Thursday, January 12, 2012

Find: My Review of Visualize This and Visual Complexity for Science Magazine

I was asked to write a review of two recent visualization books for Science: Nathan Yau’s Visualize This and Manuel Lima’s Visual Complexity. The piece appeared in the last issue of 2011, right before Christmas. Below is a link to the review and some additional comments on it and the two books.

Discussing the two books in one review was quite a challenge, because they are so different. Visualize This is very hands-on and walks the reader through a number of examples, while Visual Complexity is an illustrated guide with a heavy theoretical bent.

Visual Complexity

I’m really conflicted about Visual Complexity. While it is a beautiful book that provides a great overview over a large range of visualization examples, it has one big flaw: it doesn’t deliver on the promise of structuring and understanding network visualization techniques.

That’s disappointing for two reasons: a very prominent quote on the back compares Lima to Edward Tufte, and the book’s structure suggests a deeper and clearer understanding of how network visualization works. As I point out in my review, I think the Tufte remark misses the point and actually does more harm than good by raising expectations too high. But as Stephen Few also mentions in his review, expectations of Lima are also higher because of  his excellent Information Visualization Manifesto. While there is a lot of historical context to be found in the book (almost too much, in fact), and there are some really good insights, it just feels incomplete. It’s as if the book was published before he could finish it.

One issue that is only mentioned in a footnote  in the review (and that I had originally intended to leave out completely) are the additional essays by Nathan Yau, Andrew Vande Moere, and others in the final chapter of Visual Complexity. They seem mostly disconnected from the book, and in any case don’t appear to contribute anything of substance to the topic of network visualization. The space could have been much better used to expand on some of the interesting discussions in Lima’s own final chapter, or the structure of his “new language.” As it is, the book only teases what that might be by showing examples, but doesn’t go into enough depth on what the structure of that language might be, or how Lima picked his categories.

All that said, it’s still a wonderful resource with a huge number of examples and a good first step into figuring out the str...