Book Review: “Practical Charts” by Nicholas P. Desbarats

Nick Desbarats’ new book, Practical Charts, offers guidance on choosing the appropriate chart based on your data and the message you need to communicate. Written in a friendly, engaging voice, Practical Charts is written for folks who create charts for reports and presentations. It can easily be seen as an introductory book on how to choose an appropriate chart; but it also provides solid guidance for those of us who have been creating charts for some time, yet sometimes struggle with deciding which chart would best convey our intended message. Desbarats provides examples that start with an ineffective chart and end with a clear and compelling one.

Cover of book of "Practical Charts" by Nicholas P. Desbarats.
Practical Charts by Nicholas P. Desbarats.

What I found great about this book is that Desbarats’ writing style not only makes it feel like you’re sitting in a one-on-one workshop with him, but makes it easy to understand why one chart type is best suited for a given situation while others are not. He provides clear, concise examples and draws on questions he’s received in the various data visualization workshops he has taught over the years.

Even though I’ve been creating charts to communicate data for years, I still have instances where I wonder if I’m using the right chart for the job. I’ve found some great online tools to help with this, but I have to say that the “cheat sheets” and “decision trees” found throughout Practical Charts are invaluable! Those alone make this book a worthwhile reference. 

As I made my way through Part 1: “General chart formatting guidelines,” I found myself mentally ticking off (and patting myself on the back for) all the things I am doing right in my own chart creations, according to Desbarats. Much of this section is devoted to scales—specifically, categorical, quantitative, and time scales. This is a critical and fundamental step in chartbuilding because poorly formatted scales often confuse and mislead the intended audience. Color and font selection are also covered in this section. While a discussion on color could be an entire book itself (like, for instance, Kate Strachnyi’s Colorwise), Desbarats does a great job covering color essentials, including color-blind accessibility, within this one section. His “Cheat Sheet: Eight tips for choosing colors” covers the essentials for anyone who, like me, struggles with color selection.

While Part 1 lays the groundwork for building a chart, Part 2: “Choosing a chart type,” is where all the meat is. Here, Desbarats provides detailed guidance on when and how to use 30 commonly used chart types, broken down into seven groups. The “cheat sheets” in this section are in the form of a “decision tree” for how to choose a chart to show your data in a specified way (e.g. over time, breakdown of a total, etc.).

A photo of page 146, showing a decision tree for Choosing a Chart Type to Show the Breakdown of a Single Total.
A photo of page 146, showing a decision tree for “Choosing a Chart Type to Show the Breakdown of a Single Total.” From Practical Charts by Nick P. Desbarats.

As a recovering “never-pie-charter” I was glad to see that in Part 2 he addresses the ongoing debate about the merits of using these chart types. I was a little surprised it hadn’t come up earlier in the book. The guidance he provides about how pie charts are sometimes the best choice for showing the breakdown of a total made sense to me. I might even go so far as to say that I can possibly see myself using a pie chart some time in the future to show the breakdown of a total. Maybe.

As I neared the end of Part 2, I let out an audible “Thank you!” while reading the final chapter in this section, which highlighted chart types to use with caution — or avoid altogether. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cringed at the sight of yet another word cloud or 3D chart on a presentation slide. I am so glad he included this small section. The more folks who understand why these charts are not effective, the less (I hope) we’ll see them used.

The more folks who understand why these charts are not effective, the less (I hope) we’ll see them used.

The remaining sections of the book touch on other considerations when making charts. They do not go in-depth, but provide guidelines for working with complex data, building interactive charts, and making insightful, less boring charts. I like that he doesn’t try to cover these final subjects in more detail because it allows the book to stay focused on the most important fundamentals. Plus, as Desbarats points out in the beginning of the book, that is not what this book is about. A companion book to Practical Charts, due out next year, promises to go into more depth covering advanced chart types such as scatter plots and histograms.

The book fell short in small ways. Given the title of Part 6: “Making charts less boring,” I expected more information and a larger selection of examples. This section is just slightly over three pages and offers one example. Here, he’s really just saying that “eye candy” charts should be avoided because they often confuse the audience. He then points out that using the guidelines from the book will make “less boring” charts. Perhaps he could have woven this section into other parts of the book.

Additionally, an appendix containing all the cheat sheets and decision trees would have been helpful for quick reference, so readers don’t have to locate them scattered throughout the book. 

Overall, I’m thrilled to have this book in my personal data viz library and know that I’ll continue to reference it. If you often find yourself wondering if you’re using the right chart for communicating your data, I recommend you grab a copy of this book, read it, and keep it in reach for ready reference.

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Jami Dennis Headshot
Jami Dennis

Jami Dennis is a geospatial consultant, providing a wide range of GIS, data analysis, data visualization, and educational services through her company Geodetic Analysis LLC. She is passionate about using data visualization techniques to communicate data insights and often shares her passion through presentations and workshops for a variety of geospatial user groups. Outside of work, Jami is an avid camper, hiker, and occasionally good mountain biker.