The best books to inspire you to think differently about data

Danyel Fisher Author Of Making Data Visual: A Practical Guide to Using Visualization for Insight
By Danyel Fisher

Who am I?

In sixth grade, my teacher tried to teach the class how to read line charts – and something fell into place for me. Ever since then, I’ve tried to sort data into forms that we can use to make sense of it. As a researcher at Microsoft, I consulted with teams across the organization – from sales to legal; and from Excel to XBox – to help them understand their data. At Honeycomb, I design tools for software operations teams to diagnose their complex systems. These books each gave me an “ah-hah” moment that made me think differently about the craft of creating visualization. They now sit on my shelf in easy reach – I hope you find them fascinating too.

I wrote...

Making Data Visual: A Practical Guide to Using Visualization for Insight

By Danyel Fisher, Miriah Meyer,

Book cover of Making Data Visual: A Practical Guide to Using Visualization for Insight

What is my book about?

On a fairly regular basis, people come to me with a pile of data and say, “Hey, can you visualize this for me?” I’ve learned that the important part of that process isn’t the visualization – it’s refining the underlying question to be answered. Which parts of the data actually matter? Where is the insight hiding? My co-author and I wrote this book to capture a set of straightforward steps that helps refine your questions and map them to a visualization. If you’re trying to navigate the murky space between data and insight, this practical book shows you how to make sense of your data through high-level questions, well-defined data analysis tasks, and visualizations to clarify understanding and gain insights along the way.

The books I picked & why

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Exploratory Data Analysis

By John Tukey,

Book cover of Exploratory Data Analysis

Why this book?

I learned Tukey’s name about as soon as I learned that data visualization existed as more than a menu in Excel and a personal obsession. Tukey coined the term “exploratory data analysis,” and so tapped into a passion for swimming around in all the interesting rows and columns. Tukey was working before computers were widespread, and so I got a view of how he saw data: working against the constraints of pencil and paper; keeping your hand moving as fast as possible. While the explorations we can do with gigabytes of memory and powerful rendering are very different, the goal of getting information into your head as fast as possible is unchanged.

The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet

By Reif Larsen,

Book cover of The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet

Why this book?

I’ve always felt a desire to make the world make sense through data – that numbers and structure could help unlock hidden meanings. When I read this novel, I felt seen: it’s told from the perspective of T. S. Spivet – a 12-year-old boy who has the same urge. Spivet thoroughly documents the world around him, sketching an ant he sees in the grass, and drawing schematics and maps of the spaces he travels through on his quest to travel to the Smithsonian Institution. The book’s margin is lavishly illustrated with Spivet’s diagrams – in seeing the world through his eyes, it felt like how I see it through my own.

W. E. B. Du Bois's Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America

By The W E B Du Bois Center at the Universi,

Book cover of W. E. B. Du Bois's Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America

Why this book?

I had read some Du Bois in school; until I learned about this book, I’d had no idea he had created a set of compelling and provocative illustrations of graphs showing the state of Black America at the turn of the 20th century. Du Bois’ information graphics are carefully and elegantly structured to tell a story: he masterfully chose colors, designs, and representations to manage to seem completely objective – while conveying resilience, opportunity, and hope for the future. His work is a masterclass in how visualization can be so much more than a list of numbers.

How Maps Work: Representation, Visualization, and Design

By Alan M. MacEachren,

Book cover of How Maps Work: Representation, Visualization, and Design

Why this book?

Maps and data visualization live in my mind as close cousins: geographical coordinates are often the best way to show where data happens, and the techniques that cartographers have worked out can be adapted to the ways I represent visuals. Maps also have some interpretive advantages over abstract data: San Francisco is always west of Washington, DC. That’s not as true of information graphs, where their respective data points might move around depending on what is being plotted and what the axes are.

Semiology of Graphics: Diagrams, Networks, Maps

By Jacques Bertin,

Book cover of Semiology of Graphics: Diagrams, Networks, Maps

Why this book?

A new edition of Bertin’s 1963 Semiology was released a few years ago, and my heart swelled with joy. For years, I’d worked off of bad photocopies of an inter-library loan book that had long since gone out of print. In this new edition, I could see how Bertin works through different dimensions and axes – when you want to plot two different quantitative axes over a map, what are your choices? What if you want to plot them over a graph, instead? What changes? I loved exploring these choices with Bertin, as he explores how different color mappings, iconic representations, and design choices change the way the reader interprets the graph.

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