Book review: The Functional Art

“Can we throw in an infographic to break up the text a little?”

When I was cutting my editorial teeth as a student journalist, that wasn’t an uncommon question to hear in the newsroom, but it’s one that I imagine would make Alberto Cairo cringe. Cairo’s the author of The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization (published by New Riders), and he persuasively argues that infographics designers aren’t simply at the service of writers and art directors—they’re expert journalists in their own right, using visual storytelling to allow readers to explore and discover.

Cairo is an instructor of information graphics and visualization at the School of Communication at the University of Miami, and his passion for teaching comes through in his engaging text. The Functional Art is meant to teach students of information visualization the principles of good design, many of which parallel the principles of good writing and clear communication. Writes Cairo,

The relationship between visualization and art… is similar to the linkage of journalism and literature. A journalist can borrow tools and techniques from literature, and be inspired by great fiction writing, but she will never allow her stories to become literature. (p. xxi)

The Functional Art is divided into four parts and is illustrated throughout with real examples of effective and ineffective graphics. The first part of the book explains the need for and fundamental function of information visualization. Cairo writes, “The first and main goal of any graphic and visualization is to be a tool for your eyes and brain to perceive what lies beyond their natural reach,” adding “Most of us mortals have brains that didn’t evolve to deal with large amounts of data.” (pp. 9–10) The second part of the book looks at how our eyes and brains evolved to perceive and understand what we see and how designers can use those traits to maximize the effectiveness of their graphics. The third part, “Practice,” aims to teach readers how to create effective infographics, both static and interactive. The last part of the book consists of a series of profiles: interviews with visualization experts at the top of their professions, including, among others, John Grimwade, graphics director of Condé Nast Traveler magazine; Juan Velasco of National Geographic magazine; Hannah Fairfield, formerly of The Washington Post and now at The New York Times; Hans Rosling of the Gapminder Foundation; and Stefanie Posavec, who has developed unique ways of visualizing literature. The book also comes with a DVD that includes three lessons reinforcing the book’s key concepts.

The most interesting aspect of the book for me is that Cairo uses evolutionary biology to explain the reasoning behind the design principles he advances. Our ancestors regularly faced predators and food shortages, and our brains have evolved as a result of those threats. To explain why bubble charts are not as effective as bar charts at offering accurate comparisons of data, Cairo writes, “The human brain is not good at calculating surface sizes. It is much better at comparing a single dimension such as length or height… When faced with the question of whether that bear running toward you is big enough to pose a threat, the brain doesn’t waste time or energy analyzing if the bear is tall and wide. Seeing if it’s just tall is good enough.” (p. 40) He uses a similar approach to show how to make the best use of colour, explaining that “the brain is much better at quickly detecting shade variations than shape differences” (p. 113) but that “pure colors are uncommon in nature, so limit them to highlight whatever is important in your graphics.” (p. 105)

The parallels between information visualization and text editing, particularly plain language principles, are stark. After all, “graphics, charts, and maps aren’t just tools to be seen, but to be read and scrutinized.” (p. xx) In one of the profiles at the end of the book, interview subject Moritz Stefaner says, “Learning about how human language works is very important for visualization and information graphics because they are language, too. They have a grammar, a syntax, and a vocabulary.” (p. 317) Echoing a fundamental tenet of the plain language movement, Cairo notes that “graphics should not simplify messages. They should clarify them, highlight trends, uncover patterns, and reveal realities not visible before.” (p. 79) He also says, “Never, ever dumb down your data just because you think your readers will not ‘get it.’” (p. 84) As plain language experts know, it’s all about respect for your reader: don’t underestimate their intelligence, and structure what you offer in anticipation of how they will read it. If you make them work harder than they have to, they’ll go elsewhere for their information.

