Learn the rules of data graphics so you can bend them

November 15, 2010  |  Design

If you take away anything from The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, make it the epilogue. This is the most important part:

Design is choice. The theory of the visual display of quantitative information consists of principles that generate design options and that guide choices among options. The principles should not be applied rigidly or in a peevish spirit; they are not logically or mathematically certain; and it is better to violate any principle than to place graceless or inelegant marks on paper. Most principles of design should be greeted with some skepticism, for word authority can dominate our vision, and we may come to see only through the lenses of word authority rather than with our own eyes.

When we first start out with data graphics, it is easy to read a list of rules about ratios, flourishes, and sizes, and then trick ourselves into believing that is all there is to it. But like cooking, writing, programming, painting, speaking, designing, sporting and numerous other things, you learn the basics first. The principles. And then you figure out what rules can bend and how far.

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