Thursday, June 15, 2023

I've just finished writing 'The Art of Insight'

I've just written the last line of The Art of Insight. Now begins the long process of copy-editing and production that will finish on November 15, 2023, its publication date.

The Art of Insight is two years late. Never in my life I've missed so many deadlines (this book exists thanks to the generosity and patience of the good folks at Wiley,) and never before I've faced a task that looked so insurmountable so often. But I'm reasonably happy with the results and, ultimately, that's all that matters. I hope you'll like it.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

A few early blurbs for 'The Art of Insight' are in

In just a month I'll send last third of The Art of Insight to my publisher, Wiley; the publication date is still November 14 this year. If you want to get a glimpse of what my quirkiest, most personal, and most meandering book to date contains, these early blurbs might provide a few clues (more are on their way):

Data visualization books don't typically transport you to new worlds. Alberto Cairo's latest book delves into the lives of numerous designers, learning more about what shaped the designer and their respective works. Each chapter showcases stunning examples, but also life stories and the motivations that informed choices. I laughed, I cried, I cheered, but perhaps most importantly, I caught glimpses of myself and my own story. —Bridget Cogley, co-author of Functional Aesthetics for Data Visualization and Chief Visualization Officer at Versalytix

Visualization stretches beyond reports and sterile charts to uses more tightly coupled with real life, which is full of beauty, complexity, and stories.  With The Art of Insight, Alberto Cairo places the full field on display. Learn the design and analysis processes of those in less traditional visualization roles, alongside Alberto's unique perspective, and your own data work will benefit, wherever that may be. —Nathan Yau, Statistician, FlowingData

Another amazing book by Alberto Cairo. It presents a broad overview of contemporary visualization practices through a plurality of voices that are diverse and culturally rich. Conversations with key visualizers from around the globe are interwoven with insights and acuity from Cairo’s deep and vast knowledge of the field. The book is a must for practitioners and students alike as we are introduced to a variety of approaches to representing data, including first-hand experiences guided by the author's generous views. What a joy! —Isabel Meirelles, Professor, OCAD University, and author of Design for Information

The Art of Insight is an inspiring collection of tales of forms and shapes.  Not the forms and shapes that make up beautiful art and visualization but the journeys that formed and shaped the visualization artists behind them. In Cairo's book, visualization artists reflect on their diverse backgrounds, inspirational sources, and haphazard career paths. They share insights into their thought processes, their sources of inspiration, and both the little and big things in life that influence them. The book provides wonderful insights into the conscious and sometimes unconscious steps that preceded the artists' creations. By providing a lens into how these artists were formed, the reader is left feeling encouraged to embrace their own journey into the world of graphical visualization. —Claus Thorn Ekstrøm, Professor of Biostatistics at the Department of Public Health, University of Copenhagen

I’ve been a fan of Alberto Cairo’s work for years, and his new book The Art of Insight is a delightful addition to his body of work. I enjoyed his conversations with designers from around the world about their histories, their evolution as artists and artisans, and their insights about their work in visualization. Examples ranged from the humorous to the tragic. I’m grateful to Alberto for sharing his conversations with these brilliant visualization designers and for the inspiration for all of us who share the goal of creating visualizations that carry meaning to an audience. —A. John Bailer, Professor Emeritus of Statistics, Miami University; Past-President of the International Statistical Institute; Stats+Stories podcast host; Author Statistics Behind the Headlines

Saturday, March 25, 2023

CRC's Visualization videocast

Tamara Munzner and I are the co-editors of CRC Press's AK Petersons Visualization series. We've got plenty of great books published recently, so we decided to record some casual conversations with their authors. Three episodes are available already, featuring Neil Richards (Questions in Dataviz,) Nigel Holmes (Joyful Infographics,) and Jen Christiansen (Building Science Graphics.) More videos (and books!) will be coming soon.

CRC has also created a free e-book with sample chapters from several of those books. Get it here.

I very much enjoy working with other authors, so if you have an idea for a book about information design, data visualization, data journalism, or related topics, let me or Tamara know. We're here to help.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Playing with ChatGPT while writing 'The Art of Insight'

Today I'm working on the chapter of The Art of Insight devoted to Deniz Cem Önduygu. Deniz is the author of an impressive mnemonic interactive diagram of influential philosophers. He designed it for himself to summarize books he's read.

For reasons that will become clear when you read the chapter (the book should be out by late November,) I'm mentioning philosopher Martha Nussbaum, particularly her The Therapy of Desire, which discusses the Hellenistic philosophers, Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics.

In one of my breaks it occurred to me that I could ask ChatGPT to generate an essay summarizing Nussbaum's book. The results aren't bad! Maybe I should prompt the tool to write The Art of Insight for me and go on vacation in the meantime:

Martha Nussbaum is a prominent contemporary philosopher who has made significant contributions to the study of Hellenistic philosophy. Her views on Hellenistic philosophy are grounded in her belief that these ancient thinkers offer valuable insights into questions of ethical and political life that remain relevant today. In this essay, I will explore Nussbaum's views on Hellenistic philosophers, focusing on their theories of ethics and their relevance to contemporary discussions about human flourishing.