As in writing, structure and hierarchy are important in information visualization. Cairo writes,

You need to build a solid backbone for your information, a reading path, an order, and a hierarchy, before you lock yourself into a style for your display. The structure is the skeleton and muscles of your graphic; the visual style is the skin. With no bones to support it, the skin of your project will collapse. (p. 155)

Editing and fact checking are also crucial to effective information graphics. John Grimwade of Condé Nast Traveler says, “It’s not enough to do good research and then present your information to your readers. You have to edit that information. We, infographics designers, must work as reporters but, above all, as editors.” (pp. 216–217) In his interview with Jan Schwochow, Cairo warns that “Many news publications rush to produce information graphics whenever something big—such as a terrorist attach or a natural catastrophe—happens. In many cases, what they end up publishing is full of errors because they don’t double-check their sources, and some even make up details.” (p. 280) Even once you have accurate data, it takes judgment to decide what to present and how to present it. As Cairo notes in his interview with Hans Rosling, “the form in which we filter the data is more important than the actual data.” (p. 310)

Cairo’s text gave me a much deeper appreciation of the research, skill, and editorial judgment—not to mention the hours of labour—that go into making good infographics. I was anxious to get to the “Practice” portion of the book, in which Cairo outlined his methodology (while warning that many information graphics designers fall into the trap of skipping directly to step 5):

  1. Define the focus of the graphic, what story you want to tell, and the key points to be made. Have a clear idea of how the infographic will be useful to your readers, and what they will be able to accomplish with it.
  2. Gather as much information as you can about the topic you are covering. Interview sources, look for datasets, and write or storyboard ideas in quick form.
  3. Choose the best graphic form. What shapes should your data adopt? What kind of charts, maps, and diagrams will best fit the goals you set in the first step?
  4. Complete your research. Flesh out your sketches and storyboards.
  5. Think about the visual style. Choose typefaces, color palettes, etc.
  6. If you’ve been sketching offline, move the design to the computer. Complete the graphic using the appropriate software tools. (p. 154)

Each of these steps in Cairo’s methodology could have used significantly more elaboration—perhaps even its own chapter. For example, where is the best place to “look for datasets”? How do you discern between reliable and unreliable data? How do you “choose the best graphic form,” and how do you know that the way you choose to present your data doesn’t misrepresent its message? How can you decide “what story you want to tell” before knowing what the data are going to say? Instead of answering these questions, Cairo jumped immediately into a chapter about interactive graphics, leaving me feeling ill-equipped to apply the principles he so careful laid out in his first several chapters.

In general, The Functional Art was a fascinating read for me, as an editor with a science background. Having the justification for basic infographics design principles grounded in evolutionary biology gave important context: good design is not just about what’s trendy or what “feels right”; there’s a reason that some presentations promote understanding better than others. Cairo’s angle made me wonder how a similar approach could be applied to writing. Given that “eminent scientists have famously asserted that their thinking processes are not based on the mind speaking to itself using words, but on giving visual mental shape to concepts and ideas to facilitate their combination in some sort of imaginary space.” (p. 141) (giving credence to the editorial mantra, “show, don’t tell”), how can we use the way we interpret words into mental images to write and communicate better?

This book also made me aware of how much I’ve neglected infographics as a tool in the publications I’ve worked on. I suspect I’m not the only one who seems to default to photography as a means of illustration, but Cairo deftly shows that photography may not always be the best graphical choice. The Functional Art has opened my eyes to opportunities to use visualization to further understanding beyond simple pie charts or bar graphs, and the book is loaded with links to additional information for readers to continue learning about the field.

However, as a pedagogical tool, the book could have been strengthened in several ways. One simple way would have been to add a summary of important points at the end of each chapter to serve as a quick-reference guide. Another would have been to offer readers (most of whom I would assume would be students) exercises or activities that would let them apply the principles they learned in each chapter. And as I mentioned earlier, after seven chapters of background information and build-up, I found it a letdown that only two chapters were devoted to the actual practice of creating information graphics. The second of those focused on interactive graphics before I felt I had had a chance to fully absorb, let alone master, the basics of non-interactive graphics. Although the lessons on the DVD reinforced the concepts in the book, they weren’t enough to leave me feeling confident that I had the tools I needed to start creating meaningful infographics. I would have preferred to see Cairo deconstruct each step of his methodology and expand it into an individual chapter, perhaps getting the room to do that by shortening the profiles and inserting them as a recurring highlight or feature within each chapter.

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