TFA: Ch. 2 Forms and Functions: Visualization as a Technology

The function constrains the form.

How to evaluate a graphic:

If we accept that a graphic is a tool, what tasks is this one trying to help me with?

  1. The graphic must present several variables
  2. It should allow for easy comparisons
  3. It should organize the variables
  4. Is should outline correlations or relationships

For example if you were looking at an unemployment in the U.S. graphic, you should be able to decipher in less than 5 seconds:

  1. In which state has unemployment grown the most?
  2. In which state has it dropped the most
  3. Has the unemployment change been bigger in Michigan, Florida or California?
  4. Has unemployment dropped more in New York, New Jersey or Pennsylvania?


Once you’ve establish the goals of the graphic, you have to consider its shape.

Consider whether or not to compare using absolute variables or derived variables. For instance if you were comparing crime in a large and small city, you wouldn’t use absolute numbers because of course the larger city would have more crime. Instead you would divide crime by the city’s population then multiply by 100,000 to have the derived variable ‘crime per 100,000 people’.


Bursting the Bubble Chart

Bubble charts are not good for showing comparison because the human brain is not good at calculating surface sizes. It is better at comparing a single dimension such as length or height.

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Always ask yourself: “What are users likely going to try to do with your tool (aka graphic)?”


TFA: from information to wisdom


Unstructured information means reality. Data is recorded observations. Structured information is formed by a communicator representing the data in a meaningful way. Consuming the structured information leads to knowledge. Wisdom is reached by achieving a deep understanding of acquired knowledge, and being able to process new information with prior experience.

Information architecture – to anticipate the process above and create order before a user’s brain tries to do it on their own

Information design – the art and science of preparing information so that it can be used by human beings with efficiency and effectiveness

Infographics is a type of information design which branches from information architecture

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To visualize is to make certain phenomena and portions of reality visible and understandable; many of these phenomena are not naturally accessible to the bare eye, and many of them are not even of visual nature.

-Joan Costa, Spanish professor of design


The Functional Art: Introduction

Themes of Alberto Cairo’s The Functional Art (TFA).

1. The brain doesn’t just process information that comes through the eyes. It also creates mental visual images that allow us to reason and plan actions that facilitate survival. Understanding how your brain forms mental images will help you be a better communicator.

2. Infographics and information visualization exist on a continuum. They are not two separate disciplines. Traditionally they have been defined as: infographics present information by means of statistical charts, maps, and diagrams; information visualization offers visual tools that an audience can use to explore and analyze data sets. Or infographics tell stories designed by communicators and information visualizations helps users discover stories on their own.

Cairo argues that the two exist on one spectrum with both a presentation and an exploration component.


All graphics ‘present’ data and allow a certain degree of ‘exploration’. Ones that focus more on presentation could be considered more infographics and others that focus more on exploration could be considered visualizations.

3. Graphics, charts, and maps aren’t just tools to be seen, but to be read and scrutinized. The first goal of an infographic is not to be beautiful just for the sake of eye appeal, but, above all, to be understandable first, and beautiful after that; or to be beautiful thanks to its exquisite functionality.

4. The relationship between visualization and art is similar to the linkage of journalism and literature. A journalist can borrow tools and techniques from literature, and be inspired by great fiction writing, but they will never allow their stories to become literature. This idea can be applied to visualization, which is above all, a functional art.