Nussbaum's approach to Hellenistic philosophy is influenced by her training in the study of classics and her interest in the practical applications of philosophical ideas. She argues that the Hellenistic philosophers, particularly the Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics, were concerned with questions of how to live a good life and how to achieve a state of flourishing, or eudaimonia. These thinkers believed that the pursuit of eudaimonia required the cultivation of certain virtues, such as wisdom, courage, and justice, as well as a sense of inner calm and contentment.

One of the key insights of Hellenistic philosophy, according to Nussbaum, is the idea that ethical and political questions cannot be separated from questions of human psychology and emotion. The Hellenistic philosophers recognized that human beings are emotional creatures, and that our emotions can either help or hinder our pursuit of a good life. For example, the Stoics believed that the key to achieving inner calm and contentment was to cultivate a sense of detachment from external goods and to focus on developing virtues such as wisdom and courage. The Epicureans, on the other hand, emphasized the importance of pleasure and argued that the pursuit of pleasure was the ultimate goal of life, as long as it was pursued in moderation and without harming others.

Nussbaum argues that the Hellenistic philosophers' emphasis on the importance of emotions and psychology has important implications for contemporary discussions about human flourishing. She believes that their ideas can help us to better understand the nature of happiness and to develop more nuanced and effective approaches to promoting human well-being. For example, Nussbaum argues that the Stoic concept of detachment can help us to cope with the challenges of modern life, such as stress and anxiety, by encouraging us to focus on what is within our control and to let go of our attachment to external goods. Similarly, the Epicurean emphasis on the importance of pleasure can help us to recognize the value of enjoyment and to avoid the trap of excessive consumption and materialism.

Overall, Nussbaum's views on Hellenistic philosophy offer a valuable perspective on the nature of human flourishing and the role of emotions and psychology in ethical and political life. By emphasizing the importance of cultivating virtues and developing a sense of inner calm and contentment, the Hellenistic philosophers offer a compelling vision of a good life that is both achievable and meaningful. Nussbaum's work demonstrates the continued relevance of these ancient ideas and their potential to enrich our understanding of human well-being and flourishing.

Monday, February 27, 2023

What 'The Art of Insight' is about

Yesterday I announced in social media that I've written half of The Art of Insight already. It should be out by late November this year. Some people asked how it's different to my previous books. It's very different —much more personal and idiosyncratic. It's both an attempt to reignite my love for the craft and also my tribute to its practitioners.

In case you're interested, here's the first draft of the opening two pages (this hasn't been edited, so ignore typos and ungrammatical sentences): 


On Magic

To live well is to cope with the ways in which life is hard while finding enough in one’s life worth wanting. Kieran Setiya 

One early morning in November of 2021, Alex, my youngest son, questioned me about the apparent meaninglessness of life: “Why are we humans here for anyway?”

Alex has been a precocious old soul since he learned to talk. The week when I was working on this preamble he wrote an autobiographical poem that contained a haunting alliteration to define who he is: “I’m a lover of darkness, dragons, and dreams.”

At the time of our conversation we were both coming to terms with that darkness: healing, mustering our dragons for battle, and rebuilding our dreams. The pandemic years had been tough.

I remember myself thinking in silence for a moment. We were in our morning commute. Alex, sitting in the back of the car, was looking out at parents and kids passing by on their way to school. He was in a somber mood, and I guess he wasn’t expecting a quick answer from dad, who’s usually so aloof and introverted.

But my answer poured out like a torrent. Life, I said, is indeed meaningless in itself. Meaning isn’t a predetermined thing that exists beyond ourselves and our connections to others, or that we receive from imaginary higher powers. Meaning is something that we build by living through the myriad of little but immensely relevant events that cross our paths. It emerges from paying deep attention to the joys and beauty offered by the objects, creatures, and people whom we love, and by sharing back with them. That’s all there is to a good life brimming with magic.

Alex’s reply was a soft murmur.

I parked at school and noticed that my son was staring at a fence next to us. There was movement on it.

Alex suddenly yelled, his voice a mixture of excitement and wonderment: “Dad, look, songbirds!” Indeed, there they were, two merry critters standing on the wire, chirping at each other while ignoring the multitude below.

I smiled. “See? That’s what I meant. That’s the magic.”

• • •

This is a book about such magic. To write it, I spoke with many magicians, visualization designers who build meaning as a tribute to themselves or as an aid to others. They make things, they enjoy the process and, by sharing its results, they brighten the world.

Some of these designers are old friends; others are people whose work I’ve found fascinating more recently. They are data scientists, engineers, analysts, humanists, artists, journalists, and educators, each with their own views about the practice.

My sample for this book isn’t representative of anything outside of my head. The designers you’re about to meet are the first who came to my mind when I felt the need to rekindle my love for the design of information, the craft to which I’ve devoted my professional life. A half-joking alternative title I entertained was On the Consolation of Visualization, as a nod to Boethius’s famous On the Consolation of Philosophy. The list of people whose work I find interesting, inspiring, or intriguing is much longer, though; should I’d had more pages and time, I’d have reached out to many more of them to seek solace. 

