Thursday, 18 December 2014

Book Review--Knowledge is Beautiful

I am awed, overwhelmed, intrigued, challenged and critical of this book.

Knowledge is Beautiful by David McCandless is a stunning display of information; each page is packed with the same amount of information found in a chapter or even the entirety of a book.  But all of this information is represented with color, shapes and arrangements to demonstrate, not just the pieces of the facts but also their relationship to each other.

That’s a lot to ask from a bunch of shapes on paper but with the field of infographics, that is the ultimate goal.  Represent as much information as possible with as few words as possible.  Show ratios, proportions and relationships all on a 2D plane.  And David McCandless is a master artist within this medium.

The challenge for me, however, is that I am a very verbal person.  I compulsively read words; signs, subtitles, menus, anything!  So I often look over the illustrations in a book because they don’t have the same impact for me.  This was first challenged when I read the fantastic book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick which is a wonderful interpretation of the concept of a “graphic novel”.  The detailed illustrations are woven into and tell the story in between the text.  If you don’t “read” the pictures, you can’t really follow the book.  Great practice for me but not quite enough to prepare me for McCandless’ onslaught of pictorial stimulation.

A dizzying array of subjects is offered, loosely separated into four categories which are themselves shuffled like a deck of Vegas cards so that examples from each section are combined, seemingly at random.  Even looking at the table of contents is somewhat confusing when you are trying to find the category for a certain infographic and have to search for the page number because the table is not sequential. When flipping through the book, you will find a graph on the statistical probabilities of things happening to you; a one in “X” chance of correctly guessing a roulette number twice in a row or dying in a car crash driving to buy a Lotto ticket.  The next page features simple sketches of famous people (Jesus and Gandhi at the top) with ratings of their viewpoints along an oppression/progression continuum.  I would advise taking a deep breath before turning pages to prepare yourself for the next assault of information.

That being said, this is chock full of great information, and once understood these facts and relationships are remembered quite vividly because of the visual representations.  I think the key is to have a few guidelines before setting out on the adventure:

  • Remember that each infographic will have its own color scheme and legend of icons
  • First look at the title and read the legend to find out what the colors, images and sizes represent
  • Check to see how many pages a related infographic takes up.  Some only 1, some 2 and some more; there might be page flipping involved
  • Take a deep breath and move your eyes to something neutral in between disparate graphs
  • Take it slowly, trying to read the entire book at once is like trying to listen to 7 college lectures simultaneously on different subjects.
  • Try to appreciate both the informational aspects as well as the conceptual design at the same time

Factoid aficionados will find their match in this densely represented set of information; no quirky sayings, no snarky one-liners to memorize and toss out to unsuspecting bystanders but a satisfying baseline of information on hundreds of different subjects.