Information is Beautiful

November 11, 2009 · 2 comments

Post image for Information is Beautiful

One of my secondary careers — book designer and typographer — began with a commission to design this book. Before the project started, the author gave me a copy of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte, telling me that he wanted me to emulate the book’s production values, editing, and clarity of graphical representation.

So I read the book and had my aha! moment in the very first chapter, triggered by the presentation and description of this map (lager version here):

Minard Map

This is the “Minard Map,” which Tufte singlehandedly rescued from obscurity and made famous. His description is as eloquent as the pictorial display:

Described by E. J Marey as seeming to defy the pen of the historian by its brutal eloquence, this combination of data map and time-series, drawn in 1869, portrays the devastating losses suffered in Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812.…Minard’s graph tells a rich, coherent story with it’s multivarate data, far more enlightening than just a single number bouncing along over time. Six variables are plotted: the size of the army, its location on a two-dimensional surface, direction of the army’s movement, and temperature on various dates during the retreat from Moscow. It may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn.

Tufte published Envisioning Information and Visual Explanations, both of which developed ideas from the first book, but he has become less relevant in the world of online media. His most recent book, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, is a statement of the obvious: PowerPoint presentations are the worst graphical representations of information ever seen.

Graphs have become the new humor meme of the internet, usually in the form of clever Venn diagrams. Randall Munroe, author of the geek webcomic xkcd, recently published a movie plotline map (enlarged) clearly influenced by the Minard map:

xkcd Movie Map

But what about serious online displays of information? Is there anything out there beyond CNN and print magazine infographics? There is, and it lives at Information Is Beautiful, a web site of data visualizations by David McCandless. He’s not above the occasional humorous representation, fr example, the hierarchy of digital distractions:

hierarchy

…or the 25 most common words in Michael Jackson’s songs:

lastwords

But as you make your way through the site, you’ll find some serious data analysis: causes of death (represented as a spiral), billions of dollars spent in the US, estimated remaining world supplies of non-renewable resources, and more. McCandless is taking commonly available information from reports and news articles and turning it into visual representations that are much easier to grasp, which is the function of good visualizations.

Now, rather than paging through the site or his flicker pool, you can read The Visual Miscellaneum, which collects the site graphics and contains new material created specifically for the book. McCandless picks up where Tufte left off, but lets his graphics speak for themselves. As he explains in his brief introduction:

So, that’s what this book is. Miscellaneous facts and ideas, interconnected visually. A series of experiments in making information approachable and beautiful. See what you think.

I think it’s perfect.

2 comments

Jamie O'Keefe November 13, 2009 at 12:08 am

sigh… Another book I want to read. At least the $/hr devoted to reading it is high. Wait, I still haven’t purchased a single Tufte book. Perhaps I will be able to resist. One can hope.

David November 13, 2009 at 12:15 am

If you had to choose, buy the McCandless book. You could infer all the underlying design principles from the graphs themselves.

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