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"The Best Design Advice I Ever Got" with Alberto Cairo

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Underneath the packaging, an infographic serves a very simple purpose—to educate. Alberto Cairo, professor of information graphics and visualization at the University of Miami and author of The Functional Art: An introduction to information graphics and visualization, talks about the importance of making infographics work on an instructional level.
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Alberto Cairo

Job Experience:

I teach information graphics and visualization at the University of Miami. Prior to that, I was director of infographics at Época magazine (Brazil, 2010-2011), assistant professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (U.S., 2005-2009), and director of online infographics at El Mundo (Spain, 2000-2005). I am the author of The Functional Art: an Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization, which will be published by Peachpit in September 2012.

Most Notable Achievement:

I would cite three: First, writing the book that I had been meaning to write for so many years (The Functional Art), which gathers what I have learned in my career, and from so many colleagues and experts. Second, having been able to work with tons of wonderful students at the University of Miami and at UNC-Chapel Hill; many of them are today at top media organizations. Third, having the privilege of leading the team that created the animated graphics about the March 11, 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid. They look a bit dated today, but I think that they still pass the test of time.


The central idea in my storytelling and design philosophy—which lies at the core of The Functional Art as well—can be summarized in just one sentence: an information graphic (whether it is a chart, a map, a diagram, or an explanatory illustration) should be thought of as a cognitive tool that facilitates understanding. Therefore, aesthetic concerns, being also crucial, should arise after (or during, in some cases) processing, structuring, and organizing your information correctly, not before. The priority for information designers should be to extract meaning from data and information, or to create tools that viewers can manipulate to build meaning by themselves.

I usually explain this idea with a personal and somewhat simplistic motto: A good infographic should be functional as a hammer, multilayered as an onion, and beautiful and true as an equation (or as a scientific theory). An information graphic must be precise, accurate, efficient, and deep before the designer can apply his or her own visual style or typographical and color preferences to the display. I'm not being that original here, of course: many others have given similar advice in one way or another. Think of Edward Tufte, William Cleveland, Nigel Holmes, Howard Wainer, Stephen Few, Naomi Robbins, Steven Kosslyn, etc. But I try to dig deeply into this philosophy, and analyze what its very real consequences are on the daily work of graphics professionals.

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