Review: The Visual Miscellaneum by David McCandless

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The Visual Miscellaneum: A Colorful Guide to the World’s Most Consequential Trivia by David McCandless is an essential coffee table book for curious people.  While my mother was visiting over her Spring Break, she picked it up and started thumbing through, unaware of who David McCandless was or what the book was about.  I had to pry the book from her hands before she left for her flight back, and we must have spent an hour each day she was in Orlando discussing pages of McCandless’s work.

When I say this book is for “curious people,” I truly do mean it.  Seth Godin talks about curiosity here and explains that “a fundamentalist is a person who considers whether a fact is acceptable to their faith before they explore it” (Source).  On the opposite pole, says Godin, are those who are curious.  “A curious person explores first and then considers whether or not they want to accept the ramifications” (Source).  This isn’t to say a fundamentalist reader wouldn’t enjoy McCandless’s work; however, this is a text that challenges the core beliefs we all hold as “the truth.”  McCandless explores science, politics, and religion visually in his book in a way that facilitates learning, questioning, and growing for those of us who are truly curious.  I personally took a deeper look into my current belief system and examined the similarities between people who think like me and people who have opposite beliefs (both politically and religiously).  It was a wonderful close examination of core values and ideals, and I think all of us should allow our belief system to undergo this kind of analysis and scrutiny.  For example, see page 14 and 15 for an examination of government and pages 46 and 47 to compare and contrast ideas about creation.

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Of course, McCandless also explores more fun and frivolous topics, and the author proves his sense of humor on nearly every page.  For example, check out “Excuse Us: Reasons For Divorce” on page 64.  The top reason for men to want a divorce compared with the top reason for women to want a divorce made me laugh out loud.

I am an enormous McCandless supporter and fan.  I wrote “In Defense of David McCandless” and “In Defense of Infographics” based upon my analysis of his work.  Since I’m obviously biased, I did want to include a few reviews of The Visual Miscellaneum

Our of 231 ratings and 50 reviews on Goodreads.com, the book earned a score of 3.81 out of 5 stars.  93% of people liked the book (Source).  Consider this review: “Over and over again, McCandless attributes the data in his infographics to Google, Wikipedia, or other unreliable and/or unintelligible sources” (Source).

FlowingData writes, “With that said, not every graphic is perfect. There were a few where I wasn’t sure what I was looking at or it took a little while for me to process, but that’s what I was expecting. Many of the graphics are probably experiments in design more than they belong in a Tufte book” (Source).

I agree that this is no Envisioning Information, and remember that McCandless’s goal is always to show the meaning behind the data – to show relationships between facts in a meaningful way – with a few key principles in place.  McCandless wants to combine “information” and “design” in a way that is both functional and beautiful:

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Form (the beauty, structure, and appearance of a design) meets function (usefulness and usability) on the design spectrum.  Information-wise, McCandless emphasizes integrity (accuracy and honesty) as well as interestingness (meaningful and relevant information).  I do believe The Visual Miscellaneum is worth reading because the text gives example after example of successful information design.  Perfect information design?  No.  Successful information design?  Absolutely.

What amazing reads have you been enjoying lately?

Currently Reading: Envisioning Information and Visualize This

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Friday morning, when I returned home from yoga, the library hand-delivered two more treats: Envisioning Information by Edward Tufte and Visualize This: The FlowingData Guide to Design, Visualization, and Statistics by Nathan Yau.

Hopefully both will offer a greater insight into design, especially information design, so I can teach my students that yes, you can still apply Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen theories and principles even to data and information.  This reminds me of an incredible article by one of my favorites, Phil Waknell of Phil Presents.  Waknell explains that there are 3 situations people argue Presentation Zen cannot apply: 1) a boring subject, 2) a technical presentation, and 3) a review of business results (Source).  Waknell’s article is called “When you think Presentation Zen isn’t appropriate, that’s when you need it most” because even in the three scenarios above, especially in the three scenarios above, visual design as outlined by Garr Reynolds is essential.

Check back for reviews of both books soon!

What are you reading?

In Defense of David McCandless

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David McCandless is one of my favorite designers not only because of what he does with data visualization and information design, but also because he isn’t a trained artist – he learns by doing.  He is proof that we’re all literate in visual design, and I love that idea.  McCandless is soft spoken and has a beautiful speaking voice; I love his humility as well as his brilliance.  Watch his TED Talk here.

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In this interview with BBC NewsNight (above), McCandless explains his work to David Sillito.  After the 6-minute introduction, McCandless then appears live on NewsNight in a debate-style piece with Neville Brody who is immediately given precedence over McCandless… the anchor calls him “the legendary designer.”  The anchor and Brody join in dismissing McCandless’s ideas.  Brody does so directly – he says, “the problem is trying to make information pretty.”  Brody then claims McCandless’s designs are “beguiling and seductive,” and he also dismisses McCandless’s work as “decoration.”  If you look at McCandless’s “good” information design chart (below), you can see that he strives not only for beauty, but also for honesty and integrity, function and useability, as well as meaningful and relevant data.

During the interview, Brody continuously mocks McCandless, and the anchor rarely lets McCandless finish a thought without interrupting him.  The anchor asks, “Why not just put information straight on the screen?”  She then calls his work “coffee table graphics.”

Both Brody and the anchor obviously miss the point.  If they were going to dissect McCandless’s work critically, which is a wonderful thing to do to all ideas and theories, Brody and the anchor could have at least done their homework to provide more coherent, relevant criticism.

Positive things do come out of the interview!  During the piece, we’re introduced to Stefanie Posavec of It’s Been Real.  Her work is magnificent.  My favorite is this visualization of literature: Literary Organism.  Of course, we meet Hans Rosling, the man McCandless calls “the master” and “his master” (Source).  Rosling delivers his TED Talk so passionately that you can’t help but be excited about information design.  Learning about these two figures helps to place McCandless in the world of data visualization, though, I would argue, he is far and away my favorite.