Books: The Functional Art and The Truthful Art

by Mike Gleicher on January 13, 2017

Alberto Cairo’s books “The Functional Art” and “The Truthful Art” art are both excellent visualization books. Cairo is a designer who focuses on journalism visualizations, so his target is more for journalists and creators of “information graphics.” But he has such a keen eye, writes well, and brings enough of the “academic vis” concepts to his work that his books make them really valuable to a wide audience. His writing style – which makes very clear what is his opinions, and what is more factual (unlike, say, Tufte) – is very accessible, and the book is full of nice examples.

His books are open minded (he sees both sides of the various debates), and provide a good balance between the artist/designer prospective, the psychologist perspective, and the Tufte-ist perspective.

I highly recommend them to anyone who wants to learn more about Vis – or even to people who know a lot, and want to see how different perspectives get put together.

I did not make them required textbooks because: 1) I couldn’t pick which one, 2) a lot of each book is journalism specific – which while interesting and providing good examples, is not the focus of the class, 3) the library wasn’t able to get it for electronic reserve, and 4) I only realized how good the books are too late to require them. They are strongly recommended. We will have readings (subject to academic fair use from them). But I recommend you buy them. (these are Amazon links, for my feelings on Amazon see this rant from 2015).

Some notes on the content (to contextualize the readings)

The Functional Art is Book 1:

  • Preface: an interesting story to motivate the tension between art and factual presentation
  • Chapter 1: Why Visualize – a nice example of using basic tools to expose the basics of visualization, along with some of his philosophy. (required reading)
  • Chapter 2: Forms and Functions – this is a very different perspective on design of visualizations than I normally take (focused on encodings). Gets across the concept of how wide the design space is, and how task connects to design. (probably required)
  • Chapter 3: The Beauty Paradox: has the best explanation of Tufte-ism (that is kind to both sides of the “war” – an amazing feat). The minimalism wars section 61-72 is required as it provides a good context to understand Tufte. The first part of the chapter 45-61 is probably required since it sets up the last part, and gives an interesting way to think about the visualization design space (that is a little skewed towards journalism/infographics, but good food for thought in general).
  • Chapter 4: The Complexity Challenge: A nice discussion of some ideals in infographic design, which are nice ways to think about more complex vis in terms of the audience. Interesting, and a perspective missing from class – but recommended, not required.
  • Chapter 5: The Eye and Visual Brain: A nice survey of perception for vis. Recommended, since it’s concise – but we’ll read some more thorough sources.
  • Chapter 6: Visualizing for the Mind: More basic perception. I like this because he makes great connections of why understanding perception helps with Vis design. A nice intro to graphical perception (we’ll read some of the original sources). Probably required.
  • Chapter 7: Images in the Head: Some thoughts on the connection between design and “high level” perception. I like it a lot, and it is a topic that is missing in my thinking (and to an extent, this class). But it’s more tied to infographics, so it won’t be required.
  • Chapter 8: Creating Information Graphics, Chapter 9: The rise of information graphics: Nice discussions of design principles, but too tied to infographics to be relevant enough to class.
  • Profiles 1-10: Interviews with designers. Interesting for the cool examples. Less relevant for the class.

We’ll provide chapters 1,2,3 and 6 (4 of 19 chapters) since providing more would be pushing the limits of fair use – and I want to support the author. If you like what you see in those chapters, buy the book!

The Truthful Art is Book 2: (or to be more precise, it’s a later book. it’s hard to call them a series)

  • Preface: A great story to motivate data storytelling and inquiry. I have seen him give a talk (which was reviewed here).
  • Chapter 1: What we talk about when we talk about visualization. A nice set of definitions. Different than others. (possibly required)
  • Chapter 2: The five qualities of great visualizations: This is a very “journalist” take on it, but it provides a nice counterpoint to some of the other “how do we know its good” discussions. (possibly required)
  • Chapter 3: The Truth Continuum, and Chapter 4: Of Conjectures and Uncertainty. This gets into “data thinking” in a fabulous way. I recommend Chapter 4 to anyone who needs to see how statistical thinking related to, well, anything. (recommended, but a little off the mark for class)
  • Chapter 5: Basic Principles of Visualization: A nice review of encoding. We’ll see it much more formally in other readings, but it is so nicely placed in the context of design, we’ll use it to complement the more complete treatments (probably required)
  • Chapter 6: Exploring data with simple charts: brings basic tasks into perspective with the encoding principles.
  • Chapter 7: Visualizing Distributions – gets to some specific designs connecting standard designs to design ideas and …
  • Chapter 8: Revealing Change – again, a wonderful look at standard problems and designs, and then connecting them to how they can be used an improved for specific cases.
  • Chapter 9: Seeing Relationship – like 7,8
  • Chapter 10: Mapping Data – see the pattern with 6-11? this one is a little less relevant to class
  • Chapter 11: Uncertainty and Significant
  • Chapter 12: On Creativity and Innovation

It’s hard to pick just bits of this book, since 3-4 is such good “general knowledge”, and 6-11 are really great at helping to understand important tasks (and the designs that support them). But we’ll probably require 1,2 and 5. I’ll probably base lectures on 6-11. And I’ll strongly encourage you to buy the book.


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