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Reviewing Andy Kirk’s “Data Visualization: a successful design processs”

2013 January 15
by Ben Jones

This book on data visualization by Andy Kirk of goes beyond its promise – it not only outlines a successful design process, as the title suggests, it also delivers an overview of the field of data visualization, a summary of key techniques and tools, and references to a litany of helpful resources. Most importantly, Andy demonstrates the type of mindset needed to bring people of all backgrounds together in this burgeoning field: humility and open-mindedness.

A statesman for the field
This should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following Andy recently. Over the past year, Andy has been travelling around the world conducting 1-day training sessions on data visualization, so he’s had the opportunity to discuss this topic with more people than most. If anyone sees the big picture in this field, it’s Andy. Last year I spent some time talking with Andy after his first European tour, and we recorded our conversation, which you can listen to here.

A proven methodology
While conceding that the process of creating a data visualization can be iterative or even messy at times, Andy seeks to outline a “structured design approach” that will help a designer progress from an initial goal through to publishing and beyond into reviewing the final creation. This approach was utilized by Andy in creating his “The Pursuit of Faster”, which won honorable mention in’s Olympics contest of summer 2012, so he has used it with success. For those of you allergic to “process” in creative endeavors, have no fear – the process Andy outlines is anything but rigid.

Points I vehemently agree with 

In outlining his process, Andy makes a number of key points that I strongly agree with, such as focusing on the reader, applying “editorial focus” to tell the story, and being open to constructive criticism. Andy understands the need to achieve both form (aesthetics) and function (effectiveness), and gets the order right – make it work before you make it beautiful. Also, he talks about the need to respect “visualization ethics”, and to strive for accuracy. He doesn’t just talk about it, he gives a list of things to watch out for.  Andy encourages the reader to put their work out there, whether on a blog or an online forum somewhere, and to connect with others – an approach that has benefited me greatly over the past two years.

I’ve made some of these same points here, just not as articulately as Andy does in his book. These are sentiments I’ve seen expressed by others in the field, most notably Alberto Cairo, who was one of my fellow technical reviewers for Andy’s book. Alberto’s book “The Functional Art” was also published recently, and is a fantastic read.

Points that challenged me
There were a number of suggestions interwoven in Andy’s description of his process that I found particularly convicting, and essentially boil down to steps I often skip. Here they are:

  • Keep a notebook of project work – I haven’t done this to date, and regret it. What I do have is a record of the final product, and I’d like to see a record of my thoughts and steps taken.
  • Clearly articulate the project’s reason for existence and intended effect – many times I just dive right into a project without really specifying what I hope to accomplish with the end product, or what “success” would look like. These aren’t just helpful things to jot down, they’re foundational to any project.
  • Only use interaction if necessary – some of the best visualizations are static. I often find myself adding interaction when it probably isn’t needed. Some of my most shared projects aren’t all that interactive.

Final take-aways
Andy advocates an approach to data visualization that is balanced and comprehensive. He understands and appreciates the “gray” inherent the endeavor, and applies a level of diligence and attention to detail that is required to find a winning solution. This book by Andy is a must-read for anyone seeking to hone this particular craft as he clearly lays out the steps one must take on the journey, even if those steps won’t be taken in neat succession. The book left me with a long list of healthy reminders and questions to ask myself the next time I decide to tell a story with data, and ways to do get those questions answered.

If you’ve read it, feel free to leave a comment – I’d love to know your thoughts.



11 Responses leave one →
  1. January 15, 2013

    Hi Ben,

    Great review. I haven’t purchased Andy’s book, but have relied heavily on his slide shares. I’ve even used one of his slide sets in a training (just wish he had been there to deliver it). I will definitely purchase his book now.

    I recently started using Endnote to keep track of idea bits, articles and links for my Tableau public visualizations. Have you tried it yet, it’s a great resource – and free!

    Another tip that I use at work when creating workbooks is to put the project question(s) in the dashboard titles in very large font. It helps keep all of us focused each time we meet to review and make changes. Sometimes those questions even end up staying as the title, which is not typical for a business report, but helps the user understand the purpose of the dash that they’re looking at.


    • January 17, 2013

      Hi Kelly – thanks for the comment! His slides are great, like this recent one I got to hear him deliver live earlier this month at Tableau HQ.

      I’ve never heard of Endnote – Do you mean Evernote? I have it & love it, I just don’t use it as much as I should.

      Great tip – the viz itself should articulate its purpose clearly.

  2. January 15, 2013

    Hi Ben, your review reminds me that I should definitely write one. In addition to reading the book I also had the chance to attend one of Andy’s 1-day training. While there are arguably more than a handful of professionals who have an equivalent level of both culture and experience of data visualization, I feel only Andy is able to do what he does in his training. During the sessions you really get to appreciate his commitment to remain aware of every aspect of the field and his skill in delivering the content and involving the audience.

    I wanted to come back on the notebook aspect. Over the last months I felt the need to improve my design skills. I’ve read a bunch of books and to keep a story short my conclusion was this. A designer is not so much an artist but someone that sketches, someone that practices sketching on a daily basis. And sketching is an intellectual, abstract activity; it is not principally a manual activity and has only little to do with drawing. Finally sketching is incremental, so practicing sketching requires leaving a trail of sorts. So I really encourage everybody involved in visualization to look into sketching.

    • January 17, 2013

      Thanks Jérôme! I agree with your sentiments about the 1-day session – really well delivered.
      Re: sketching – I’ve always admired great sketchers. Some of my fellow participants in Alberto’s MOOC last year sketched their notes, and I found it fascinating. When you say it’s not principally a manual activity, do you mean that you can create “sketches” in other ways than the obvious pencil & paper drawings? I’d like to know more about that.

  3. January 15, 2013

    Great stuff! Does he mention at all the process Ben Fry also laid out for this? I’m currently reading his book Visualizing Data where he lays out a similar process that I tend to also like.

    • January 17, 2013

      Hey Ben, thanks! No, I don’t think Ben Fry’s 7 stages (acquire/parse/filter/mine/represent/refine/interact) is mentioned in Andy’s book, but I found it a very helpful process also.

    • January 17, 2013

      Wait, this is one data blogger Ben commenting on another Ben’s data blog about a 3rd Ben’s data book…Causation or mere Correlation?

  4. Kevin Taylor permalink
    February 18, 2013

    Enjoyed the book and found it to be a great way to organize the design process. Have done a lot of these things but seemingly unconsciously so this will be a great resource moving forward.

    However, was more than disappointed with the exclusion of color in the printed version of the book. Counted at least 20+ references to color, including an entire section on color. Hard to follow a blue to red diverging scale in gray. Or the 3D pie chart that show up as 1 gray color, as if the 3D wasn’t bad enough.

    Again, I applaud the content of the book, just can’t justify grayscale printing in ANY Data Viz book. Would have gladly paid $10 more.

    • February 19, 2013

      Thanks Kevin – I agree on the point about lack of color in the print version, and I know that this isn’t what the author preferred.

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