the street, a hidden bomb, money, food, etc).

    Interesting that often now the “observer” is omitted from pictograms, with only the focal object in view. Does this say something about context?

  9. miked
    Posted 2 October 2006 at 0:37 | Permalink

    In autocad the dashed line is also called a “phantom line” and it is used to indicate a range of motion or multiple positions i.e. complete arc of a door in a plan view of a house.

    Great article, keep it up!

  10. Posted 2 October 2006 at 2:27 | Permalink

    I think I’m up ut to a few billion dots…..
    I use them in almost all of my artwork and design.
    Thanks for such an informative and entertaining piece.
    .............................................
    Keep it perforated YO!
    _Matt

  11. nk21
    Posted 4 October 2006 at 22:01 | Permalink

    sorry, an elipses is not a dashed line… it is three periods.

  12. Timo
    Posted 5 October 2006 at 7:52 | Permalink

    An ellipsis is as much a dashed line as it reminds people of dashed lines.

  13. Posted 5 October 2006 at 12:07 | Permalink

    ///////////////////////
    ————————————————
    ==============
    ++++++++++++++++++
    ........................................
    __________________
    ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::
    “”“”“”“”“”“”“”“”“”“”“”“”“””

    flavours

  14. Posted 5 October 2006 at 22:49 | Permalink

    Long live the lovely dotted line. I work in web design and I often find myself using deashed lines to help break up a page without adding too much weight. Also, we have a dashed line running along the middle of the road, something to follow, a boundry, taking us to new places…

  15. Posted 7 October 2006 at 21:57 | Permalink

    Timo,

    This is a beautiful and elegant visual essay. Thank you for putting it together; it’s a treat, pure delight!

  16. John Dinger
    Posted 8 October 2006 at 5:34 | Permalink

    Aviation sectional maps take dashed lines to a new level. I believe the cartographer feels he must use every one ever created.

  17. Posted 14 August 2007 at 18:46 | Permalink

    Excellent!!!

  18. Posted 17 August 2007 at 0:15 | Permalink

    Famous ! I love dashes :)

  19. Posted 29 August 2008 at 12:19 | Permalink

    OMG, Huge work! Respect from designwar =)

  20. Posted 2 January 2009 at 0:43 | Permalink

    Great work! Here is another use:

    The dashed line as indicator of cuts of meat

    this essay is heavily referenced in my own blogpost on the same subject:
    http://www.citizenpowered.org/content/dotted-line

  21. Paul
    Posted 18 February 2009 at 14:09 | Permalink

    A good example of the dotted line as a key information element used to indicate an expected repsonse to a conditon or set of circumstances is found in aircraft manuals, where many precise combinations of circumstances and corresponding actions are printed or displayed in the “Challenge/Response” format, e,g,
    MAX FLT TIME…............................................................................5 HOURS

29 Trackbacks

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  7. By Furballs on 5 October 2006 at 6:49

    [...] All the above is a lead in to my latest discovery on the web, a page by Timo dedicated to the dashed line, of which ellipsis are a family member. I’ve had trouble justifying my excitement about this intricate visual detail, so I thought it would be good to collect a bunch of examples from over fifty years of information design history, to show it as a powerful visual element in ubicomp situations. [...]

  8. By Nordic Design Blog » links for 2006-10-08 on 8 October 2006 at 7:23

    [...] The dashed line in use · Touch (tags: design illustration visualization diagrams information communication reference)                [...]

  9. [...] Touch is a research project looking at the intersections between the digital and the physical. Its aim is to explore and develop new uses for RFID, NFC and mobile technology in areas such as retail, public services, social and personal communication. [...]

  10. [...] Timo Arnall is doing a research project that involves researching the use of the dashed line. Touch is a research project looking at the intersections between the digital and the physical. Its aim is to explore and develop new uses for RFID, NFC and mobile technology in areas such as retail, public services, social and personal communication. [...]

  11. By ArchiSpass » Blog Archive » Dashed Line on 5 November 2006 at 12:46

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  19. [...] The dashed line in use In Grafikdesign gibt es mehr Ansatzmöglichkeiten für die gestrichelte Linie, als Sie vielleicht vermuten. Dieser Beitrag präsentiert die meisten davon. [...]

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  29. By TNW Polska on 10 August 2010 at 1:50

    [...] nas technologię i nauczyli się komunikować z nią i o niej (a Graphic Language for RFID, Dashed lines i Fictional radio spaces).. Jeżeli interesuje Was tematyka RFID to tutaj znajdziecie nie [...]

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