Is it a common mental model, that in a chart visualizing a time dimension, the time is advancing to the right?

I'm currently working with the Internation Business Communication Standards (IBCS). They are trying to establish a globally accepted standard for business commications, e.g. charts.

Their proposal for dimensions in charts is, that an axis displaying a time dimension is always horizontally oriented with the time advancing to the right (in contrast to axes displaying structural dimensions which are always vertically oriented):

3.3.3.1 Visual direction of time periods
In charts, horizontal axes visualize data series over time. In tables, data series over time are presented in columns. In both cases time moves from left to right. http://www.ibcs-a.org/standards/109

Time vs. structure dimensions IBCS

© 2015 IBCS Association. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 International.

To me this sounds quite natural. But I was wondering if this mental image of time advancing to the right holds true globally.

I could imagine, that in a culture writing from right to left (or from top to bottom) the natural interpretion of time flowing is different.

Are you aware of any cultures who think about time advancing differently?

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    I'm not going to post this as an answer, because it's not a cultural thing, exactly. Consider the very famous Map of the successive losses in men of the French Army in the Russian campaign 1812-1813. The chart is so informative because it combines spatial dimensions and the flow of time; at the extreme right of the map, the 'flow' of time' reverses as the army enters retreat. I guess the point I would take away from that is that standards/conventions are most interesting when you break them :-) – Patrick M Jan 26 '15 at 17:02
  • IMO Language AND mathematical convention play a part. In Cartesian coordinates, 5 lies on right of 4. I would extend this, saying that Feb 2015 lies on right of Jan 2015. If a list of steps were laid out horizontally, step 2 will be right of step 1. – aitchnyu Jan 27 '15 at 5:59
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    As an Israeli and native Hebrew speaker - we usually expect time to in charts to to from left to right, even in a Hebrew document that is read from right to left. A right-to-left time chart is confusing to most people (we've recently seen one at work, and everyone commented on it). For example, see these google searches: ריבית בנק ישראל , תוחלת חיים. – Kobi Jan 27 '15 at 7:53
  • @Kobi Thanks a lot. I think your comment would make a good answer, too. – stefan.s Jan 27 '15 at 7:57
up vote 27 down vote accepted

The mental image of time is indeed thought to be influenced by language and culture.

Scientists discovered years ago that spatial representations of time are affected greatly by linguistic conventions. If English is your native tongue, you're likely to think of time as moving from left to right, but if Arabic is your language of choice, time moves from right to left. These differences can be traced to the direction in which one's language is written, either left-to-right or right-to-left.

From the Psychology Today article Is Before to the Left of After?

Interestingly, some cultures don't follow the left-to-right or right-to-left convention and instead associate time with the compass:

The languages of the Pormpuraaw, a remote aboriginal community in Australia, include relative spatial terms like left and right, but they're rarely used. Instead, speakers of these languages rely on absolute terms that correspond to the four cardinal directions. Pormpuraawans generally think of time as moving from east to west, just as the sun does in its daily journey.

With regard to charts, time is generally the independent variable and it is convention for the independent variable to be presented on the x (horizontal) axis.

  • And in the southern hemisphere, on a sundial the shadow would rotate the opposite way around from in the northern hemisphere: "counter-clockwise". This is all very natural for half of the globe. – user67695 Apr 10 '16 at 22:12

In the Arabic world, time series charts are more often shown as right-to-left, as this flows more naturally with reading from right-to-left. Al Jazeera (a large Arabic based news organisation) for example user right-to-left charts quite regularly, as shown below. Note that I have no idea what this chart is referring to.

enter image description here

However, most speakers of right-to-left languages are also comfortable with left-to-right charts simply because they are exposed to them regularly.

So if you want to target right-to-left languages specifically, your audience is more likely to be comfortable with right-to-left time series charts. However if your target is broader, I would opt for left-to-right charts as they have a much wider acceptance (taking RTL and LTR languages into account).

Not always. Check out this (fictious) ad, which would most likely be misunderstood in countries which write right-to-left:

failed cola ad

Image source

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    Welcome to the site, @Jonathan. Can you cite a source for the image? – Graham Herrli Jan 26 '15 at 19:31
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    I don't know... I think "reading" that right to left might actually be the correct way of doing it. Of course context is important, is this an ad by a cola company or one by a water company? – NotMe Jan 26 '15 at 21:21
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    Cute, but how does it answer the question (especially since it's fictitious)? While it might seem reasonable and natural to assume that a culture that reads right-to-left would also sequence comic panels from right-to-left, there's no evidence that it must necessarily be true. – jamesdlin Jan 26 '15 at 23:19
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    This in no way makes a statement about time, but rather about reading. A language that reads right-to-left may well still "read" time left-to-right. – user31914 Jan 27 '15 at 4:38
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    There is an old story that the phrase "Coke Adds Life" was incorrectly translated as "Coke brings your ancestors back from the dead." People were understandably reluctant to drink it until that misunderstanding was cleared up. So, read left to right, it may well be true! – user67695 Apr 10 '16 at 22:15

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