Review of The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization

Unlike any time before in history, people have access to vast amounts of free information and with the right tools and training they can structure data in an aesthetic manner that allows non-specialists in the field to see patterns and trends that would otherwise be invisible or difficult to derive meaning from. The Functional Art by Alberto Cairo presents an epistemological overview of how people read infographics and then demonstrates how to most effectively use statistical data to make charts, maps, and explanation diagrams. Cairo does not merely present us with a list of what he considers his best works but shows the steps taken to create successful infographics and how certain forms of quantitatively measurable changes should typically be associated with certain types of illustrating change – such as box and whisker plots.

By transforming numbers into graphical shapes, readers can come to spot the stories in the data and learn new things from it with greater speed than in text regardless of the type of data you’re working with. Cairo states that most people new to the field jump too soon to the “look and feel” part, without first asking the right questions. Based upon his experience, he believes that people should first ask about what information is most important to display, how consumers of it will want to explore the information – especially if it is interactive – and then at this point start to determine the look and feel of it. Cairo, like myself, views much of the decorative additions typical of infographics, i.e. symbols or icons included that don’t really add anything other than flair, as poor design. Not that it is ALWAYS bad to include these, just it’s become the trend for them to be included at the cost of reducing effective communication.

Exegesis on this issue of approach to graphical forms takes the form of a discussion of “engineers” versus “designers”. On one extreme is Edward Tufte, who espouses a minimalistic approach to visualization. On the other extreme is graphic designer Nigel Holmes, who takes a more emotional, mimetic approach to graphic design. Cairo argues that there are benefits to both approaches and that the project itself should dictate how one processed rather than personal preference.

In the first part of the book, Cairo explicates the three main tenets of good data visualization practice: first, good graphic techniques and strategies (minimal use of pie charts, reducing non-data ink, etc.); second, how to create eye-pleasing graphics (how to choose color, fonts, layout, etc.); and, most importantly, how to use data visualization to tell a story. I think this is where The Functional Art really stands out as a great reference – Cairo shows you how to use data visualization not as a way to just show your data or to create a tool for people to explore your data, but as a way to be a storyteller with data.

One of the model’s Cairo created to help him ideate on how to develop a visualization is called the “Visualization Wheel”. The top part of the wheel indicates increased complexity and depth and the bottom part representing simplicity and lightness. The key takeaway is to provide balance to a visualization with the audience in mind. Certain audiences are likely to gravitate towards one than the other.

The next part of the book explains the eye-brain connection – how humans perceive different shapes, colors, etc. – in relation to designing good infographics. Cairo isn’t a cognitive scientist, but the skill with which he addresses these issues illustrates the depth of study he’s done of the literature and how to use this knowledge to create better graphics. These two first parts of the book are helpful for anyone those in the visualization and the graphics Cairo has chosen to include are all inspirational and make this not only a good overview of the field but also a good reference book.

In the last section of the book, Cairo profiles and interviews 10 prominent data visualization designers and visual journalists, including The New York Times’ Steve Duenes, The Washington Post’s Hannah Fairfield, Condé Nast Traveler’s John Grimwade, National Geographic Magazine’s Fernando Baptista, Hans Rosling of the Gapminder Foundation, and others.

This section is beneficial as it gives brief insights into how it is that leaders in the field approach different challenges created by their projects and to see how journalists work with the information visualization professionals in their teams in leading newspapers in different  ways based upon the workplace.

In closing, The Functional Art touches upon all the important issues related to infographics such as:

  • Why data visualization should be conceived of as “functional” rather than fine art
  • A general outline of when to use bar versus circle charts
  • How to use color, type, shape, contrast, and other components to make infographics more effective
  • Differentiation between symbols and icons and help versus hurt their readability.
  • The science of how our brains perceive and remember information
  • Best practices for creating interactive information graphics
  • The creative process behind successful information graphics

It’s a great book for those new in the field and the clarity of expression found within was so good that I look forward to reading more of Cairo’s work.