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An insightful book that combines theory and practice
on 21 February 2013
Most literature on infographics can be roughly divided into two groups: Purely practical how-to books which offer approaches and useful tips but often lack any kind of theoretical foundation that might help you tell the difference between good and bad infographics, and stop making bad ones - and high-brow academic opuses which do not easily translate into guidelines you'll be able to use in your everyday work.
We should therefore welcome Alberto Cairo's book as it places itself elegantly inbetween the two. Even though the author is still young, Alberto's background is quite impressive and suggests how he earned the experience and insight enabling him to write this book. Alberto Cairo was educated as a journalist but has been working with infographics at various esteemed publications, including award-winning El Mundo of Madrid and Época magazine of São Paulo, Brazil. He now teaches Information Graphics and Visualization at the School of Communication at the University of Miami. A true academic, Alberto is well-read and not afraid to share his knowledge with the rest of us, as well as teach us posh new words, such as "choropleth maps".
"The Functional Art" is a revised version of an earlier book in Spanish. Even though the subtitle says "An introduction to information graphics and visualization", this is hardly a read for beginners. Rather, I'd recommend it to everyone who seeks a deeper understanding of what they are actually dealing with when producing visual communication. Quite a large part of the book is about perception and cognition, how our eyes work and how our brain processes what they see.
Alberto builds up his argumentation carefully and logically and always tries to see problems from a reader's perspective which makes this book very useful, not least in an educational context. If I were to pick one quote, trying to distill the contents of this comprehensive volume into just one sentence - unfair as it would be, because this book contains much more - it might be this: "The role of an information architect is to anticipate the structuring process in the minds of our audience ... and generate order before people's brains try to do it on their own".
From an educator's point of view, there's a lot of added value on the DVD which comes with the book. In eleven well-produced video lessons, Alberto walks us through the main parts of his book and carefully explains the examples he chose to make his points. Obviously, the use of multimedia tools helps clarifying the chapter on animated and interactive graphics in particular and makes it even easier to comprehend.
The last chapters of "The Functional Art" have been devoted to in-depth interviews with ten so-called infographic "profiles" about their work, and my guess is there's an audience for this part of the book as well, even though I find the first two thirds more substantial.