Skip to content

Review: Alberto Cairo, The Functional Art

When Alberto Cairo first told me about the book he was writing, called The Functional Art, he warned me that only a small part of it was going to be about visualization. I have no idea what he was talking about, the book I read was a visualization book from start to finish. It is one of the most interesting and insightful books on the topic I have read in a while.

This book is really three books in one, plus a bunch of video lectures. Two books are obvious from the way it is structured, the third one is the collection of visual examples Cairo uses to illustrate his points.

Book 1: The Introduction to Visualization in Journalism

The book’s title is a great description of visualization, and Cairo makes ample use of it to map out the space between making things more informative and making them prettier. He is not against making things pretty, and for good reason. A visualization that looks bad will not attract any readers and so won’t have much of an impact. But the information has to be there, and it can’t be covered up by the decoration.

The writing is generally very good, it flows easily and all his anecdotes help illuminate the process and questions journalists face when designing information graphics. The only exception is a lengthy discussion of Lamarckian evolution in Chapter 2 that could have been cut by two thirds (or entirely). I get the point, but that discussion just feels pointless and out of place in an otherwise very well structured book.

The point he makes in the rest of the chapter, that function constrains form rather than form following function, is an excellent one. In fact, if you take anything at all away from this book (and there’s a lot to take away), this should be it.

Cairo talks about the process and the kinds of questions you need to ask to make an effective information graphic or visualization. As simple as this sounds, he points out how often the wrong questions lead to the wrong priorities and consequently pointless visualizations.

He also connects perceptual and cognitive research with the practical aspects of building static and animated graphics in a more accessible and useful way than I've seen done anywhere else. Perception can be fun to show off (look, invisible gorilla!), but how do you make use of that information? This book builds that bridge quite effectively, and should be required reading for anybody teaching visualization (or even writing a book about it).

One of his recurring themes is the question how much information to pack into a piece. Just as the writing is geared towards adults, he argues, so should be the graphics. There are a lot of assumptions about what readers will and will not understand. But good newspapers gently challenge their readers in their writing, so why not do the same in the graphics?

All this is illustrated with many good examples, quite a few of them Cairo’s own work. He writes from his own experience, enriched by a critical eye towards the world of newspaper graphics. Cairo not only has an impressive work history (including The New York Times and El Mundo), he is also involved in Malofiej as one of the leaders of the Show, Don’t Tell! workshop. He knows what he is talking about.

Book 2: The Interviews with Journalists

Roughly a third of the book is taken up not by Cairo’s writing, but interviews he conducted with a number of interesting people from different backgrounds, including such information graphics greats as John Grimwade (one of the most respected and seasoned people in the business), Juan Velasco (graphics director at National Geographic), journalist Hannah Fairfield (who turned a humble scatterplot into an informative graphic), Truth and Beauty Operator Moritz Stefaner, Hans Rosling (yes, that Hans Rosling), and a number of others.

If you think you’re going to skip that part, think again. These interviews are very well structured and focused, and are illustrated with complete information graphics or visualizations as well as process sketches of how they got there. Process is really underappreciated in visualization, and it’s quite enlightening to learn about how these things were developed, what questions they were after, to what absurd lengths National Geographic goes to get things right, etc.

Quite frankly, I did not expect the interviews to be quite that interesting. But there were lots of interesting insights like the way people talk about data, how much data to show, etc. There are also very different styles, from very InfoVis-like representation of pure numbers to 3D illustrations of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, and several things in between.

Book 3: The Information Graphics Collection

While this is not a coffee table book by any stretch of the imagination, it still lends itself to browsing. Cairo has collected a large number of great examples that show how information is communicated effectively. His own sketches and the ones his interview partners share add to the wealth of visual information. The print is very good, making the graphics very easily readable despite their relatively small size.

Most of his examples are print graphics, and for good reason. There are many fantastic pieces of work that are only slowly starting to be matched by equally good online ones. Malofiej also gave me a new appreciation for the size and density print graphics can have, which are still unmatched by what we can do on screens (where we have either the size or the density, but not both). If you haven't spent much time lately studying information graphics in print, this book will let you catch up with some well-chosen examples.

The only missed opportunity, given the book's topic and Cairo's background, is that he did not include a discussion of Jaime Serra's La Ballena Franca, which won the Most Influential Information Graphic of the Last 20 Years award at Malofiej. There is practically no information available about Serra or the piece in English, which feels like a serious gap in knowledge. It's not Cairo's fault, of course, but I had hoped to see a discussion of this highly-regarded piece in the book.

Bonus: The Video Lectures

The paper version of the book also includes a round silvery plastic disc, which after some research effort on my part turned out to be a so-called Digital Video Diskette (DVD). It stores videos as computer files, rather than in the cloud, so it’s basically like YouTube only you have to be in possession of the necessary hardware to read the bits from the DVD Diskette.

I may just be the wrong audience, but I did not find that the videos added much to the book. The content is delivered much more effectively in the writing, IMHO, where I can spend as much or as little time on each graphic as I want.


Read It. There is really nothing else to say. If you care about how visualization is used to communicate to people, this is the book for you. If you’re a journalist, you need to read it. If you’re an academic doing visualization research, you really, really need to read it. This is the stuff we’ve been missing in visualization for the last 25 years.

Don’t trust my opinion? Nick Diakopoulos thinks it will be the standard text for visual journalists going forward, and even Stephen Few likes it.

Alberto Cairo, The Functional Art. New Riders Press, 2012. Cairo has a website and blog related to the book, is incredibly active on Twitter, and is going to teach the first massive online course on infographics and visualization.

Posted by Robert Kosara on October 8, 2012. Filed under book-reviews, criticism.