Friday, 22 April 2011

Book - Guide to Information Graphics

In most disciplines graphics, as is graphs, are not exactly new. The presentation of data, facts and figures have come to play a important role. Especially with the limited capacities of excel and other spread sheet software this was easy to do, but never really successful. One of the areas graphs play a central role is definitely financing and it is no surprise in this context 'The Wall Street Journal presents its Guide to Information Graphics - The Dos and Don'ts of Presenting Data, Facts, and Figures'.

It is put together by a former student of Edward Tufte, the master of information graphics, Dona M. Wong and published by Norton & Company Inc. She has worked in the industry long enough to know the graphic side of it inside out. This comprehensive guide is looking is great detail at the production, the characteristics and the context of graphs with a specific focus on the representation of financial data.

Talking financial data this is bar or line graphs. This is still probably right and the book does not chalenge this, but puts these tools into a wider context and provides a step by step guide with great detail on how to make the most of these 'well known' tools.

The chalenge is great, mainly because this is probably one of the most traditional markets ever. Especially because it has such a long tradition talking a core element through and making suggestions can be a very delicate matter. On the other hand Wong is also challenging the excel practice and up against the overworked executive assistant who has to put together a final report on facts two minuts before the meeting. It's not laziness but practice that produces these terrible charts.

In this sense Wong reacts to this by making an effort to make the guide look very traditional and simple with a very clear structure. However, the tone of the to dos and don'ts is clearly telling and not suggestive. There is little room for experimentation and invention, the ways to do it are resented about as factual as the bar represents a end of the year sum.

The book talks through all the pitfalls and mistakes commonly made. It has a great introduction highlighting the wider context of chart and the importance of framing, comparison and sectioning. It then looks at font and colour giving some very practical advice on how to avoid the impossibilities in possible combinations. Then it talks through the actual graph types, their strength and weaknesses. After the form, Wang discusses the content and its preparation with the common mistakes made by ignoring some basic math, such as standard deviation, mean and median, distribution and average, but also logarithmic scale and percentage, ending with some money cases. The last chapter is a discussion of problem solving strategies fo 'tricky situations.

Even if you are a frequent charter this hands on book, focusing on the traditional finance market practice has something to tell you and chance are good it will help you improve the message the next time your rushing the data into a pie chart while eating a donut and taking the stairs to the bar.
After reading this it, knowing the rules, it will be time to find out how to brake them.

Information Graphics
Image taken from mostOfYouAreAverage / The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics: The Dos and Donʼts of Presenting Data, Facts, and Figures - Book cover

Wong, D., 2010. The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics: The Dos and Donʼts of Presenting Data, Facts, and Figures, New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

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