So many books, so little time. If you want to know more about information graphics, where should you start?
Here are four books that really helped me get started.
In 2011 I made the decision that I was going to leave market research and insights, and pursue a career in data and information graphics. More on why later, but it’s now 2015 and I am finally able to say that this is my full time job. I don’t have to do the odd insights project to pay the bills (well, fingers crossed), I have a little studio to work from and I really love what I am doing. And because this is all still new to me even after five years, things still feel fresh and exciting.
When I told someone back in January 2011 about what I planned on doing, she asked how I'd get started. I confessed I had NO FUCKING CLUE! I’d done a bit of searching but there seemed to be no course I could do, or book I could buy that spelled out a learning pathway. My immediate social and professional network yielded no clues either. So I made it up as I went along. I'll be sharing more on this “making-do” process of mine as this blog continues, but I guess as my first post on my new site, I wanted to share with you something of value; especially if you too are interested in getting started visualising some data. These are not shortcuts (there are no shortcuts, trust me), but rather books that I have read, re-read, and come back to countless times for tips and inspiration.
So, where do you start? When I began, there were some great blogs that showcased some of the best work being created (and lot sadly of “chart junk”, or as I like to call them “infocrapics”). Where could I turn though if you wanted an "in"?
I really wanted to write this post as I've been navigating this very cluttered space since 2009 (two years before I even thought about making it a my career) and back then it was very hard to work out what was what. There was a lot of googling, dead ends and, to be honest , not much in the way of help about getting started.
If I had my time over, I could have saved lots of faffing about (and let’s be honest, lots of cash!) if I had focussed on only these four books. There are plenty of others out there that are exceptional reads, and I encourage you to seek these out as well (they will come up in the course of me posting more), but if you just get these four books they will provide you with a great start in this field - whether it’s just understanding a bit more about how to become more “literate” in reading information graphics, or helping you lay a foundation for a career in this field.
1. Data Flow: Visualising Information in Graphic Design
When I was still working at an insights agency, I stumbled upon a few blogs that showed amazing graphics using data. These were more like works of art than mere charts. Immediately I could see the possibility of adopting these techniques to tell a “better story” than the ones we were telling via Powerpoint and Excel. In 2009 I ordered for the company this book and POURED over it. I book marked so many pages of things I’d like to try and recreate with data we had, and took it to the people who did our presentations for us. They looked at them, agreed they were amazing, but said they couldn’t reproduce anything like that. That set me off on a 5+ year quest to work out how to do them myself. I still look at this book and the beautiful images it contains, and acknowledge that I *still* can’t do a lot of what’s in there, but I’m learning every day. This is my “goal book” - each week I try and learn a new technique or style to get me a bit closer to this sort of amazing work.
BUY THIS BOOK: to be inspired and wowed. It may leave you needing, like me, to know a lot more!
FlowingData by Nathan Yau was one of the first blogs I followed regularly about data and information graphics (I still do), and I am also a subscriber to a part of his site that provides regular tutorials and visualisation tips. When he released his book Visualise This, I ordered it, and quickly got dragged into his easy tutorials that sat with each of the chapters. I still use at least one of his tips every week in my day to day projects. So a huge return on investment has been gained by buying this book. It also had the mammoth achievement of introducing me to R as well, which I am forever grateful, and that it turn started a long-term investigation into the possibilities of R and visualisation. This was a real “in”, and while I can see that the work contained in Data Flow is completely aspirational, the case studies and tutorials in Visualise This became bread and butter tools for me. Priceless stuff.
BUY THIS BOOK: to get you started in creating high quality, simple and clear graphics, done properly. And if it does nothing else it will get you using R, in a very easy, encouraging way.
I’ve got to admit. When I first thought I’d like to do this crazy thing with information graphics full-time I was attracted to the bright and shiny. I wasn’t very discerning about what was *actually good*. I had a feeling though that producing long, pointless "infocrapics" wasn't my end goal, and thanks to Visualise This, I was getting a lot better at crafting more effective information graphics and seeing what elements were letting my graphics down. When Alberto Cairo released “The Functional Art” I finally felt I had a strong framework from which to build on from the work of Nathan Yau. This book is clear and concise about what works and what doesn’t, but more importantly explains *why*. It set me a strong vision of what I wanted to be doing and why I wanted to do it. A lot of his subject framing is from the tools of data-journalism, which I am attracted to because of my background in storytelling within the insights world. They are very complimentary, and this showed me that I need to draw from this experience rather than run from it.
BUY THIS BOOK: to be shown a clear vision of what makes a great infographic, and why we should care. A must-read if you work in market research or insights and want to understand how to make your story shine, rather than be buried in unnecessary chart junk.
4. The Transformer; Principles of making Isotype charts
This book is small but the impact it had on my thinking and career direction was immense. I became incredibly interested in the work of Gerd Arntz and Isotope when I read a profile on him in Creative Review. I ordered a book on his work, which is great - get it if you have some extra cash and if you are especially interested in early 20th Century graphic design. The book though did not have the same *transformative* impact as this one about the life and work of Marie Neurath. Looking further into the individuals involved in Isotype, founder Otto Neurath’s name is lionised, but sometimes his wife, Marie Neurath is a more of a “side dish”. I found this book completely fascinating. Written by Marie Neurath and Robin Kinross, it changed the way I thought abut a career in information graphics and the role I could play. it shifted the emphasis for me **back to insight** and away from just design (although that’s important too - more for another post!). Marie talks about the role as that of a Transformer**; the person who helps take information and data, and crafts it into a visual form. It’s not just about being a “good designer” or a subject matter expert, but it’s about searching, crafting and distilling information into the story that needs to be told, and doing it in a clear and concise way. I couldn’t help but feel her skills were similar to that of an insights expert - looking at data and working as a central “hub” crafting output and working with domain experts to make it happen. The idea of fusing a skill set that I already had, with one of a designer seems bleedinlgy obvious now, but back then I needed this to show me the way.
BUY THIS BOOK: For all kinds of reasons. It’s giving Marie Neurath the proper acknowledgement of her critical role in this incredibly important and influential stage in information graphics. Read as well if you work in insights, and are looking for a blueprint of a future career path…
So, four great books to get you started! Love to know what you think of them if you give them a go, or indeed if you have read any of them. Did they have the same impact on you?
And if you are already working in or creating information graphics, what books do you recommend to others if they are just starting out and exploring this world?
**Man, my son was really little when I first read this book, and when I type out transformer now I have a little shiver. I'm so glad I read it back then, as I don't think I could even pick it up now after a tiring period of complete Transformer (robots in disguise) saturation*
I've also signed up for a thing called Amazon Associates where if you click on one of the above book links and buy through Amazon, I get a tiny cut and you are helping my book addiction! I've opted to receive payment via Amazon gift vouchers, as I do get a lot of books on information graphics and data visualisation.
Of course, don't feel like you need to buy any of these through Amazon; grab them from wherever you can!