Menu Close

“The Functional Art” and growing as an actionable data advocate

A week or so ago I began to think that perhaps I am being a bit overly-ambitious about my plans for professional development (those who know me personally are chuckling as they read this, I’m sure). But, in my commitment to grow as an advocate for the understanding of data and use of information, I have been reluctant to set any of my plans aside. Of all the things on my plate in the more immediate coming months (teaching an online accelerated stats course, doing some consulting with a local non profit, getting OPEN off to a good start for 2013, oh, and work, and life…), the Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization course I am signed up for is likely the easiest to set aside. But I have really been looking forward to learning more about, and crafting, valuable data visualizations via the course. So, what’s a geeky girl to do…?

Start reading the text and exploring early course materials anyway!

I zoomed through the first two chapters of The Functional Art this morning and found it enjoyable to read, easy to understand, and full of fabulous information and graphic examples (naturally). Among the nuggets of wisdom I’m digesting (which are inter-related, and are likely some of the less sophisticated points Cairo makes in these early chapters, which are jam-packed with good stuff) are:

1) Information architecture, or the craft of organizing, understanding, analyzing, and presenting data for consumption, is about “anticipat[ing] [the cognitive] process and generat[ing] order before people’s brains try to do it on their own” (p 17). Cairo summarizes and makes very understandable the work of others around data-information-knowledge-wisdom hierarchies. I see strong connections here to what I think of as my own role, and my goal of advocating for, creating, and otherwise supporting actionable data (and action resulting from data).

I won’t further brutalize what he does very succinctly in this section, but I will also say that I see beautiful connections to prior learning assessment in his discussion of what ‘wisdom’ is: “We reach wisdom when we achieve a deep understanding of acquired knowledge, when we not only ‘get it,’ but when new information blends with prior experience so completely that it makes us better at knowing what to do in other situations…” (p 17).

2) This seems like a no-brainer, but is definitely easier said than done: When creating graphical representations of data first determine what the goal is — what should readers easily understand about the data in looking at the graphic. What’s the message? What do you suppose readers will do with your data in this form?

3) Form does not necessarily follow function. Rather, functions constrain form. Cairo states “the form of a technological object [data graphics] must depend on the tasks it should help with.” And that “the better defined the goals of an artifact [data graphic], the narrower the variety of forms it can adopt” (p 36). Of course, Cairo’s wonderful examples really bring this point home in a way that my rambling likely won’t.

I’d been attempting to avoid the making of resolutions. But they seem unavoidable as we pass from one year to the next, even if unspoken, don’t they?

So, in the coming year, I will avoid generating oodles of charts quickly without stopping to really think about my message. I shall work on not just distilling information but helping those who need to make use of the data I share by presenting it in a way that makes the message clearer (which does necessitate ferreting out that message, of course). And I will present that message via graphics that are more engaging, more immediately understandable, and meaningful. In doing so, I will be more guided by the main goal of information architecture (per Wurman, as summarized by Cairo): “to help users avoid information anxiety, the ‘black hole between data and knowledge'” (p 15). And I’ll make time for the Infographics course, because in just the first 40 pages of The Functional Art I’ve already seen the world of difference it could make in my work.

Unfortunately, the January/February session of Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization MOOC (massive open online course) is full as of today. However, a promising tweet from Alberto Cairo today indicates the course will likely run again in May.

Posted in data visualization

Related Posts


  1. Sheila B Robinson, Ed. D

    As your loyal classmate in the upcoming Infographics MOOC, I will NOT let you set it aside! I too, enjoyed the first two chapters of Cairo’s book and particularly his debunking of the “form follows function” myth. 🙂 See you soon in cyber-class!

    • Kim

      Thanks Sheila! I have at least two evaluator friends here in Oregon who are also taking the course — we should get a bicoastal convo going during the course! 😀

  2. Kelly Smith

    Great post, Kim! I’m signed up for this class. I thought you were too 🙁 Well, it will make for interesting conversations! Happy New Year!

    • Kim

      Hi Kelly, Thanks. I am signed up, but was thinking I’d over-committed. But, now I’m determined to make it happen. Anjie is signed up too — we should get together to work on homework! 😀

  3. Anjie Raber

    Great post Kim! I agree-it would be great if we got together to work on homework. I think you said it best “this seems like a no-brainer, but is definitely easier said than done”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: