Sep 072016


TruthfulArtImagine a terrific introductory college course presented by a terrific professor.

That’s the feeling I had in reading The Truthful Art, Alberto Cairo’s follow up to his first book The Functional Art.

Whereas his first book took a “look at what you can and should do” approach to help people see and understand data, The Truthful Art is more of a “here’s what you need to know” if you want to be a data journalist — and there’s a lot of things you need to know if you are going to do a proper job.

I’m reluctant to use the term “data journalism” as Cairo’s book is for anyone that that is tasked with helping people make sense of data. The difference is that the data journalist’s work is likely to be public and yours may only be seen by people working in your organization. But while you may not have to make a dashboard that is as polished as an infographic from the New York Times, both you and the data journalist need to adhere to a particular doctrine and have sufficient skills across a wide range of topics if you are going to build functional, truthful, and meaningful visualizations.

First, Be Truthful

If the credo for doctors is to “first, do no harm” Cairo might argue that the credo for data journalists is to “first, be truthful.” Cairo makes the case that a good visualization must be

  • Truthful
  • Functional
  • Beautiful
  • Insightful
  • Enlightening

And it must be these things in this order of priority. That is, the visualization must first be “relevant, factual, and accurate” and only then should it be “accessible and engaging.” Cairo further states that “honesty, clarity, and depth come first.” Indeed, this is why he bristles with outrage over deceitful graphics like this one.

So, how, exactly, does one create something that is truthful, functional, beautiful, insightful, and enlightening?

By achieving a sufficient level of competence in a LOT of different areas.

And just what are those areas?

The Data Journalism Landscape

In reading The Truthful Art you may feel like you are in a helicopter several thousand feet above the data visualization landscape. In each section Cairo, as expert guide, will gently descend to several hundred feet above a particular area and allow you to examine varied topics including design, statistics, color, storytelling, psychology, and ethics. While the book never gets deep into any of these subjects Cairo does provide excellent resources for anyone interested in exploring a particular topic in depth as every chapter of the book ends with a section titled “To Learn More.”

While Cairo’s writing is disarmingly warm and engaging he takes the responsibility of data storytelling very seriously. By the end of the book you will have an excellent understanding of the investment needed to make a worthwhile contribution to your company, society, or both.


Whether you are new to the field or have been practicing for years, I’m confident you’ll find The Truthful Art, like its predecessor, to be fun, elucidating, and inspiring.

The Truthful Art

Paperback: 400 pages

Publisher: New Riders; 1 edition (February 28, 2016)

Mar 052013

My problem with most infographics is that they sacrifice accuracy and clarity for whimsy and cuteness. While I understand the desire to “draw the reader” in, I believe it’s critical that the information and the story not be misleading.

So, imagine my delight when I thought I had found an infographic that was spot-on accurate and fun and engaging.

Last month a friend had posted a link to a Huffington Post article about the Ten Most Read Books in the World.  This article contained Jared Fanning’s clever  infographic.

Wow, I thought, this is fun, clever, and clear.

But then I saw that the zero value for the Y-axis was in the middle of the chart and realized that the graphic was very misleading.  If you don’t look carefully you would think that readership of The Holy Bible is a little more than twice that of The Diary of Anne Frank.  If, however, you hide the clever part of the graphic and have the y-axis start at zero, you see a much more accurate interpretation of the data.

So, how would I display the data?

If I did not feel pressure to be mirthful I would go with something like this (rendered using Tableau 8 in about five minutes):

If I felt compelled to add some eye candy I might try something like this:

Then I would spend around three hours trying to make the book icons easier to read.

By the way, I’m the first to admit that this approach is not nearly as much “fun” as the first infographic.

But this graphic is accurate and clear, and that has to come first.

Note: One of the problems with the data itself is that The Holy Bible so dwarfs most of the other books.  I did experiment with a Bubble chart (see below) but didn’t want to spent valuable time getting all the book icons to be “just so.”