What draws one most to a non-fiction book is a straightforward title that conveys the theme or the promise of the undertaking. The book’s title Good Charts- The HBR Guide to Making Smarter, More Persuasive Data Visualizations couldn’t have been more direct. After having reviewed the book, here’s the verdict: it really overdelivers on the topic.
We always knew the idiom ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ to be true. Visual communication is one of the earliest modes of communication, pictures are entertaining and engaging, pictures help to tell stories. Yet, we took a long time in acting on these insights to facilitate better communication.
Our times are characterized by massive explosion of media, information, and data; we are in an attention economy where people’s attention is the scarce commodity. We are also getting into a data-driven economy that requires communicating vast amounts of data and its meaning. This is where data visualization, which goes far beyond charting data into graphs, comes in. Data visualization is about encoding data, information, and knowledge and presenting it in the form of pictures and text for better understanding. It no longer falls in the realm of specialists; data visualization is the new science of communication and is a vital skill for all professions, particularly business.
We knew all this even before, but we didn’t know how to do it. This know-do gap is hugely important; it’s a survival skill for many professionals. This book addresses that gap. And that’s the only reason to buy this book. The author’s approach is to present data visualization as a craft that is functional, using some bit of art and some bit of science, like a cabinetmaker. This ‘what-why-and-how-to- do- it’ tone of the book is carried from the beginning to the end.
The book is organized along four phases: Understand, Create, Refine, Present and Practice. The ‘understand’ phase covers the history and theory, the art and science, behind visual communication and data visualization. The ‘create’ and ‘refine’ phases takes the reader through the actual work involved in data visualization. The ‘present and practice’ phase dwells on ways in which one can internalize the data visualization skills learnt in the preceding phases.
The book delves into quite a bit of detail and is supported with copious examples that provide insights into how humans consume information. We are trained to see scenes, situations, and pictures in certain ways. The book lists five such conditioned approaches when we are presented with visual information: 1) We don’t go in order 2) We see first what stands out 3) We see only a few things at once 4) We seek meaning and make connections 5) We rely on conventions and metaphors. Knowing these five ways in which we are conditioned to consume visual information is therefore the foundation of data visualization.
The book is replete with examples drawn out of various contexts related to various industries. The book is a visual delight in itself and it is engaging at the same time. More importantly, it demystifies the craft of data visualization as much as it de-mythifies the area. The net result is that it creates a level of comfort and confidence for its readers.
Good Charts is a must-read for both working professionals and students. The book is of special relevance to management, consulting, research, analytics, and IT professionals. In our forthcoming articles, we will present abstracts of some of the most delightful sections of the book.
Author: Scott Berinato; Published by Harvard Business Review ; ISBN:978-1-63369-070-7