This is also a book about insight. Not in the sense of data-driven analytical insight; there are plenty of books in the market about that, including some I’ve written myself. This book is different. I use the term “insight” in the sense of exploring who the designers I spoke with are and how they see themselves. I’m interested in how they shape their craft, how the craft shapes them in return, and how such interaction creates an ethos.

Finally, I envision this book as one link in the broader chain of historical conversations about information design and visualization. It’s the result of the interaction between what my interlocutors told me, past readings that were brought back to memory during our chats, and my reflections about both. I’ve ended up writing an essay in the literal sense of the term: a way to essay ideas, to contemplate them in a nonjudgmental manner with no expectation of reaching conclusions, of inferring overarching lessons, or —the gods forbid the hubris— of developing a coherent system of thought. The philosopher Joan-Carles Mèlich calls this approach to thinking and writing “the wisdom of the uncertain.”

This The Art of Insight is, then, a wandering, and not a solitary one.

Friday, February 24, 2023

How we lie to ourselves with charts about LGBTQ issues

In the past few years I've become increasingly alarmed about how journalists cover the transgender community, particularly transgender youth. Being interested in graphics, I decided to record the following short and informal talk about a specific set of charts that I often see misused and even weaponized against one of the most vulnerable minorities in this country. Jon Schwabish has also written about one of them.

(Note: I recorded this in 15 minutes this morning after a friend was contacted by a large news organization asking about several things, this chart among them. Instead of writing a long answer, I quickly recorded a video for her so she could share it. That explains the just-OK quality. You can download the slides here.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Visualization “thought leaders” don't know much

I'm working on the chapter of The Art of Insight about ProPublica's Lena Groeger. Here's the first rough draft of the opening paragraphs:

In the Fall of 2014 Lena Groeger, the graphics director at ProPublica, emailed me to ask about a project she was working on. It was a visualization of the compensation that U.S. workers receive for damaged body parts; the amount depends on the state where the worker is. Lena wanted my opinion about using “a little person that represents each state, and size each body part according to difference from the national average.” 

My reaction was quick and visceral. I replied that I wouldn't do it because it looked creepy and her illustrations sent “shivers down my spine.” Instead I recommended to use traditional maps and graphs.

Lena is a wise journalist and designer, so she chose to ignore me. The result was one of the most widely read graphics she's ever created. It was picked up by multiple news organizations —Gawker linked to it with the title 'How Much Are Your Balls Worth?'— and led to discussions about policy in several states.

Think about this anecdote whenever visualization “thought leaders” —I've always rejected that label, as it really sends shivers down my spine— claim to know what we're talking about.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Sociopathic journalism

A week ago a large number of New York Times contributors and tens of thousands of their readers signed an open letter criticizing the newspaper's coverage of youth gender-affirming care. I was among them. I've written about these matters in the past (here and here,) and I'll likely keep doing so in the future. I've also argued that some reporters covering this care don't know how to reason under uncertainty —or they pretend not to know.

The Times's response to the letter was not only tone-deaf, but also a perfect example of a common malady in journalism, a certain sociopathic temperament. Some cases of this malady are acute; there are people who have built lucrative careers out of seeding doubt and muddling the waters. Shame on them.

One of the challenges with journalism is that its ethical codes rely too much on deontological and virtue ethics tropesand too little on consequentialist thinking. In J-school we are taught the conventions and rules of the trade, and we're encouraged to become virtuous First Amendment warriors and “truth-tellers”. However, we're taught too little about the complexities of the very word “truth”; or about how our “truth-telling” is extremely selective; or about how it can negatively impact those whom we write about.

Proper applied ethics requires a careful balancing of those three moral reasoning strands. Journalism can learn a thing or two from design ethics: Think of news stories as tools that mediate between the complex world out there and the minds of readers. Whoever writes a news story should be, at a minimum, partially responsible for how that story is used or misused.

And we know that the inaccurate and sensationalistic coverage of gender-affirming care is being weaponized. For instance, some profoundly biased pieces that have appeared in The New York Times and other publications have been used to support arguments to deprive people of care they need. That's the core of the letter's criticism. Reporters and their editors must do some soul-searching. It's way past due. They are fueling a moral panic.

Instead, the Times has doubled down, which isn't that surprising, as elite journalism isn't just often sociopathic, but also hubristic and brazen. Joyce Carol Oates has accurately described it: “Mainstream media seizes upon highly atypical, microscopic samples of an issue that affects virtually no one, amplifies it maniacally, continues to focus upon it as if it were some sort of threat to the commonwealth, & not an amplified paranoid-figment of media imagination.”

The Onion has a poignant and fierce piece about this topic. If you teach news ethics, I suggest that you add it to your recommended readings list.

Anyway, this week I've been working on the chapter of The Art of Insight about Alyssa Fowers, who I think represents a much better type of journalist. Alyssa has a wonderful blog and is also a graphics editor at The Washington Post. Here are a few paragraphs:

Too often in my journalism career I’ve seen reporters who don’t think much about the impact that their reporting might have in the people they cover. They treat them as subjects, numbers, things to be explored, analyzed, understood in a detached, statistical, sanitized manner.

