The Captain's Picks: "Beautiful Visualization: Looking at Data Through the Eyes of Experts" Aaron Koblin

To finish off the Captain's Picks mini-series, we chose a more recent title that has been a point of reference for many DataViz enthusiasts. Aaron Koblin, along with a number of creative and inspirational contributors, published a brilliant book entitled: "Beautiful Visualization: Looking at Data Through the Eyes of Experts." Just so we are clear, this book is not a 'how-to' book, rather, it tells the reader how some very well-known visualizations were made, in detail. The book consists of 20 chapters, written in an essay-style format, by 24 contributors. Some very well known Data Visualization enthusiasts are among the contributors, which makes it all the more inspirational. Taking one of these authors as an example, Noah Iliinksky,  who works as a Visualization Expert at IBM's Center for Advanced Visualization, describes beautiful data visualization as "novel, informative, efficient, and aesthetic." In order to do this, he describes it in four key steps:

1) Stepping outside default parameters: "In most situations, well-defined formats have well-defined rational conventions of use: line graphs for continuous data, bar graphs for discrete data, pie graphs for when you are more interested in a pretty picture than conveying knowledge." In other words, in order for the visualization to appear beautiful, it must be novel and create shock and awe.

2) Make it informative Noah points out the obvious here, in that there should be a clear understanding of the message and needs of the audience are key in doing so. Sometimes when creating beautiful visualizations, even the simplest of guidelines can be overlooked, such as this one.

3) Efficiency "Every bit of visual context will make it take longer to find any particular element of the visualization." In other words, visualize what matters most and eradicate the part that doesn't, or relocate it to the background so it doesn't distract.

4) Leverage Aesthetics Use simple components of graph (titles, axes, etc.) to increase utility of the visualization.

Other noteworthy authors include: Jessica Hagy, Johnathan Feinberg (Wordle), Martin Wattenberg & Fernanda Viegas (Visualizing Wikipedia). Of course the author Aaron Koblin deserves special mention, for his impressive work on flight patterns across the US along with his colleague Valdean Klump. See more on this project from his awesome TED Talk from 2011. The book does not serve the purpose of just learning about visualization tools, on the contrary, the reader will learn about data, what questions to and not to ask, and how to convey the appropriate message.

The book is available from Amazon here.

And this concludes our Captain's Picks series, we hope you enjoyed reading about the books that have been an inspiration to us over the years!


The Captain.