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Author Talk: Alberto Cairo on the Functional Art of Infographics (Podcast Transcript)

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New Riders/Peachpit Publisher Nancy Ruenzel talks with 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. Alberto names some of his favorite designers and data visualizers working in the field today, and discusses the complex relationship between function and form.

This interview is a transcription of the podcast, Alberto Cairo on the Functional Art of Infographics.

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Nancy Aldrich-Ruenzel:  Well, I’m here today with the author of the brand new book The Functional Art whose name is Alberto Cairo.  Congratulations Alberto.

Alberto Cairo:  Thank you so much and thank you for having me. 

Nancy:  We’re delighted to have you.  I’ve been waiting for this book for years.  It’s called The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization, and this is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart because I’m a huge fan of folks like Edward Tufte and Nigel Holmes, and I’ve always believed that there was room in the market for a book that could be used in the classroom or could be used by just anyone wanting to learn information graphics, understanding the brain science behind it and also the practical message.  So I think you’ve pulled it off, Alberto, and I wonder if you could share with us why you wrote the book and who you wrote the book for.

Alberto:  Well, I wrote the book, first of all, because when I started teaching in the U.S. back in 2005--I used to be a professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, now I am in the University of Miami--but when I got to UNC Chapel Hill I was asked to teach a course about information graphics and visualization for communication students.  Although at the end I had students from many different schools.  But I discovered that basically when I wanted to recommend some reading materials to those students I had to pick chapters from different books.  So I got a little bit of Tufte, a little bit of Nigel Holmes and a little bit of William Cleveland, so I got to get a little bit of everything.  And the other problem that I had is that many of the reading materials that I had were wonderful, because all those books are just wonderful, but they were not written specifically for communication students, graphic design students, that didn’t have the technical background required to understand those texts.  So what I decided to do was to write a book that was, at the same time, comprehensive in the sense that it covers everything you basically need to know to get a start in information graphics and at the same time that it was written in a conversational style that can be understood by almost anybody, even if you don’t have any previous background in the field. 

Nancy:  That’s a great explanation.  What is the field, anyway?  I mean, I’ve heard people call it infographics or they’ve called it, you know, charts and graphs or visualizations, but you’re calling it a “functional art”.  Can you tell us why?

Alberto:  Yes.  The reason I tried to create like a broad label, a new label for these areas, is because actually infographics and visualization is not a single thing, as you said.  It’s many things at the same time.  On one side, you have infographics, which are basically graphic representations of information that are tightly edited and directed in some sense by the designer.  So the designer or journalist who creates the graphic decides what content and what data should be displayed in the graphic and he or she creates a headline and creates a structure for the information, and that is an infographic.  But on the other hand you also have designers and programmers who are creating interactive applications that allow readers to access data and to manipulate that data somehow in graphical form, meaning that they represent the data, but you can choose several options to filter the data, to sort the data, to look for a specific data point, and that is usually called information visualization or data visualization.  That is a trendy label that is used nowadays.  But what I found out and what I decided, or what I discovered, is that there are common trends between those two fields.  They have several things…in common, meaning that when you are designing a graphic you have to care about how information is structured on the page and you have to care about how readers will access that information, so the whole title of the book is related to that idea, to the idea that when you want to create a piece of graphic communication, or information visualization, you have to think about first about the structure and about respecting the integrity of the data and the right structure of the information before you care about aesthetics or before you care about the visual appeal of the graphic.  Even if the visual appeal and aesthetics are also important, they are secondary compared to the goal of making things understandable and accessible and clear. 

Nancy:  So what you’ve just said supports the adage that form follows function.  So when you’re using color or type, you’re making those choices based on what supports the data.  Is that right?

Alberto:  Yes.  Actually one of the main points of the book, I actually discuss the sentence “that form follows function,” and I discuss all the nuances that you have to think about when you find that sentence for the first time.  I explain that the relationship between function and form is not as clear as it seems.  It’s a little bit fuzzy so I don’t usually say that function determines the form a graphic should adopt or a set of data should adopt in a graphic, but I usually say that function constrains the variety of forms that the data can adopt.  Meaning that, and this is an example that I use in my own classes, a very simple example…you have to think about when you’re creating a graphic, is first of all what the goal of the graphic is and what you want your readers to accomplish by using the graphic as if it were a tool, because an infographic or a visualization is first of all a tool.  So one of the things you have to think about first is what is that tool going to be useful for?  You have to actually establish very clearly and define very clearly what the goals of the graphic are.  Once, for example, and I’m going to give you some examples, if the goal is to allow readers to accurately and precisely compare a set of numbers, or a number of magnitudes – you know if you want to compare the average unemployment rate of the different states of the United States, and you want readers to be able to accurately compare those numbers, it is much better to encode the data using a bar chart rather than using a bubble chart because the human brain is much better at comparing just a single magnitude, either length or width or height, rather than area.  So the human brain isn’t very good at comparing areas.  So if you know that, you have to adapt the form of the graphic to the function that that graphic has to facilitate. 