Recently —I’m writing this in early 2023,— we’re witnessing this sociopathic behavior in the way that mainstream media covers transgender people, particularly transgender youth, their access to gender-affirming care, and their increasing presence and visibility in society. These topics are often framed as a sensationalistic “debate” or a “controversy,” and not as what they truly are, human rights. This is insulting, demeaning, and dehumanizing.

I’d say that it’s also the opposite of Alyssa’s approach. I think that she’s representative of a generation of journalists who try not only to get their data right, and to present it as accurately and fairly as possible, but who are also emotionally invested in their stories. Theirs is a journalism that transgresses dusty notions of journalistic objectivity and that, as a result, becomes better, more humane.

A story that Alyssa contributed to, which describes how the COVID pandemic worsened the mental health of transgender people, showcased elegant variations of Sankey diagrams and bar graphs, but its focus isn't these graphics or the numbers behind them. To me, the writing and visual style signal a profound empathy towards the people whose lives are being written about and visualized. 

Essayist Rebecca Solnit once wrote that “empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art” because it consists of imagining ourselves in somebody else’s place. Maybe that should be a requirement to all who gather, analyze, visualize, or write about data about other human beings.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

A sneak peek of 'The Art of Insight'

I've just finished the first draft of 2/5 of The Art of Insight. This week I'll be sending it to some friends to get some feedback. I printed it out to edit it myself. The book will be launched late in November this year.

Here's a short video:

Friday, December 30, 2022

Quotes in 'The Art of Insight'

All my books contain quotes prefacing sections and chapters. These quotes are deliberately chosen to be connected to the themes I write about, or to subtly hint things without saying them explicitly. Below I've collected the quotes in the first third of The Art of Insight, which I'm finishing these days:

Take advice to ditch all adverbs lightly. —Ursula K. Le Guin

Enjoy and have others enjoy, without doing harm to yourself or anyone else; that is all there is to morality. —Nicolas Chamfort

I have sought only reasons to transcend our darkest nihilism. Not, I would add,  through virtue, nor because of some rare elevation of the spirit, but from an instinctive fidelity to a light in which I was born, and in which for thousands of years men have learned to welcome life even in suffering. —Albert Camus

Being a person is not a goal that can be achieved but a purpose to be sustained. —Martin Hägglund

It is not doctrines that console us in the end, but people: their example, their singularity, their courage and steadfastness, their being with us when we need them the most. In dark times, nothing so abstract as faith in History, Progress, Salvation, or Revolution will do us much good. These are doctrines. It is people we need, people whose examples show us what it means to go on, to keep going, despite everything. —Michael Ignatieff

The lover of life’s not a sinner. —Black Sabbath

To live well is to cope with the ways in which life is hard while finding enough in one’s life worth wanting. —Kieran Setiya

There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. —Popularly, and probably posthumously attributed to Somerset Maugham

There are no absolute truths, there is nothing Good, Bad, True, Beautiful, or Just in itself, but only relatively, evaluated according to a clear and distinct plan [...] Think in terms of action, and base your actions on the effects they will have. —Michel Onfray

The word [normal] uses a power as old as Aristotle to bridge the fact/value distinction, whispering in your ear that what is normal is also right. —Ian Hacking

[There’s a] difference between defining beauty and defining what beauty does in the body. The latter question belongs to the realm of aesthetics, the study of bodies in proximity to beauty. —Chloé Cooper Jones

To cultivate [the] diverse elements of our existence means to nurture them as we would a garden. Just as a garden needs to be protected, tended, and cared for, so do ethical integrity, focused awareness, and understanding [...] There is no room for complacency, for they all bear a tag that declares: “Cultivate Me.” —Stephen Batchelor

Trees fall with spectacular crashes. But planting is silent and growth is invisible. —Richard Powers

We are ready to question the impersonality of a merely technical approach to data and to begin designing ways to connect numbers to what they really stand for: knowledge, behaviors, people. —Giorgia Lupi

I think of the wood warbler, a small citrus-colored bird fast disappearing from British forests. It is one thing to show the statistical facts about this species’ decline. It is another thing to communicate to people what experience of a wood that is made of light and leaves and song becomes something less complex, less magical, just less, once the warblers are gone. —Helen MacDonald

Objectivity of whatever kind is not the test of reality. It is just one way of understanding reality [...] Sometimes, in the philosophy of mind but also elsewhere, the truth is not to be found by travelling as far away from one persona perspective as possible. —Thomas Nagel

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Revisiting Robert Grudin for 'The Art of Insight'

In preparation to write a few chapters of The Art of Insight this coming week, I've been re-reading a couple of books by Robert Grudin, The Grace of Great Things and Design and Truth. Grudin's takes are a bit too Platonist for my taste, but his writings are consistently brilliant. Here are some passages from The Grace of Great Things that I underlined the first time I read it:

On insight:

Of all the kinds of joy, none perhaps is so pure as that occasioned by sudden insight. To come to terms independently with a new idea is to celebrate, in the broadest sense of the word, the reality of nature and to appreciate fully one's own human presence. But creativity does not confine itself to happy subjects, or always bring happy results. Too many examples of tragic vision, or of genius in the service of malice, argue the contrary. Moreover, though creative insight may be delightful in itself, it normally is predicated on training, prolonged concentration, and exhausting practice that are not pleasant in the same sense.

