the functional art – Alberto Cairo

I heard about this book through listening to the storytelling with data podcast during one of my weekend runs. Alberto Cairo was one of the guests., and after listening to his story, and the way he spoke about his work is such a clear and passionate way, I quickly made note of the book on my return home and fired up the computer to find myself a copy

Outback Sunrise

On a recent work trip to the outback that involved almost more flying time than working time, I finally got the opportunity to finish my study of the book. During the same trip, I received an email from the storytelling with data community group in which they were looking for mini book reviews and recommendations on data related books.

I decided it was a good opportunity to jot down a few learning points, and decided to record them here also.

the functional art – Alberto Cairo

how has the book helped me and what was insightful?

This book goes a level deeper than introductory books to visualisation and graphical design, and can potentially help even seasoned professionals.

Apart from a comprehensive yet accessible look at many forms of visualisation and examples on visual theory and how the mind/eye works, key concepts such as the “visualisation wheel”, helped me to conclude that not ALL visuals need to be simple, and understood within 10 seconds.

There is room and scenarios which may call for deeper and complex visualisation that allows the reader to explore and find their own insights and create their own stories. In such situations, a creators job is to facilitate this in a functional and hopefully beautiful way.

Further, the author’s discussion of his own work and processes, as well as those with leading professionals around the world provided some invaluable insights into how to effectively plan and execute data story projects as well as learn from them.

how is the book structured?

As you might expect from a book about functional art, it is nicely organised, and fits into 4 distinct parts:

1. Foundations provides an overall background into why we visualise, building narratives, complexity via a “visualisation wheel”, and exploration vs explanation.

2. Cognition gives some deeper exploration of visual theory, the working of the eye and preattentive forms such as Gestalt than you would in more foundation level books.

3. Practice explores some of the authors works, and gives valuable insight into creating plans and structure and also in learning lessons.

4. Profiles are interviews with 10 leading lights in visualisation from various fields, including literature, infographics and academia.

who is the book targeted at?

Although it’s subtitle suggests it is targeted as “an introduction”, it may not be an absolute base level book for beginners, but may suit those who have already begun their journey and are now looking for that next step up, and are looking for inspiration and reference from key players and organisations in the field.

And, as the title of the book also suggests, it leans a little more towards art, and creating pleasing aesthetics, while at the same time summarising and communicating data stories and ideas. It’s not really prescriptive in terms of what rules you must follow or how to organise or present particular charts or reports, just how to apply some best practices to make your work more effective.

who would benefit most from reading this book?

Those that already have a base level understanding over some of the concepts and best practices in visualisation, and who are looking to widen their knowledge on visual theory and the use of preattentive attributes.

While most of the content is focused around creation of infographics, journalistic pieces, and standalone visuals, many of the ideas and philosophies can be applied in the field of creating effective reports and dashboards in a business setting, and as such could be considered as a well rounded reference book that is accessible equally to those early on in their journey, and those that have “well worn shoes”.

treading the path

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