Info We Trust: How to Inspire the World with Data is a beautiful book. It feels nice to hold. The colors are vibrant. The language is poetic. The content is inspiring.
If you work with or have an interest in data, you should own this book.
I read it from cover to cover in a two day sprint a few weeks ago in preparation for a conversation with author—and friend of mine—RJ Andrews. It’s the first book I’ve read so thoroughly in quite some time: pouring over not only the main content, but also the preface and end matter. Nearly every inch of this book is filled with information: margins are full of quotes from wide-ranging sources (RJ read hundreds of books over the course of development) and other relevant tidbits. The text and margins are interspersed with hand-drawn images (even the graphs are drawn by hand!) that help reinforce and illustrate concepts. Here’s an example 2-page spread:
The chapters are relatively short in length but dense in ideas and concepts, which provides good balance. The book is divided into six main sections: (1) Origin, (2) Metaphorical, (3) Mathemagical, (4) Sensational, (5) Informational, and (6) Onward. Also don’t miss the impressive and cleverly formatted bibliography and RJ’s essay on how the book came to be.
While I enjoyed it all, I especially appreciated the Mathemagical chapters: Create to Explore, Explore to Create, and Uncertain Honesty. I’m commonly asked questions about exploratory data analysis, and together these chapters pose a number of thought-provoking questions that can help direct those working with data through this process. I also really appreciated the Sensational chapters, which explore a number of other areas (e.g. Museum design), imploring the reader to draw their own parallels to data storytelling. Chapter 16 “Inspire Trust” was another standout section for me, with some great insightful discussion on people’s belief systems and the resulting difficulty of changing minds.
Info We Trust is definitely not a how-to book, and yet it is interlaced with practical advice. To give you a sense of language and style, here is one excerpt I highlighted, from Chapter 3, Embodied Encoding (pages 43-44):
There is a candy shop full of ways we get to communicate meaning visually. For example, the concept of importance is naturally associated with size. Big things are important. Why might this be? We start off small. When you are a child, big people like your parents are important. Bigger people, the ones who were already grown up, are much more powerful. Sometimes big adults are even scary. Even longer ago, big animals, you must remember, used to eat us.
Big things, whether parent or predator or palm tree, are also important because, to our eye, big things are closer. Ultimately, big things occupy a larger portion of our visual fields. There, big things vie for more of our attention. Important big things stretch, conceptually, into our language (e.g., “I wish you would stop focusing on small matters and see the giant issue we have”). Embodied metaphors transcend language because all people have similar embodied experiences. Big things are important in Zulu, Hawaiian, Turkish, Malay, and Russian. When we make pictures of important things, we do not have to abstract all the way to language metaphors. Just draw important things bigger on the page.
At one point, RJ discusses sparking curiosity in your audience. He says—and I’m paraphrasing—that good stories leave space for the audience to make connections. The book itself does this beautifully—not prescribing “do this” or “don’t do that,” but rather making observations and leaving the reader space to make connections and extrapolate to their own work.
I found myself experiencing both excitement and sadness as I neared the end: excitement, as I could tell it was building in a grand crescendo, sadness that it would soon be over. That sadness abated quickly, however, when I got the chance soon after ending my own experience with the book to talk with RJ about it. You can listen to our conversation:
There are a lot of fun and inspiring surprises throughout Info We Trust that I won’t spoil for you. Let me just end by saying that I highly recommend this book and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Thank you, RJ, for creating Info We Trust and for sharing it with us all!