On our sense of beauty:

Our sense of beauty is generally restricted to those categories (art, music, love, nature) to which aesthetic language is applied by our culture. But independent insight in all fields involves in some way the experience of beauty. In fact, the thrill conveyed by inspiration in any field is perhaps best described as coming from a sense of participation in beauty, a momentary unity between a perceived beauty of experience and a perceiving beauty of mind.

Much later in the book:

Beauty oddly resembles gravity: like gravity, beauty is a force whose existence is inferred from its apparent effects.

A page later:

Joyce sees beauty not as simple quality but as a function of the relation between subject and object. When a given object is properly understood (exquisite, adjusted), its beauty leaps out to the person who understands it. Beauty, therefore, is not a wholly independent force; neither, however, is it an illusion or social convention or mere “effect” of object upon subject. It is rather the natural and necessary consequence of the proper interaction between subject and object or, if you will, between mind and reality. 

About innovation and inspiration:

It is striking how many noted revolutionaries and innovators insist that they are maintaining continuity with the past or restoring old ideas that have been corrupted or forgotten [...] Inspiration may be the revelation of something completely new, but it is also the rediscovery of something always true.

About the burden of the past:

Preconceptions can militate against valid insight; investigators who insist on building exclusively upon past findings equip themselves for defeat.

One of my favorites, about the relationship between humor and insight:

Humorless people are unlikely to discover much. They are usually more concerned with their own dignity and rectitude than with anything going on around them. Unavailable to the sudden analogies and anomalies that cause laughter, they are apt to be dull toward other analogies and anomalies as well. Blind to their own humanity, they respond sluggishly to all other experience.

Monday, December 19, 2022

The joy of infographics and the value of subjectivity

Nigel Holmes's Joyful Infographics is the first book I've edited for CRC Press's AK Peters Visualization Series, that I co-lead with Tamara Munzner. The second is Jen Christiansen's Building Science Graphics. Both begin shipping tomorrow, December 20th.

I met Jen and Nigel nearly two decades ago at the Malofiej conference —which, by the way, will return sooner than you think. There they were, two people whose work I had admired and tried to emulate for years, willing to talk to nobodies like me, offering feedback, advice, and encouragement.

As a beginner at the time, I was surprised by their friendliness and kindness, virtues that also permeate their writing. Reading these books is akin to sharing time with two patient, serious, but humorous mentors who have distilled lessons from their long careers for the rest of us to learn and enjoy.

I'm a bit tired of books that adopt a view from nowhereor that claim to lay out overarching principles of visualization design. This includes some of my own. I'm much more interested in individual authors, in their personal but well reasoned opinions, and in how they tackle the challenges we all face when designing visualizations.

Jen's and Nigel's books are like that. They don't pretend to be the book about joy in visualization or the book about science graphics. They are Nigel's take on gentle humor and joy in visualization and Jen's take on how to build science graphics. There's value in such subjectivity, I believe.

(If you have an idea for a book about anything related to information design or data visualization, let me or Tamara know. We're happy to chat.)

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

'The Art of Insight': Publication date and designers who appear in the book

Simulated Dendrochronology of
U.S. Immigration, by Pedro Cruz

The Art of Insight
has a publication date:
November 14, 2023. I've been writing at a very good pace for the past few months, and the book should be finished by mid-2023. After that, it'll be sent to production and printing.

Here are the people I spoke with, in rough order of appearance: Shirley Wu, Ed Hawkins, Jaime Serra, Nadieh Bremer, Pedro Cruz, Sonja Kuijpers, Federica Fragapane, Mohammad Waked, Aaron Williams, Alli Torban, Amanda Makulec, Qian Ma, Deniz Cem Önduygu, Allen Hillery, Anatoly Bondarenko, Attila Bátorfy, Harkanwal SinghAlyssa Fowers, Simon DuCroquet, Will Chase, Jacque Schrag, Gurman Bhatia, Lena Groeger, Jane Pong, Pablo Loscri, and Rosamund Pearce.

If I could write a longer book, I'd have talked to many more. These conversations were delightful.

(Note: As I wrote a month ago, I'm prioritizing other platforms other than Twitter for updates: follow me on Mastodon or Linkedin.)

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Handcrafted infographics, flow, and meditation

While editing chapters from The Art of Insight that are already finished —more than one third of the book— I realized how many of the designers I talked to favor hand-crafted techniques versus automated or programmatic ones: Sonja Kuijpers, Federica Fragapane, even several journalists and old-timers, such as Jaime Serra.

