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Do’s and Don’ts of Information Graphics

The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics: The Do’s and Don’ts of Presenting Data, Facts, and Figures
By Dona M. Wong
(New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010)
157 pages
Reviewed by: Aaron Marcus, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

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Every few years, another guide appears providing assistance to both new and experienced professional communicators regarding information graphics. Were it not for the ever-increasing amount, if not quality, of information graphics communicated via the Internet, as well as on paper and in other media, one might think that what we have published already is sufficient. Unfortunately, many of the older, high-quality guides are no longer available, and others of merit that are still available seem, regrettably, to have fallen by the wayside.

One of the newer and better contributions is Dona Wong’s The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics. Her credentials include the patronage of The Wall Street Journal, where she served as the graphics director beginning in 2001, her earlier career at The New York Times, and her graduate education in graphic design at Yale University. Her expertise is evident upon first looking at the book, and confirmed by closer inspection.

The book is, in fact, a practical, brief, illustrated “chart-design” workshop delivered in book format. Wong states her objectives clearly from the beginning. Readers will learn:

Just flipping through the pages reveals good thinking and good visual design at work. The pages are inviting and filled with many easily demonstrated examples of what to do and what not to do in chart design; each example is provided with a graphical equivalent of a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down” in the form of upward- or downward-pointing arrows. Each chapter has a short, clever title, like “Chart Smart,” “Tricky Situations,” and “Ready Reference.” Each chapter, in turn, has clear, detailed sections and subsections, with engaging titles, like the “Pies” section, which contains “Slicing and dicing.”

This book seems designed for both the skimmer and the deep diver, combining general introductory paragraphs with sufficient details to satisfy the designer looking for practical details, such as, “It is most effective to place the largest segment [of a pie chart] at 12 o’clock on the right to emphasize its importance,” or typographical emphasis pointers about not using bold numbers for the scales of charts, and not setting type at angles in order to fit text along a chart’s bottom or sides.

Despite the many visual examples, only black, white, gray, and an orangey-brown are used to demonstrate most principles and techniques. I would rather have seen a traditional Venetian or Chinese red, but the overall color palette is restrained and conducive to the clear contemplation of information, not to rhetorical persuasion as is sometimes evident in the meaningless multicolored charts so favored by advertisements for software or hardware manufacturers.

The one serious quibble I have is with the color chapter. On page 44, in the color subsection entitled “Coloring for the color blind,” the author states, “According to the National Institutes of Health, about one-in-ten men have some form of color blindness.” In my graphic design education, I was taught to refer to the challenge of “color-deficient” viewers, because very few people have a complete absence of the ability to see color. Most people with some malfunctioning of the color-sensitive cones in the retina are color-deficient viewers. The ratio stated is also mildly unnerving; my reading in decades past taught me that about one-in-twelve western males has color-deficient viewing.

In looking over the book’s other numerous statements and examples, I find it in general agreement with what I understand to be the recommended practice of information designers and visualizers worldwide, who believe that information graphics should be usable, useful, and appealing, and who place great emphasis on the usability and usefulness aspects of information graphics. I do not hesitate to recommend the book as a worthy contribution to the field. I hope many people, especially in the business world and the advertisers of information technology software and hardware, will be influenced by The Wall Street Journal pedigree to purchase and learn from this volume.UX

 

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This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 4, 2010.
http://www.usabilityprofessionals.org/upa_publications/past_issues/2010-4.html.

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