Review: The Functional Art

I don’t often write reviews of books. But I can’t resist offering some thoughts on The Functional Art, a new book by Alberto Cairo aimed at teaching the basics of information graphics and visualization, mostly because I think it’s fantastic, but also because I think there are a few areas where I’d like to see a future edition expound.

Basically I see this as the new default book for teaching journalists how to do infographics and visualization. If you’re a student of journalism, or just interested in developing better visual communication skills I think this book has a ton to offer and is very accessible. But what’s really amazing is that the book also offers a lot to people already in the field (e.g. designers or computer scientists) who want to learn more about the journalistic perspective on visual storytelling. There are nuggets of wisdom sprinkled throughout the book, informed by Cairo’s years of journalism experience. And the diagrams and models of thinking about things like the designer-user relationships or dimensions along which graphics vary adds some much needed structure that forms a framework for thinking about and characterizing information graphics.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the book for someone already doing or studying visualization is the last set of chapters which detail, through a series of interviews with practitioners, how “the sausage is made.” Exposing process in this way is extremely valuable for learning how these things get put together. This exposition continues on the included DVD in which additional production artifacts, sketchs, and mockups form a show-and-tell. And it’s not just about artifacts; the interviews also explore things like how teams are composed in order to facilitate collaborative production.

One of the things I appreciated most about the book is that, in light of its predominant focus on practice, Cairo fearlessly  reads into and then translates research results into practical advice, offering an evidence-based rationale for design decisions. We need more of that kind of thinking, for all sorts of practices.

I have only a few critiques of the book. The first is straightforward: I wish that the book was printed in a larger format because some of the examples shown in the book are screaming for more breathing space. I would have also liked to see the computer science perspective represented a bit more thoroughly in the book – this can for instance serve to enhance and add depth to the discussion about interactivity with visualizations. My only other critique of the book is about critique itself. What I mean is that the idea of critique is sprinkled throughout the book, but I’d almost like to see it elevated to the status of having its own chapter. Learning the skills of critique and the thought process involved is an essential aspect of learning to be a graphics communication intellectual and thoughtful practitioner. And it can and should be taught in a way that students learn a systematic way for thinking and analyzing benefits and tradeoffs. Cairo has the raw material to do this in the book, but I wish it were formalized in some way that lent it the attention it deserves. Such a method could even be illustrated using some of the interviewees’ many examples.