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Book Review – The Functional Art

Life is funny sometimes. A few weeks back, I was mulling over the concept of MOOCs and how much they can potentially suck but also how much they represent a lot of what we, teachers, like: free, state of the art education, if done right. Then I started thinking that I should really take one to see what it’s like from a student’s point of view.

I rejected the idea of taking a sociology course, because, really, I’d be bored. And then, someone posted on my Twitter timeline something about this new MOOC on data visualization taught by Alberto Cairo (don’t try to get in, folks, it’s already closed and it has not even started yet). I thought the theme sounded interesting and I might actually learn something while exploring the MOOC format, a win-win situation. In addition, those of you who follow the blog know that I like visuals (after all, I am known among my colleagues and friends for my doodles at work and in class). So, infographics it would be.

I decided to start early on the readings with the first two chapters of The Functional Art – An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization (Amazon), the book by Alberto Cairo. Well, I did not stop at the first two chapters. I read the whole thing because the book is so enjoyable and informative. I would recommend it to anyone in any sector, academia, non-profit, teaching, etc. How does not need some visual data skills, either as infographic designers or as competent users?

The book itself is really a highly readable, crystal clear, and unbelievably informative introduction to infographics and data visualization. It is full of great examples from the author’s work but also of other graphic designers. It is structured in two main sections. The first section is the introduction per se, where Cairo gives the “tricks of the trade” and offers the basic principles of graphic design in data presentations. It also includes chapters on designing graphics based on the way the human brain functions (the fact that the human brain processes certain shapes, shades and patterns better than others) based on the latest cognition research.

The second main section is a series of profiles of the Big Names of the graphic design world through interviews with the author and selected work from them. If you get the book in paper format, you’ll get a CD with additional goodies on it, such as short lessons with the authors. If, like me, you’re hip and cool, and you read the book on Kindle, you can download the lectures and play them with your basic media player. That is a nice addition to the book.

[Note: I read the book on Kindle on my Thinkpad Android tablet (10.1″) and I wish the format allowed for zooming in and out of the graphics used as examples there, but then, you can’t do that with a paper copy either, except by getting the book close to your nose. Other than that, the graphics were really nice and readable on the tablet.]

A central thesis of the book is as follows:

“The fact that an information graphic is designed to help us complete certain intellectual tasks is what distinguishes it from fine art. Rather than serving as a means for the artist to express her inner world and feelings, an infographic or visualization strives for objectivity, precision, and functionality, as well as beauty. In short: The function constrains the form.”(Loc. 590)

This turns into the practical injunction that infographics should present (the variables under examination), compare (the different units of analysis according to the variables at hand), organize (information in a logical fashion), and correlate (present relationships between the different variables and units). The related idea is that one should select a tool based on the data at disposal, the story to tell, and the audience to tell it to, visualized using knowledge of the way the brain processes information (visual and other). The more the design gets the audience to “play” with the data and explore the dimensions of the visualized phenomena, the better.

In other words, data visualization involves making a series of decision that Cairo summarizes through his own tension wheel, delineating a series of polar axes that include different dimensions of designs (abstraction / figuration, functionality / decoration, density / lightness, multi-dimensionality / uni-dimensionality, originality / familiarity, novelty / redundancy). All this is under the general idea that graphics should not be meant to simplify information but to clarify it and make it more understandable. Of course, the book itself follows that logic by providing a lot of examples of successful and not-so-successful graphics and explaining in details what works and what does not.

After having finished the book, you will never look at an infographic the same way again. You won’t be able to help yourself and do your little analysis of it and look for the properties explored in the book. Heck, I was doing that for class just today as I was looking through my series of infographics on global stratification, I kept wondering which ones told “the story” best for my audience of undergraduates, within a rough lecture format. I was also thinking of all the possibilities of assignments that would involve students exploring some interactive infographics and find their ways through them.

I also ended the book deeply regretting that these skills are not taught in the traditional sociology curriculum. After all, data is our daily bread. We create, generate, process, analyze, publish and share data all the time. Wouldn’t it be nice if we acquired the skills to present them in a functional but also attractive way. I know peer-reviewed journals may not be the proper place to get fancy with infographics but blogs (*ahem*) and other web 2.0 platforms certainly are. And I think this would go a long way towards making the whole public sociology endeavor more attractive and palatable to audiences outside of academia. After all, most of us got through classes of statistics, learning high-level skills that many of us will never use and that would be unintelligible to non-academic audiences. Infographics would help spread the idea of sociology as science while letting people explore what sociologists really do and the kind of insights they can provide on society.

[Note: That being said, I also think there should be more sociology in traditional journalism curriculum because I think they should know more content so as not to rely on the “some say A but others say B” format without being able to distinguish and state which is correct. It would be nice if, on major social issues, journalists had more substance and context in hand, and resources to use if necessary when writing on given topics. Social scientific research skills would be nice too.]

But hey, maybe Alberto Cairo could create lessons / workshops / MOOCs on graphic designs and data visualization for social scientists!

Anyway, read the book, read the blog. You won’t regret it.

Note: This is an archived article by SocProf the author of this article