Readings 02: Why Visualize?

The main readings are intended to give you a sense of why we do visualization, and why we bother to try to do it correctly. This “Why Visualize” question leads to the how. This week, we’ll also introduce the concept of critique - since it is such an important tool for design.

If you haven’t done the first week’s readings, please do them first.

The first part of the readings look at the “Why Vis” question from the “what can a visualization do” perspective. What are the reasons why we would choose to make a visualization?

The second part of “why” is “why does it work” or “why might a visualization be better than something else.” This gets at the perceptual and cognitive foundations. In the past, we did some readings in the second week to explore those. But it was a bit much - I’ll list them as optional at the end, but we’ll come back to those topics.

The second part of the readings talk about design process and critique. This is much more immediately practical: we will be doing a lot of critique in class.

This week, we’ll also talk about critique and redesign practice, since it is a primary tool we will use to learn about visualization. There are readings about that.

We’ll discuss “Why Vis” on Monday - so please do the first set of readings before lecture on Monday the 13th. We’ll discuss critique on Wednesday, so please read the critique readings before lecture on Wednesday the 15th.

I am listing the readings in the order that I suggest that you read them. So some optional readings come before the required ones.

Why Vis (Readings for Monday 9/13)

  1. (optional) Why Visualize: From Information to Wisdom (Preface and Chapter 1 of The Functional Art) (online at publisher) (theFunctionalArtCh1.pdf 7.8mb)

    This is a great introduction to thinking about data presentation from a journalist’s perspective, with Cairo’s great use of examples, clarity, and connection to a bigger picture. It’s optional since it’s a little off topic (it’s more about Data Journalism), and a little redundant with the other Cairo readings. But it might feel weird to start with Chapter 3 (which is required, next).

  2. The Beauty Paradox (Chapter 3 of Cairo’s The Functional Art) (theFunctionalArtCh3.pdf 11.4mb)

    This chapter gets into the philosophy of evaluation. Cairo has an interesting (and non-academic) perspective. We’re reading this now (rather than when we get to evaluation) because it’s good food for thought, and it has a good discussion of Tufte, so you’re prepared when you read him next.

  3. Graphical Excellence (Chapter 1 of Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information) (1-VDQI-1-GraphicalExcellence.pdf 33.8mb)

    Tufte’s fame, style and personality can get in the way of his message (see my discussion). Cairo (above on the list) will help us understand that. But, there’s no denying that Tufte has had influence - and there is a lot to learn from him.

    Once thing to note with Tufte: he makes his points through critique of examples. His conclusions don’t always follow, but he has nice examples. This chapter is Tufte at his best: good examples showing that visualization can work. Below, we’ll see Tufte at his worst.

And a strong recommendation for the optional readings below… I will talk about them in class (so you might read them after I mention them). Even just read the first few pages (the list of 12 points) of the Ware Chapter The Dance of Meaning (Chapter 9 of Visual Thinking for Design) (Ware-9-Meaning.pdf 2.7mb).

Critique and an Extra Why Vis Reading (for Wednesday 9/15)

We will be talking about how to critique and practicing critique in class. Usually, we just critique – but one of my goals in this class is to teach people to do it more effectively. These readings will hopefully give you some things to think about, although ultimately, I think it just takes practice.

  1. Understanding Critique (Chapter 1 of Discussing Design by Adam Conor and Aaron Irizarry, O’Reilly Books, 2015). Chapter available online as a sampler from the publisher. (pp. 7-25, 18 pages)

    This is part of a whole book on how to critique productively.

  2. Visual Statistical Thinking (Chapter 2 from Tufte’s Visual Explanations (pages 26-53; 27 pages). (3-VE-2-Visual-Statistical-Thinking.pdf 25.1mb)

    This used to be part of “Why Vis” - you visualize because it might save lives. Except that Tufte’s critiques are problematic. So an equally important lesson is how not to do critique.

    This is Tufte at his worst. He describes two historical examples. The point is historical examples where visualization could have saved lives (John Snow’s map of the London Cholera Epidemic and The Challenger Disaster). However, his oversimplification of the role of visualization in these situations makes his points forceful, but incorrect to the point of being unethical.

    The reading on redesign (below) will help us see his flawed critique practice. For (optional) interesting takes on how wrong he was (including the ethics issues) see Kosara’s blog and a more technical analysis by some engineering ethics writers (paper) (conference presentation). There’s also a great Freakanomics podcast that talks about the Challenger disaster (weblink) and makes it clear that a visualization wouldn’t have helped - no matter what Tufte tells Congress.

    But let this be a cautionary tale… critique and redesign are great tools for learning. But don’t forget that we have the benefit of knowing the answers. Hindsight makes a lot of things easier.

  3. Design and Redesign ( Medium posting by Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg)

    The authors are two well known visualization researcher/practitioners who have worked together for years (they are now at Google). They use examples and explanations to show how critique and redesign can be an effective tool, and give advice on how to do it well.

    The reading has a great critique of Tufte’s Challenger chapter (above) that shows why it is not good criticism, and that his redesign isn’t good practice either. And they will give you advice on how to do it well.

    Unfortunately, they also give you some of the examples I like to use in class for practice. I guess I need to find new ones.

Optional for Now

These two readings are a crash course in the perceptual and cognitive foundations in visualization. They are important. But they are so important that adding them to this week is too much. So read them now if you’re curious - we’ll come back to them soon.

  1. (optional for now) The Dance of Meaning (Chapter 9 of Visual Thinking for Design) (Ware-9-Meaning.pdf 2.7mb)

    Yes, we’re reading the last chapter first. It’s basically a summary of the book, followed by the implications - which makes it a pretty self-contained introduction to the perceptual motivations of visualization. It points out some things about how we see, and then tells us how that can help us make effective visualizations. It’s an unusual, informal book (see the discussion), we’ll read more of it later in the semester.

  2. (optional for now) Information Visualization (The first 17 pages of the Introduction to “Information Visualization: Using Visualization to Think” by Card, Mackinlay, and Schneiderman) (01-InfoVis-CardMackinlaySchneid-Chap1.pdf 77.4mb).

    This is a 1999 book that consists of this intro, and a bunch of seminal papers. The examples are old, but the main points are timeless. It is the best thing I know of that gets at Vis from the cognitive science perspective. The rest of the chapter (past page 17) is good too, but more redundant with other things we’ll read – so it’s optional. Although, every time I go back to it, I am amazed how good this is - despite being old. The authors are the founders of the field.

    The section “How Visualization Amplifies Cognition” (starting on page 15), with Table 1.3 is particularly important. It really gets at why visualizations help us do things.