Thursday, June 7, 2012

A new edition of Stephen Few's "Show Me the Numbers"

The front cover for the 2nd Ed. of Show Me the Numbers

Like many others in this business, I ended up designing information graphics and visualizations for a living with no prior formal training. As I explain in The Functional Art, I attended Journalism school in Spain and, due to a chain of coincidences, I got an internship in a very good infographics department, at a newspaper called La Voz de Galicia, where I learned by doing and by watching.

When I moved to UNC-Chapel Hill in 2005 to teach information graphics to journalism and design students, I was in the awkward position of not being able to properly explain why things were done the way they were done: Why would you choose a bar chart instead of a time-series plot in this particular graphic? Why are pie charts not the best solution in most cases? What would you prefer a subdued color palette instead of one based on pure reds, blues, greens? I did have intuitive answers to those questions, but I needed to somehow find scientific and logical foundations for them.

From that point on, I forced myself to follow a strict reading regime: I basically put my hands (and eyes) on every single book and paper I found on statistical representation, cartography, information design, and cognitive science. The Functional Art is, actually, a synthesis of everything I've read, combined with what I've learned during my career as a designer and visual journalist. Think of Tufte, Kosslyn, HolmesWare, Cleveland, Robbins, MacEachren, Monmonier, Robinson, Spence, WainerShneidermanHarris, Koch...

I also read Stephen Few's three books: Show Me the Numbers (first edition), Now You See It, and Information Dashboard Design. Together, they are the best hands-on introduction to the use of graphs for data analysis and presentation I know. But it was the first one, Show Me the Numbers, that influenced my own approach to graphics the most. Even if Few specializes in Business Intelligence, not in design or journalism, and he focuses just on graphs, not on information graphics and visualization in general, his ideas on clarity, concision, honesty, and respect for the data and facts are applicable to any area related to the visual display of information. If you've ever thought that Tufte's four are too abstract and difficult to translate to the real world, try Few's.

Considering how highly I regard Show Me the Numbers, knowing that a second edition has just been released was great news. I had the opportunity to read it in advance and I can say this is not just a minor refurbishing of old material, but a completely new book: It includes nearly 100 extra pages, new chapters on bad graphs and data narratives (telling stories with numbers), and appendices about Excel and color palettes. The first edition was a must-read. This new one goes beyond that.