Many of them said that they experience flow while painstakingly moving, tweaking, and adjusting objects —either physical or virtual— for hours, corroborating my hunch that, as visualization is a craft before it is a profession or a science, it can also be meditative and therapeutic.

On the right you can see Jaime's most famous creation, a 1996 infographic about the Southern right whale's anatomy and behavior, followed by one of his beautiful drafts brimming with notes. I began my career in 1997, and seeing this graphic for the first time as a beginner was eye-opening: “Wait, you can draw things for news graphics by hand?” Good times.

In the past 25 years I haven't made many manual illustrations for my graphics. Perhaps because I was educated in the strictures and tight deadlines of newspapers, I've always preferred to use 3D software or vector programs such as Adobe Illustrator.

Still, I do draw. I draw during virtual meetings, as it helps me concentrate. Some evenings, after all daily chores have been taken care of, I sit at the drafting table in my office and draw historically and archeologically accurate scenes, diagrams, and maps of the Late Antiquity Mediterranean world while listening to podcasts about history or tabletop games. It's a way to quiet thoughts, to instead be fully aware of the present moment and, as a consequence, to bring the mind to a peaceful state:

Monday, November 28, 2022

Idealism and pragmatism in visualization

Some reactions to the Washington Post chart on the right, designed by my former student Luís Melgar, reminded me of a passage from The Art of Insight that I shared the other day. This morning, a few readers of this chart asked in social media: “Why isn't time on the X-axis?” implying that there's something wrong with that, as it breaks some convention or rule.

A better question might be: “Can you understand the chart anyway?” I bet you can. It may take a few more seconds than usual, but does that make a significant difference when you might gain something else? What makes a graphic good isn't whether it tries to approximate an ideal of truth, beauty, goodness, or excellence; rather, it's whether actual people can make sense of it, learn from it, or enjoy it.

A follow-up question could be: “Do you think that sometimes there are good reasons to flip the axes of a time-series chart?” There might be. In this case, I believe, the reason is rhetorical: to emphasize the left-right partisan divergence. We may agree or not with the choice of flipping the axes, but it's a choice that can be justified, discussed and eventually tested.

The following is a section of The Art of Insight where I talk about the difference between idealist and pragmatist discourses in visualization. I've shared this very early draft on Mastodon, so let me know what you think there, if you wish:

My conversation with Ed Hawkins made me reflect on the ways that visualization professionals and scholars talk about what we do and why we do it. I also remembered a question that I’m asked often: What are the rules of data visualization?

I was born in Galicia, Spain. We Galicians are known for replying to questions with even more questions, so I often ask in return: What are the rules of writing?

I find such questions puzzling. I think of visualization as a technology that humans have devised to engage with the world. It’s a form of speech whose syntax consists of mapping data onto symbols. In this sense it isn’t that different to writing. In writing, beyond a loose observance of the vocabulary and grammar of the language we employ, there are no universal rules that are applicable to all its varieties regardless of purpose or audience.

This misconception about the existence of universal rules in visualization is in part due to the inheritance —and also to a slight misreading, I’d say— of what I call “the Tuftean consensus,” after Edward Tufte, author of several influential books, the best among them being The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983).

In The Infographic: A History of Data Graphics in News and Communications (2020), Murray Dick, a journalism professor at Newcastle University, describes various discourses in visualization, which are ways to think and talk about the craft. The first is the functionalist-idealist discourse. Tufte is the most popular exponent of it, although Murray cites several other statisticians and cartographers, such as Jacques Bertin, author of the foundational Semiology of Graphics (Sémiologie Graphique. Les diagrammes, les réseaux, les cartes, 1967.)

The functionalist-idealist discourse, Dick explains, has been dominant for decades. It conceives of visualizations “first and foremost as a scientific methodology” and as form of “visual logic [based on] the rigorous application of a monosemic system that depends on a priori rules (present in standards, and in conventions, such as the use of grid lines, legends, labels, etc.) These provide a means by which signs may be used to connect propositions in a logical sequence.”

According to Dick, to someone who favors the functionalist-idealist discourse “graphics necessarily deal in complex, multivariate ideas and they must explain clearly and efficiently, telling the truth about the data.” Then he adds a key sentence: “The notion that designer and audience may not share a common and irreducible understanding of what “the truth” means is not countenanced.” To the functionalist-idealist discourse, the quality of a graphic depends exclusively on the nature of the information presented and on the decisions that its designer makes about it within existing norms.

That’s why Tufte has written that “if your statistics are boring, you’ve got the wrong numbers” or “the only worse design than a pie chart is several pie charts.” However, being boring —or clear, or efficient— isn’t a property of things, but of the relationship between those things and the people who experience them. The best statistics can be boring, and the clearest and most efficient graphic to you can be confusing and inefficient to others. Pie charts are often misused, but this is also true of any other chart type. No chart type is good or bad in essence.

Designers who favor a functionalist-idealist discourse often come up with comprehensive and coherent systems of thought and action —sometimes involving transcendentals such as Truth, Good, or Beauty,— derive rules from them, and use them to judge whatever they see. Tufte doesn’t employ the term “rules” in his books, but he has defined a series of uppercase “Principles of Graphical Excellence.”