Nancy:  That’s fascinating.  So your book covers a bit of brain science, doesn’t it? 

Alberto:  It does.  There is a whole section, three chapters, in the book about brain science and how it relates to information visualization. 

Nancy:  So it would be important for designers to know how people compute things like area versus length in order to make those decisions.  Do you recommend, if you’re giving career advice to students and designers who want to specialize in this field, are there particular courses of study you recommend beyond reading your book, of course, which is the staple of any classroom?  Maybe you could give some career advice to those folks.  Should they be reading up on brain science?

Alberto:  There are other excellent books and other areas that you can explore.  Certainly cognitive psychology, for example, should be something to consider.  I am not a brain scientist myself, although I like to read about perception, about visual perception, about cognition etc., and I have a good collection of books about it.  I am not a brain scientist, but I have discovered throughout the years that when you go to design school--I’m not a designer either, I didn’t study design but I read about graphic design--all graphic designers and all professors of graphic design talk about the rules of graphic design: unity, variety, higher key bounds.  But what is not explained in many classrooms is that all those rules of graphic design are not arbitrary.  They are not something that came up suddenly in the minds of several professors who made those rules up or anything.  No, they are grounded on how human visual perception works.  So what I did in those chapters in the book was to explain that to students and professionals that the rules that we have learned traditionally are grounded on how our visual perception works.  So if you learn a little bit about visual perception, and if you learn a little bit about how the human brain processes visual information, it’s very likely that what you will learn will help you to make your graphics or your visualizations better.  That doesn’t mean that you have to formally study cognitive science, of course.  Now regarding career advice and places to learn, obviously now that I am at the University of Miami we have started teaching courses on information visualization or information graphics.  We also teach programming here at the Information School of the University of Miami, so this is a good place to come if you want to learn that.  But there are other places as well.  For example, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I taught before, they have a good program that addresses infographics and visual communication, in general.  Then if you’re interested in the most technical side of the field, if you like programming, for instance, or computer science, Stanford University could be a place to consider.  So there are several places that are offering courses on that.  And myself, I am planning to do an online course about it really, really soon, but I will eventually announce in my website and on Twitter.  And regarding books, just to finish with the answer, besides The Functional Art, there are other excellent books out there that I would consider.  Edward Tufte’s, for example, books are fantastic.  They’re wonderful.  Stephen Few’s books specialize in business intelligence and he has written a series of fantastic books about charts and graphs.  Now Naomi Robbins, for instance, she wrote a book about graphs that is excellent.  William Cleveland, for example, is a classic in the field.  Stephen Kosslyn, he teaches at Stanford and he has written several books about the relationship between cognitive psychology and graphics.  So there are plenty of options out there that you can take a look at and be more informed.

Nancy:  Well, that’s great advice and, you know, you mentioned Stephen Few, and isn’t he the one who wrote a review of your book which started by saying “If graphic designer Nigel Holmes and data visualizer Edward Tufte had a child, his name would be Alberto Cairo.”?

Alberto:  Yes, I asked Steve for a review because we met two or three years ago in Spain.  I got him invited to a big infographic summit in Spain called Malofeiej.  It’s the surname, it’s the last name of a very famous infographic designer.  So Steve came over to Spain to Pamplona a couple of years ago and we met in person there.  I had been an admirer of his work for many, many years.  I read his books and I loved his books.  So we met there and we started talking about everything and we became friends.  When I asked him for a review of the book, he had the book before it was published and he loved it, and he said that the book was great and it really covered an area that was not really covered, you know, infographics for communicators, infographics for journalists, infographics for designers.  There was not a book about that or addressed or aimed at those people.  So he read the book and he wrote that sentence.  When he sent me the blurb saying that I was, you know, the supposed son of Edward Tufte and Nigel Holmes, I told him, you know Steve if you say this in Spanish it sounds really, really bizarre.  It sounds really weird.  He said, you know, well I like the sentence, I think that it sounds great.  He said it’s fine for me.  And I said all right, if it’s fine with you, it’s fine with me as well.  So let’s use it. 

