Functionality or Beauty in #dataviz? Books to help you choose.

Can you have functionality and beauty in dataviz?
Can you have functionality and beauty in dataviz?

One of the great challenges in data visualisation is balancing functionality and beauty.

On the one hand, you want to make your data viz as understandable as possible. On the other hand, it has to be engaging enough for people to want to use it.

Different dashboards and visualisations need to be at different places on the functionality/beauty spectrum. For example, if you use a dashboard every day for monitoring processes in your business, you need something highly functional which allows you to see outliers as quickly as possible.

I get asked a lot about this balance. My answer is a recommendation to read 3 books.


At the functionality end of the spectrum, you have the books of Stephen Few. I highly recommend Information Dashboard Design. His books give you the foundational knowledge you need. If you are designing dashboards for operational monitoring, you cannot go wrong with this approach.


At this end of the spectrum, I’d put David McCandless. Get Information is Beautiful or Knowledge is Beautiful (I prefer the latter). He makes very popular, very beautiful data visualisations. Almost all are impractical for business situations. If you are trying to communicate anything accurately, I don’t recommend adopting his approach at all. I do not however dismiss what he does.

A sweet spot?

Is there a sweet spot which balances both functionality and beauty? The book which gets closest to acknowledging the tension between function/beauty and helping your deal with it is The Functional Art by Alberto Cairo.

But I can only afford one book…

If you’re starting out in data visualisation, definitely read something by Stephen Few. This is vital to understanding the foundations of data visualisation. Once you’re familiar with those, you can start to add more aesthetic aspects of your visualisations.

Your second book should be Alberto Cairo’s. Finally, get the McCandless book for some inspiration.

Whatever visualisations you build, test them on other people for effectiveness.

Let me know what you think.  If you’re going to the Tableau Conference in Las Vegas in a couple of weeks, I’ll be talking about this in my “Visual Design Tricks” sessions.


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[…] However, operational dashboards are not the only reason we use data visualization in our organisations. Like Stefanie, sometimes we’re only communicating the gist of the data. Sometimes it’s more important to make someone engage with the overall message rather than the minutiae. In this case, you can consider moving away from the “functional” end of the visualization spectrum to the more “beautiful” end. I’ve written about this in the past, and the books you can read to help learn more. […]

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