REVIEW: Functional Aesthetics for Data Visualization by Vidya Setlur and Bridget Cogley

The multi-disciplinary nature of the data visualization profession presents opportunities for fruitful collaboration while also leading to points of tension. One such source of tension exists between those who focus more on the data with an emphasis on accuracy and those who focus more on the visualization with an emphasis on design. Vidya Setlur and Bridget Cogley set out to tackle that tension in their new book Functional Aesthetics for Data Visualization.

In their new book they write – “Conventional practitioner dialog often focuses on design being separate from chart making, most often framed in terms of ‘making it pretty’ after the analysis is complete. Understanding the task at hand and how best the chart can draw a user’s attention into a flow of analysis through thoughtful proportions and boxes is key.” Breaking down the conventional silos that separate data-driven conversations on functionality from design-based discussions on aesthetics is one of the many insights that this book provides.

Through combining insights based in theory, practice, and research, the authors focus their book around three key themes – perception, semantics, and intention. Each of these elements plays a critical role in our understanding of how data visualizations are created and how users derive value from them. This book is not a traditional how-to guide for how to design better graphs, but rather posits a new mindset for functionality aesthetic data visualizations.

The authors begin their book by describing the environment of a cozy restaurant with mood lighting, intimate seating, and food brought out in a pleasantly displayed bento box. The perfectly aligned symmetry within the box and the placement of the food within the various containers provides a feeling of warmth and pleasure that transcends the taste of the food itself.

This mental model serves as the foundation for the book’s vision for functionally aesthetic data visualizations that go beyond the simple provision of data to include a cohesive focus on user experience and perception.  

The authors dive into psychology research on visual encoding combined with practical tips from professional experience on how to achieve this effect during the user’s initial perception of the data visualizations that we create. 

During the next section, the authors unpack the fascinating field of semantics, where written language and visual symbols collide to provide meaning to our communications. Understanding heuristics and cultural contexts allows us to design data visualizations that transition from being merely perceptually interesting to substantively meaningfully. By conceptualizing a data visualization as a type of conversation, the authors emphasize the importance of natural flow as users engage with the content, aided by the inclusion of visual and written cues to streamline the process.

The book concludes with a discussion about intent to ensure that our message is clearly communicated to users. As with the rest of the book, the authors draw upon theory, research, and practice to provide a range of helpful recommendations. These include using the power of emphasis and contrast to highlight the key points within the data visualization rather than putting the burden on the end user to interpret the author’s intent. 

The vision of functionally aesthetic data visualizations that this book articulates mirrors the multidisciplinary nature of the field itself. Through incorporating robust research principles and practical insights, this book would be a valuable addition to any professional or researcher engaged in data visualization. 

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Program Manager, City Innovation and Data at National League of Cities | pine@nlc.org

Joshua works on the Urban Innovation team at the National League of Cities (NLC) where he leads the organization’s data visualization portfolio. He specializes in leveraging data to inform local policymaking and in amplifying best practices through data storytelling. Based in Cincinnati OH, he is an electric bike enthusiast and passionate advocate for active transportation.