Ole Munk discusses ‘The Functional Art’ by Alberto Cairo

FROM SKETCH TO FINAL GRAPHIC  A glimpse into Alberto Cairo’s working process: The top illustration shows a first sketch, created in Adobe Illustrator, establishing the basic structure of a graphic on the Saints of Brazil – and below: the final project as published by Época in São Paulo. As he says: ”You need to build a solid backbone for your information, a reading path, an order, and a hierarchy, before you lock yourself into a style for your display.”

A graphic on the Saints of Brazil, published by Época in São Paulo. Aberto Cairo’s book reveals the thought process behind it.

(First published in SNDS Magazine)

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 there are high-brow academic opuses which do not easily translate into guidelines you’ll be able to use in your everyday work.

FROM SKETCH TO FINAL GRAPHIC  A glimpse into Alberto Cairo’s working process: The top illustration shows a first sketch, created in Adobe Illustrator, establishing the basic structure of a graphic on the Saints of Brazil – and below: the final project as published by Época in São Paulo. As he says: ”You need to build a solid backbone for your information, a reading path, an order, and a hierarchy, before you lock yourself into a style for your display.”

FROM SKETCH TO FINAL GRAPHIC A glimpse into Alberto Cairo’s working process.

Therefore, we welcome Alberto Cairo’s new book, which places itself elegantly between the two groups.

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 University of Miami’s School of Communication.

A true academic, Alberto is well-read and not afraid to share his knowledge with the rest of us, as well as teach us new terms, such as “choropleth maps.”

The Functional Art is an English-language version of an earlier book published in Spanish. Despite the subtitle ”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 his case carefully and logically, seeing problems from a reader’s perspective, which makes this book very useful, not least in an educational context. If I were to attempt 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 that comes with the book. In 11 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 are devoted to in-depth interviews with 10 so-called infographic ”profiles,” and while there may be an audience for this part of the book, even though I find the first two thirds more substantial.

NOT JUST PRINT  In 2013, infographics is not just a print thing. Alberto Cairo also looks into the great web possibilities for visualizing data. The New York Times used motion capture research to show the most succesful baseball hitter (left); and (right) Xaquin G.V.’s graphic shows that standard clothing sizes are not really standard, also from The New York Times.

Alberto Cairo looks into the possibilities for visualizing data. The New York Times used motion capture research to show the most succesful baseball hitter (left); and (right) Xaquin G.V.’s graphic shows that standard clothing sizes are not really standard, also from The New York Times.

PS: A “choropleth map” is a map that encodes values by means of shades and colors.

How-to: Creating Information Graphics

In Chapter 8 of The Functional Art, Alberto Cairo gives practical advice on how to develop infographic projects through select examples. This is his checklist to get going:

1 Define the focus of the graphic, what story you want to tell and the key points to be made. Have a clear idea of how the infographic will be useful to your readers, and what they will be able to accomplish with it.

2 Gather as much information as you can about the topic you are covering. Interview sources, look for datasets and write or storyboard ideas in quick form.

3 Choose the best graphic form. What shapes should your data adopt? What kind of charts, maps, and diagrams will best fit the goals you set in the first step?

4 Complete your research. Flesh out your sketch and storyboards.

5 Think about the visual style. Choose typefaces, color palettes, etc.

6 If you’ve been sketching offline, move the design to the computer. Complete the graphic using the appropriate tools.

Many designers I know skip the preliminaries and jump directly to steps 5 and 6. Big mistake. Before you think about style, you must think about structure. 

Alberto Cairo: The Functional Art
– an introduction to information graphics and visualization
364 pages
22,6 x 17,6 cm
Includes a DVD with video courses
New Riders, Peachpit, Berkely
www.peachpit.com
$44.99

(Ole Munk is a graphic designer, design & communication consultant and lecturer, based in Espergaerde, Denmark. Munk has designed or redesigned more than 70 newspapers.)