I’ve seen people try to apply these principles to their work too strictly—and fail. The reason is that they should be taken instead as sensible guidance whose pertinence depends on many considerations. Tufte himself is subtler than his most devoted fans, as he usually adds the caveat “within reason” to soften his otherwise strongly worded recommendations. For instance, he suggests maximizing “the share of a graphic’s ink devoted to data [...] within reason.” These last two words shall remain undefined.

Murray Dick’s discourses aren’t mutually exclusive; their boundaries are porous, and the same person can use different ones. I’ve employed a functionalist-idealist discourse myself, but The infographic says that my predominant discourse is pragmatist. 

Such a label encapsulates my ideas well. I respect the functionalist-idealist discourse, as I’ve learned a great deal from those who favor it. However, I’ve come to think, teach, and talk about visualization not as a series of allegedly universal principles, but in terms of ad hoc reasoning. This reasoning is informed by aims, constraints, conventions, trade-offs, likely outcomes, personal experience and taste, and by an ever-imperfect but ever-evolving body of scientific knowledge.

I don’t deny the possibility of norms, but I don’t understand them as rules or principles that can be given, top-down, by “leaders” in the field. Instead, norms are tacit patterns of behavior that emerge, bottom-up, from the ongoing historical dialogue between those who practice the craft. Because of this, norms can and should always be subject to examination.

It’s for this reason that, instead of a hierarchical professional landscape where authoritative figures assemble lists of principles, I prefer to foster a level field where conversations among kind peers flourish. Kind not in the sense of being nice, but of being welcoming, helpful, and constructive. My most cherished critics, mentors, and colleagues were and are kind, but not all mince their words.

Finally, I also believe that a central goal of visualization is to benefit an audience somehow —and that this audience could be the designer alone. “Benefitting,” by the way, doesn’t always mean “getting the most information in as little time as possible.” That’s just one of the many purposes that a visualization may have.

To be concise, I’d argue that my discourse isn’t just pragmatic. It’s also pluralistic —if visualization is a language, many dialects are possible— and even a tad hedonistic*.

* I’ll break my self-imposed goal of avoiding footnotes to clarify what I mean by “hedonistic”. Hedonism has nothing to do with the contemporary vulgarization of the term, meaning sensory excess. Hedonism is a set of philosophical schools with ancient roots that, in broad terms, agree that pleasure —roughly equivalent to welfare and the diminishing of suffering— is a moral good (for some schools it’s the key moral good.) Whatever contributes to pleasant lives is generally considered more desirable than what doesn’t.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

The training wheel approach to teaching visualization

Every semester I teach my regular introduction to information design and data visualization class (syllabus here.) Most students are data scientists, statisticians, engineers, interaction designers, plus a few communication and journalism majors.

At the beginning of the semester, many students are wary about their lack of visual design and narrative skills, and they are often surprised at how fast they can improve if they are willing to engage in intense practice and constant feedback. I'm not exaggerating when writing “intense”: an anonymous former student perfectly described the experience of taking my class in RateMyProfessors: “SO. MUCH. WORK”.

Indeed. The only way to learn a craft is to practice the craft nonstop.

My classes consist of three parts:

First month: lectures, readings, discussions, and exercises to master concepts, reasoning, and software tools. I don't grade these exercises, I simply give credit for completion, but I hint what grades students would receive if I did grade them.

Second month: Project 1. I give students a general theme and a client. This semester I chose The Economist magazine's Graphic Detail section, so a requirement for the project was that students tried to mimic its style. Once a week during this second month I give each student individualized advice on their progress prior to the deadline. I don't give most feedback after they turn their project in, but before.

Third month: Project 2. I give students complete freedom to choose a topic and a style. I also provide weekly feedback, but it's briefer and more general than on Project 1.

I sometimes think that my classes are similar to how we, people from older generations, learned to ride a bike. You can certainly try to do it without training wheels; it's faster, but it might also lead to crashes. Or you can begin with two training wheels —month one, where I guide students by the hand,— then one wheel —month two, although I still give tons of feedback,— and then no training wheels —month three, where students are almost on their own.

Below you can see some examples of what students can accomplish in just a couple of months of hard work. None of these are perfect, but I'm happy with the results. 

Note: I'm scaling down my presence on Twitter. You can add this blog to your RSS reader (let's go back to the good old days!) or follow me on Mastodon. If you don't have a Mastodon account, here's a guide to get started.

Read some updates on my work here.

Graphic by Runyu Da

Graphic by Luís Ángeles

Graphic by James McKenney

Graphic by Livia Brodie

Graphic by Luisa Gómez

Graphic by Nia James

Saturday, November 12, 2022

A few key paragraphs from 'The Art of Insight'

Here's the rough draft of a few key paragraphs from The Art of Insight:

I respect but also disagree with the Tuftean and Bertinian functionalist-realist discourse in visualization. In The infographic, Murray Dick says that the discourse I employ in all my writings—this book isn’t an exception— is pragmatist. He is correct; in fact, such label encapsulates the essence of my ideas beautifully.