Nancy:  Well how can you complain being in the same sentence with those two folks?

Alberto:  Oh, no I’m not complaining, I’m not complaining at all.  It’s an honor actually, a huge honor.  Those are two people, I mean the three of them, Steve Few, Edward Tufte, and Nigel Holmes are people who have been… I mean, I admire them.  I have admired them for 15 years, now.  So it’s a huge honor. 

Nancy:  Speaking of people you admire, who do you think is doing the most interesting work in the field today?  And by that I mean not people who are writing books or teaching, but the actual practitioners who are doing the data visualizations and the infographics that we see every day in the news or on websites.  Do you have any particular favorites right now?

Alberto:  Well I am a huge admirer of the New York Times.  If you teach information graphics today and visualization today, you cannot do that without referring to the New York Times every couple of weeks, basically, because they are so consistent with the quality of their work.  The work is amazing, in general.  Almost everything that they publish is groundbreaking or innovative.  So the New York Times is one of my main references, although there are others.  Sometimes, and this is something that I address in The Functional Art, the New York Times has become so famous, their infographics and visualizations are so famous right now, that they tend to obscure the fact that there are other organizations that are also producing excellent or marvelous works or projects.  National Geographic magazine, for instance, their infographics and visualization work is just outstanding.  It’s great.  The Washington Post, for instance, they have a very, very talented infographics and visualization team that are producing consistently great work.  The Wall Street Journal is doing great things both on the web and in print.  And then the freelancers, there are great freelancers out there both in Europe and in the U.S. who are doing a great job.  For example, Moritz Stefaner, he is from Europe, he’s one of the freelancers that I showcase in the book.  Jan Willem Tulp for example is another very famous freelancer, or Gregor Aisch for instance.  There are several ones that are producing great work out there and I think that we have to consider them all.  They are people that I admire. 

Nancy:  Those are great names, good people to look up and see what they are doing.  So tell us, you included a video course with the book.  Can you tell us more about the course?

Alberto:  Well, yes, the DVD that comes with the book, it actually gives you a glimpse of how I teach in the classroom.  That’s how I teach.  So the slides that are shown in the video course are actually slides that I use in my own classes.  So if you are an instructor, a teacher, a professor or whatever, and you want to start teaching infographics or visualization in your place, well you can use those.  You just grab the screen shots and use them in the classroom.  And the style of teaching in that DVD is also the style that I use in my own classes.  The course addresses many of the things that are explained in the book, but it expands them so I explain several things with much more detail, such as how to apply the classic rules of graphic design to information graphics and notice that I go deeper into specific projects that I talk about in the book.  So, for example, there is a whole lesson about one of the projects highlighted in the book made by National Geographic magazine, I explain that project with much more detail in the DVD.  And then there is a lot of content in the DVD that doesn’t show up in the book.  So, for instance, in the DVD there is a whole lesson about a visualization project made by the Guardian, the British newspaper, and I discuss how that project was developed at the Guardian with a lot of details.  So it’s actually a good tool for the classroom, I believe.

Nancy:  And you also are working on some instructor guidelines.  Is that correct?

Alberto:  Yeah, I actually wrote a teaching guide.  So I wrote like a short article explaining how The Functional Art can be used in an infographics and visualization course, and it will be published, I believe, this week or next week or so.  It should be available at your website, at, if I am not wrong.  In that guide…I explain how I write my own syllabi and how I organize my teaching and I actually give you a very detailed overview…of the classes’ schedule, what I teach in each section and what chapters of the book I use every week, and what skills I teach each week, because I teach how to use software in my classes, mostly Adobe Illustrator and a little bit of Excel, so I also outline that.  I also tell you, well this week I am going to teach, so you should teach, such and such tool.  Next week you should teach such and such tool.  So it’s a very detailed guide on how to use the book in the classroom. 

Nancy:  Terrific.  I’m sure teachers will really appreciate that and we’re hoping all of you teachers listening now definitely take a look at The Functional Art.  I want to thank you and congratulate you again, Alberto, and look forward to chatting again very soon. 

Alberto:  Thank you so much. 


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