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It's Just Too Easy

Once you’ve seen one visualization book, you’ve seen them all. They tend to all look similar, use the same examples, and don’t provide much depth. Is it too easy to write a book when you can use such compelling images?

I’m reading a visualization book right now, and I’m disappointed. I don’t even blame this particular book, they all kind of look the same: lots of images, many of them full-page and laid out well, but the text doesn’t go very deep or really provides much in addition to the image. Yes, there are exceptions; but the majority of books does exactly that.

Today I realized that I’m not just frustrated by this particular book, I’m frustrated by the entire class of visualization books. And that led me to an insight. There is a deeper problem.

To understand the issue, let’s talk about photography. Think of the books in the photography section of your local bookstore. What do they look like? Large images, many of them full-page and laid out well, with little text. I would wager a bet that most people never even read any of the text in these books. And why would they? Let the pictures speak and don’t get in the way.

Many visualization books are like that. They collect lots of great examples that the reader can spend a lot of time looking at and studying. Likewise, a collection of the greatest photographs of the last 100 years would not need much text. What is there to add?

But those are art books. The goal is to experience the photographs, not to learn how photography works. There are books for that, which are not the big coffee table books, but the smaller ones nestled in between them.

Visualization already has the coffee table books, we need more of the small-format theory and technique books. With such a visual medium, many books that are meant to be the latter end up being the former. That’s what annoyed me about Manuel Lima’s book last year: it promised some theory, but what it delivered was just lots of pretty and interesting pictures.

But there is also an important difference between photography and visualization: task. We know, or have an assumption about, what we want from a visualization. That means we can test it. We also know a lot more about the perception of quantitative data than we do about the perception of art. And then there’s all the theory of visualization based on data types, semiotics, etc. that we can use to ground our decisions in. So there is plenty of material to draw from. Visualization books don’t need to be coffee table books.

Here are a few ideas about what can be done to keep future book projects from slipping into the coffee table category.

  • Fewer pictures, more text. If you’re selling your book on the pictures, don’t be surprised if that is all people look at. Writing a lot more means that the text becomes the focus of the book. You can’t write a visualization book without pictures, but it needs to be about the thinking, your thinking, not about the work others have done and that you think is good.
  • Not just the classics. Oh, your book contains Nightingale’s polar area plot? How unusual and unexpected! I’m sure you have a lot of novel things to say about it.
  • Construct good and bad examples. Here’s where the photo books come in handy as a guide. How do they show lighting technique, for example? Not by parading famous pictures by Diane Arbus and Sebastiao Salgado, but by setting up a shot and going through variations, good and bad. We need the same thing for visualization. Show what decisions need to be made along the way, and which ones are good and which ones aren’t. Demonstrate, don’t just point at the same old examples.
  • Provide the added value. What is your unique value proposition? What are you adding? Why should people buy your book rather than just find the great examples online? What are they paying for?
  • Make connections and go deeper. What many people who read these books are looking for is not just the examples, but understanding. Why does something work or not work? What are the reasons? Many books present some perceptual basics, but how are those actually applied? That stuff isn't obvious, and needs a lot more explanation.

Taking lots of great and interesting images and putting them into a book with some writing is just too easy. Don’t fall into that trap. Instead, tell people what works and what doesn’t, explain and demonstrate, rather than just point.

Posted by Robert Kosara on July 17, 2013. Filed under criticism.