Book Review: Information is Beautiful.

There is an old adage that a picture tells a thousand words. If that’s the case then this coffee-table book is one of the densest works of literature ever published, if literature is the right name for this kind of book.

Information is Beautiful is a hardback book by “Data Journalist” David McCandless and published by Harper Collins.

If the concept of a data journalist is a new one to you, this is an ideal introduction, as McCandless is a pioneer in the field. Data journalism seeks to investigate and report on a variety of subjects and topics by researching and presenting data. The idea is that by showing data in an effective way, we can tell a story much more effectively than with prose.

In this book, McCandless takes on 12 diverse topics, including but not limited to pop culture, the internet, food, power, media and science, which between them cover just about every aspect of human existence. With such a broad scope, this isn’t an easy book to categorise, but there really is something for everyone.

The central concept is to inform not by way of lengthy description, nor by page after page of charts and graphs, but rather by presenting data in innovative ways that work to facilitate not just understanding of the material, but also assimilation of the concepts behind the data in perspective. There seems to be no end to the imagination with which McCandless visualises data, finding colourful and attractive design to create countless new types of representation. In over 100 different articles represented in the book, no graphic method is used twice.

The quality of the research is of world class investigative journalism, but this isn’t just an effort of a singular author, but rather a team of almost fifty freelancers and collaborators working together. Indeed, even in our hyperconnected world where information is just a click away, a project of this size would have been impossible for just one person.

One example of how novel presentation can make the data more accessible is McCandless’ innovation, “The Billion Dollar-o-Gram”- This graphic is a patchwork of boxes of different sizes showing relative expenditure and profits from sectors, companies and activities that are such huge numbers that it is normally difficult for us to comprehend their scale in real terms and relative to everything else. By showing these massive figures as if they were fields that we can fly over, we can see what dominates the landscape and what is relegated to a small patch of economic terrain.

Other examples of elegant design that simplifies complicated data is by presenting images of objects and activities, scaled to represent how many tonnes of carbon they produce. Most readers would be surprised to see that Americans opening fizzy drinks accounts for far more than the global wine industry, which is itself comparable with a Madonna world tour. Time and time again, interesting perspectives and juxtapositions of everyday data simply and clearly illustrate insightful points.

Other graphical devices employed include “word clouds”, where more frequently used words are scaled to dominate the page. This technique can effectively show literary or viral trends and is especially enlightening when applied to famous personalities, newspapers and writers as their preoccupations and biases become blindingly obvious.

As well as the novel and unusual forms of presenting data included in the book, the usual suspects are all present and well employed, pictograms show towers of water bottles to show how much ordinary activities consume, line graphs show the intensity of human fears and phobias as they shift and change over the years and timelines show species coming into and fading out of existence.

Clearly, with such a broad range of topics and lack of an explicit narrative, this is not a book to be read like a novel, but instead a thought provoking reference book that the “reader” can dip in and out of to discover fascinating relationships and hidden patterns in things that are both mundane and esoteric. There has been as much thought here on the design as any other aspect and the result is a book of abstract art where every piece is a direct interpretation of the world that we live in. The book doesn’t just serve as insightful reference, but also lives up to its name with some 255 pages filled with beautiful design and art based on data. Venn diagrams are styled like pop art and networks look like futuristic brain scans.

Although the idea of presenting data to tell a story might make you think that this is objective journalism, the devil is in the detail, as sources are carefully selected and comparisons are knowingly made between disparate datasets. By these selections and comparisons we can see that McCandless has a social conscience and a message. It is no coincidence that the “The Billion Dollar-o-Gram” for expenditure shows the cost of bank bailouts next to the cost of healthcare, education and accommodation, effectively raising a mirror to our interconnected and global society so that we may see ourselves a little more clearly than we are usually able to. Although McCandless makes no explicit judgements or claims in the book, perhaps its great success is that by allowing the reader to draw their own inferences and to make their own relationships between datapoints, he is removing barriers that conventional “opinion journalism” may find impassible.