Instead of a hierarchical, top-down professional landscape where self-proclaimed “thought leaders” cast their wisdom on the masses, I favor a horizontal world driven by conversations among kind and collegial peers—friends in the ancient philosopher’s sense of such term. I also believe that we must stop thinking about and teaching visualization in terms of “rules”, and more in terms of justification and reasoning.

This reasoning is driven by goals, constraints, trade-offs, and outcomes, informed by ever-imperfect and ever-evolving empirical evidence, conventions, and even personal experience and taste, and aimed at benefitting an intended audience.

I call this the hedonistic shift.

 If you want to read a bit more, I've also shared the draft of the first page of the book exclusively on Mastodon.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Bloomberg visualizes the shrinking Mississippi river

Chloe Whiteaker
shares the latest project by Bloomberg Visual Data, which explains what's happening to the Mississippi river:

“The Mississippi River — the immense, quiet highway that courses down the middle of America, moving critical food, wood, coal and steel supplies to global markets — is shrinking from drought, forcing traffic to a crawl at the worst possible time.”

The story contains several intricate visualizations, such as this “arterial sankey” —that's the term Chloe used— diagram. Three of these visualizations resemble rivers, which I guess is appropriate for the theme.

The most striking graphics in the story to me are also the simplest and most straightforward: a line graph of the increasing cost of shipping grain down the river, and a map of drought in the United States that also locates the Mississippi basin. Take a look at them.

UPDATE: Justin McCarty says that the main graphic in the story reminds him of an amazing 1960 visualization.

Note: I'm scaling down my presence on Twitter. You can add this blog to your RSS reader (let's go back to the good old days!) or follow me on Mastodon. If you don't have a Mastodon account, here's a guide to get started.

Read some updates on my work here.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Who's the audience for our graphics? Not the people who need them the most

Disinformation in the United States is an asymmetrical phenomenon: prevalent and central to the political right, and peripheral elsewhere. Liberal and left-wing disinformation exists, but it's not as dominant, virulent, or violent.

It you are a conservative, the previous paragraph might make you cringe and stop reading; you might feel prompted to call me a left-wing partisan and ignore anything else I have to say—even if I'm hardly on “the left” on several matters.

You'll also ignore the multiple studies and books that warn against this phenomenon, calling them “biased”. This includes my own How Charts Lie.

That's the problem with stories such as this investigation by The New York Times. It describes how conspiracy theories about the attack on Paul Pelosi spread on the right-wing alternative reality, fueled by politicians, online influencers, media personalities, and even the thin-skinned new owner of Twitter.

Who's the audience for this type of investigative reporting? Who will read it and explore its beautiful graphics, such as the long beeswarm plot that reveals the ebb and flow of conspiratorial narratives?

I bet it won't be the audiences who need to read it the most. They'll dismiss it before even taking a look at it—precisely because it was published by The New York Times.

Instead, the audience for stories like this is me —and most of you, I guess. But we aren't the ones who need to be told that it's scary that half of the U.S. population is being fed a systematic diet of ignorance, fear, and hatred. We know that already. Just yesterday I saw the famous podcaster Joe Rogan offering his massive platform to a white supremacist who is also one of the main superspreaders of disinformation against LGBTQ people in this country. Shame on Rogan; he ought to know better.

None of this is a reason to stop doing research, writing, denouncing, and visualizing relevant subjects such as disinformation. But it is a reason to think about how to reach seemingly unreachable or unpersuadable audiences. Maybe through education, new platforms, and new voices, but I'm hardly optimistic.

Note: I'm scaling down my presence on Twitter. You can add this blog to your RSS reader (let's go back to the good old days!) or follow me on Mastodon. If you don't have a Mastodon account, here's a guide to get started.

Read some updates on my work here.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Beauty as experience

There's a lot that I consider beautiful in The Art of Insight. Not the writing, which is casual, almost pedestrian, as in all my previous books, but the people I talked with and the work I'm showcasing.

My current understanding of beauty isn't classical, Platonic or Aristotelian —uppercase Beauty as a property of things,— but down-to-earth, pragmatic, relational, pluralistic —lowercase beauty as individual experience. I've read books that challenge such assumption. Among the best is Chloé Cooper Jones's Easy Beauty, a breathtaking memoir that I strongly recommend. Get it. You can thank me later.

Here's a dialogue:

“Isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder?”

“I don’t think anyone who says this knows what it means.”


“Or rather, it has a meaning no one believes. It’s a silencing sentence, one that reduces rather than explores one of the most exhilarating human experiences. The experience of beauty. What a shame”

And a reflection:

“[There's a] difference between defining beauty and defining what beauty does in the body. The latter question belongs to the realm of aesthetics, the study of bodies in proximity to beauty.”

(To me there isn't such a difference.)

Note: I'm scaling down my presence on Twitter. You can add this blog to your RSS reader (let's go back to the good old days!) or follow me on Mastodon. If you don't have a Mastodon account, here's a guide to get started.

Read some updates on my work here.