A better kind of Visualisation Book

Opinion, UX, Visualisation

In a recent blog post, the invariably interesting Robert Kosara points out that:

“After you’ve seen one visualization book, you’ve seen them all.“

And, having read quite a few, I must say, man is he right. They tend to be big on beautiful full colour reproductions, and short on insights and techniques.  You generally emerge from having read a visualisation book, none the wiser on how actually to conceive, design, or implement compelling, and more importantly, useful visualisations.  Okay, in most visualisation books you can pull out a few useful tips and find some inspirational designs – but generally, it’s pretty slim pickings.

Recently though, I’ve hit a rather rich vein, and I’m hoping I can find more of the same.  At RMA we’ve been doing some fascinating work with the insurance industry on visualising natural catastrophe risks (think Hurricanes, Floods and the like) and exposure to insurance liabilities.  This has led me away from the usual bevy of beautifully illustrated generalist visualisation books to ostensibly dryer specialist visualisation books.

Here are a couple, catchy titles, fancy coffee table ready cover designs, n’ all:

Thematic Cartography and Geovisualization Terry A. Slocum et al

Visualizing data William S Cleveland

The “Thematic Cartography and Geovisualization” book is a breath of fresh air.  It’s poorly designed, has hardly any nice looking visualisations in it.  But once you actually start reading it you find a treasure trove of concretely useful, mature and validated visualisation techniques.  It serves as a start contrast to the rest of the data and information visualisation field.  Here is a textbook, with a solid chapter on each of the key techniques for visualisation data on maps – e.g. a Choropleth. It goes into detail about how and when the techniques should be used, how the data should be prepared, their inherent weaknesses, the pros and cons of the various work arounds.  This is invaluable information condensing the collective knowledge of the GIS community into an accessible and re-usable form.  If only there more textbooks of this kind for non-geo visualisations!

A example of a choropleth visualisation of an insurer’s ‘Aggregate’ exposure

“Visualising Data” by William Cleveland, is actually a rather famous, and oft cited book.  But I’ll wager that not many people have actually read it.  Rather like the last book, it’s actually a very focused subject matter specific book.  It’s about visualisation techniques for statistical analysis; characterising distributions and the relationships between the properties of a system.

Again, while elegantly minimal, the visualisations certainly aren’t the eye-candy we’re used to seeing in a visualisation book.  The prose is terse and there’s quite a bit of maths.  But again, it’s filled with analytical visualisation techniques that clearly delivery insights.  Interestingly for each technique, Cleveland works through a series of interesting data sets, using the techniques to analyse the data and drive out insight.  It is perhaps telling how rarely this approach is taken by authors of visualisation books.

A scatterplot matrix from “Visualising Data”

Basically the overall learning for me, is to read more narrowly focused visualization books – books from domains where visualisation has been intensively used for driving out insight; where the visualisations have been honed and matured to the point where they demonstrably do work.