Book Review: The Functional Art

Andrew Lang


One of the things we are going to have a go at doing over the next few weeks is taking a look at some of the books and resources available for those just starting out on their visualisation journey. To see when and where they can help in understanding and exploring the world of visualisations.


All images in this review are from ‘The Functional Art’ by Alberto Cairo


Our first book is one that was first published in 2013 ‘The Functional Art’ by Alberto Cairo. This book takes the reader through the complete foundations of visualisations, from the basics of the why and the what to the examples that are included in the later part of the book, as well as profiles and interviews with some of the big names in information graphics.


The part of the book that I personally found the most helpful was Part II Cognition where Alberto walks us through how visualisation works on a biological and psychological level, and goes into just the right amount of detail on how you can leverage the functionality of the human brain to get the best from visualisation, in particular how we use colour and other makes to quickly identify outliers and group objects. Alberto presents several useful graphics exploring ways of understanding the process of visualisation including the visualisation wheel as a way of defining the attributes of a visualisation.



This wheel is one of the big things that I felt that I could take away from this book, both as a method of thinking about the requirements of a visualisation design and in critiquing and analysing my own visualisations to see if they met the requirements that have been set out.


He then goes further talking about how we understand visual images and how memory and pattern recognition plays an important part in how we can understand visual information. Throughout this journey, no matter how far we seem to go from the what we might call the ‘core’ subject of data viz, Alberto Cairo always brings us back to visualisation and talks us through how this information relates back to the practice of visualisation.


It's important to note that this is a book that deals with most aspects of visualisations and if you're a business user there are some aspects of this book that may not be quite as useful for you, in particular, I feel that Part IV The Interview deals more with the practice of visualisation in a journalistic situation. While it does contain lessons for the business user with a tool like Tableau, it is a distinct type of visualisation practice and some of the design choices and styles will not really apply to visualisation in a business context.

Overall, the book is an excellent introduction to data visualisation and a good primer for anyone who wants to know a bit more about this field. In the book the author makes many great points about data viz and information graphics, but the point that stuck with me came early in the book “The First and main goal of any […] visualisation is to be a tool for your eyes and brain to perceive what is beyond their natural reach” and this is in many ways the essence of what this book teaches. Taking data and translating it from something hard to process to something that can be more intuitively understood. And for me, this book helps me to think about the effectiveness of my visualisations in a deeper way. To try to understand and critique them within the context of how our brains perceive and understand visual input.


You can find Alberto Cairo on twitter; @albertocairo and his website; His books can be found on Amazon, and pretty much anywhere else data viz books are sold.

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