The structure of a data visualization book

There is no one-size-fits-all datavis, but most books are written from a very generic or a graphic design perspective, Stephen Few’s books being one of the exceptions [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][update: should have also mentioned Naomi Robbins’s book]. So, I decided to write an unsexy entry level data visualization book for the illiterate and artistically challenged spreadsheet user (I also wanted to know if I could come out with a reasonably consistent vision). It is oh-so-late-but-almost-done-now, so I decided to share with you its structure and hope you’re kind enough to send some feedback.

The constraints

From the beginning I defined some constraints:

  • The book is all about charts, no maps, no networks.
  • Every concept must be illustrated by a concrete example.
  • Real-world data.
  • All charts presented in the book must be made in Excel and unpolished by illustrator or something.
  • It’s a datavis book: it uses Excel but will not teach how to make charts in Excel.
  • It’s an ebook (for the moment) so no worries about printing costs.

Table of contents

Probably there are no surprises here, but the sequence may be a little unexpected. The whole book is structured around a few ideas discussed in chapters 1 and 2, one of them illustrated by the image above (is it a landscape model a simple area chart? Does it matter?).

  1. The building blocks. Where I discuss aliens, Magritte’s pipe and this idea of using geometric primitives and visual variables to design visual landscapes of abstract concepts. An example shows how a relatively common visualization (comparison of two pie charts) can perform so poorly when compared to a much simpler but effective slope chart.
  2. Human perception. Basic physiology of the eye, gestalt laws, short memory and pre-attentive processes. Cleveland, Weber, Stevens, and what to do minimize perceptual issues.
  3. Beyond perception. “Social pragnanz”, culture, rules and where to break them, graphical literacy, corporate culture, specialized contexts.
  4. Data preparation. Most Excel users are not aware of how important it is to have a well structured table. This chapter discusses this and basic ETL.
  5. What is information visualization. Definition, of datavis. Point, pattern and outlier detection tasks. From points to shapes and patterns. Skills.
  6. From exploration to explanation. The process from asking a question to communicating the results.
  7. How to choose a chart. Based on my classification of chart types.
  8. Comparison. Bars, slopes, points.
  9. Composition. Pies and what to do about them.
  10. Distribution. Scatterplots, histograms.
  11. Evolution. Lines, horizon charts and connected scatterplots.
  12. Relationship. Scatterplots.
  13. Profiling. Scatterplot matrixes, small multiples, horizon charts, trellis.
  14. Charts and graphic landscape. Dashboards. Multiple charts for multiple perspectives.
  15. Aesthetics in information visualization. After the data is ready, everything is design, but you don’t have to be designer to make effective charts. Emotion, reason of both?
  16. Color: how to avoid a catastrophe. What is color. How to use stimulus intensity to minimize color clashes and prioritize your message. Color and visual tasks. Here is the color wheel if you need it, but color harmony is just nice-to-have.
  17. How to format a chart. Scales, legends, titles, 3D. Some lies.
  18. Visualization in an organizational context. Exploration and communication cycles, effectiveness vs. impression management.
  19. Microsoft Excel as a visualization tool, and beyond. How to avoid Excel defaults, beyond the library, when and where to go next.

So, is something missing? Please share it in the comments below.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

15 thoughts on “The structure of a data visualization book

  1. Thanks Warren. Yes, that’s the plan. I don’t want to explain how to make them because it’s not an Excel handbook, but I’ll share the ones that go beyond basic formatting.

  2. Jorge,
    Perfect! It definitely fills a gap and I am looking forward to it – especially for my students.

    Do you integrate Sparklines and the challenge of their correct use? And conditional formatting? As this in itself could be a valuable chart too.

    + I agree with Warren.

    All the best along your way to the book!!


  3. Hello Jorge,
    I am looking forward to reading this as I have learned a lot from you and Stephen Few. I particularly like that this book and its charts are Excel centric. May I ask when and where this will be available?

    Keep up the great work!

  4. Thanks Richard. A draft version should be available over the next few weeks. It will be available from this site. It will be an PDF e-book. I haven’t decided yet about iBook or Kindle versions.

  5. My dataviz journey was closely linked to Excel upskilling. You understand the required outcome from studying dataviz, and then need to execute in Excel. I understand why you are keeping the two separate – focus – but since you have deliberately included Excel as a constraint I wonder if you shouldn’t have a parallel book where users can go to understand how to execute in Excel. Each book could refer to the other, as appropriate.

    Some fairly basic dataviz staples – a stacked bar with a line across, for progress with respect to target, for example – are not trivial to achieve in Excel.

    – juanito

  6. Juanito, it’s not so much about focus, it’s about trying to design a framework for Excel users or, more generally, for business visualization. There are great datavis books out there but, as an Excel user, I keep asking myself “how can I do this using the tool my organization wants me to use?”. There will be a downloadable file for readers to explore, so this can, to some extend, replace the how-to manual.

    And if you don’t want me to throw up, please don’t ask me to write another book! 🙂

  7. Jorge,

    I revisit and recommend your site often and this sounds like a great book and will be brilliant that there will be a downloadable file(s) available to work along with too as I really like the idea it can all be done within Excel alone. Congratulations on tackling such a book, I’m really looking forward to it! Well done!

  8. Hello Jorge,

    I like the outline of the book. Would it be an idea to include something on choropleth maps or on animated charts?


  9. Thanks Anton. Animation is discussed as a visualization technique (pros/cons). Since I have a few maps in the blog I’ll discuss them in the context of “going beyond the Excel chart library”. But I’m not focusing on maps right now.

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