recommended reading: Info We Trust


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!

InfoWeTrust RJ in Office.jpg

the functional art

It's a little beat up and has scraps of paper sticking out in various directions marking pages I want to refer back to: it's my copy of the functional art by Alberto Cairo, and it's been everywhere with me over the past month - from LA to DC to Milwaukee, and several places in between (yes, that probably means I'm a slow reader). I finished it on my latest plane ride home. In a word: it was awesome.

As the subtitle declares, the focus of the book is information graphics and visualization. Alberto has a conversational, super accessible writing style. His research is augmented with his extensive experience in data journalism and the book is filled with illustrative stories and examples.

the functional art begins with a section on Foundations - what visualization is and does, the importance of building a narrative structure, and introduces a visualization wheel to evaluate competing priorities. It then moves into Cognition - discussion of the eye, the brain, and how people see. The third section focuses on Practice - the infographic creation process and interactive graphics. While I enjoyed the entire book, the final section, Profiles, was my personal favorite - it recaps Alberto's interviews with various practitioners working with infographics. I also enjoyed examining the various examples throughout the book and seeing the progression from sketches to final product.

The book was inspiring, as is Alberto's work in general. I had the pleasure of speaking with him a couple of months ago, when he was getting ready to launch the first massive online course on an Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization through the Knight Center. This 6 week course filled up quickly, so a second was recently announced that begins in January (details here). Alberto also teaches at the University of Miami and blogs at His passion in this space is clear and from what I've seen, permeates through all that he does.

For those interested in infographics or data visualization in general, I highly recommend the functional art; you can purchase a copy of it here.

visualize this

Nathan Yau writes one of my favorite data visualization blogs, FlowingData. His recently published book has been sitting on my shelf untouched for much too long. Earlier this week, I decided to remedy that.

His book is Visualize This. Subtitle: The FlowingData Guide to Design, Visualization, and Statistics. It's written in the first person and is super accessible, full of examples and anecdotes to make the lessons real. The book includes references to a lot of publicly available data and also has links to each dataset used, so the reader can follow along through the steps that are explained.

After starting with an introduction on telling stories with data (obviously near and dear to my heart), the book jumps into the practical question of how. There are step by step instructions for scraping data from websites, using Python to reformat it, and the strengths and weaknesses of various out of the box applications and programming languages for analyzing and visualizing data.

By his own words, Nathan's book is "example-driven and written to give you the skills to take a graphic from start to finish." It accomplishes this goal. The middle chapters each focus on a different kind of visualization problem: visualizing patterns over time, visualizing proportions, visualizing relationships, spotting differences, and visualizing spatial relationships. Yau follows a thorough, hands on approach. For example, in the chapter focused on time series, he goes through what to look for, the best types of graphs to use in different scenarios, how to load the data into and plot in R, and how to fine tune the visual using Illustrator. Relevant statistical methods are incorporated as makes sense, for example, smoothing and estimation.

While there is some very solid foundational material, the majority of the book is focused on the practical question of how to actually analyze and visualize the data. It seemed to me most tailored to the person who is looking to move beyond Excel and the like and get started using R and Illustrator (with some time devoted to interactive graphics as well).

Throughout, Nathan's graphics are beautiful and accessible - great examples of effective data visualization. He follows the rules he sets forth in every one:

  • explain encodings,
  • label axes,
  • keep your geometry in check,
  • include your sources, and
  • consider your audience.

The final chapter focuses on designing with a purpose. He says he always assumes that people are showing up to his graphics blindly and puts the onus on himself as the designer to prepare the audience with the relevant context and insights. "After you learn what your data is about, explain those details in your data graphic. Highlight the interesting parts so your readers know where to look. A plain graph can be cool for you, but without context, the graph is boring for everyone else."

Well said, Nathan!