RJ Andrews is a data storyteller. He is the author of the new book Info We Trust, a lavish adventure exploring how to inspire the world with data. RJ blends creative arts and data science to inform. As an independent creative he does all of his own data processing, analysis, illustration, motion & interactive design using a variety of tools. When not working on his own stories, RJ helps organizations—like MIT, Budweiser, and Microsoft—solve information problems. RJ’s work has won international acclaim and been translated all over the globe.
RJ and I sat down at last year’s Tapestry conference to talk about his new book, Info We Trust, which hit bookstores late last week. RJ and I talk about the book, his process, and much more.
Some other books:
Welcome back to the PolicyViz Podcast. I am your host, Jon Schwabish. I hope everyone is well. I just returned from a long week in Amsterdam and Copenhagen working with Stefanie Posavec and the folks at Graphic Hunters to put on a couple of workshops, and so I am digging out. So, apologies for the day delay getting this episode of the podcast out to you, but I think you’re going to do enjoy it.
If you haven’t heard, and hopefully you have, RJ Andrews from the website Info We Trust has just published his new book Info We Trust, which is an extraordinary run through the history of data visualization, both a look back and a look forward and what we can learn from these texts and how we can apply those teachings to the work we do today.
The book was fully illustrated and written by RJ. He designed the papers, designed the cover. It’s really a fantastic book. I just got my copy. It just hit bookstores last Thursday on the 17th of January, so now it’s out and you can get your hands on it.
So, back in December RJ and I sat down at Tapestry Conference in old side room found a little spot and the two of us talked about his process for writing the book, the content of the book, and what he hopes folks will get out of it. So, I hope you’ll enjoy this week’s episode of the PolicyViz podcast and I’ll be back again in a couple of weeks with a new guest and a new episode. Thanks a lot.
RJ Andrews: My name is RJ Andrews. I am a data storyteller. I’ve spend the last few years publishing my experiments and explorations of data storytelling on a website called infowetrust.com. About a year-and-a-half ago editor from Wiley reached out to me and gave me a very generous offer to spend some time thinking about and writing about the craft of data storytelling. Now that’s what I’ve done, and so I’ve written the book Info We Trust: How to Inspire the World of Data. It’s coming out January 17th in 2019. I’m really excited about it, really excited to talk to you about today.
Jon Schwabish: That’s great. So, tell me about what does it mean to you the craft of data visualization, especially as it’s coming in through the book.
RJ: Sure. So, I used the world craft throughout the book and I talked about the craft of data storytelling. Now, whether you use data storytelling or use data visualization or dashboard design or any sort of number – like the craft waves many banners across many communities. It’s been referred to by many different titles across time. But what I see is sort of a continuum and I like use the world craft versus other words we might consider such as art, because craft has some sort of suggestion of utility, practical usefulness, but also has some suggest of skill, artistry something you make with your own two hands. And guess what? Even if you are typing on a keyboard and on a mouse pad you are still using your two hands. It’s still a very human activity and it’s not only a human creation activity but it’s for a human audience. And so, I like using the word craft a) because it puts the emphasis on how human the process of creating charts and maps, and diagrams, and depictions and sort of new ways of seeing the world. But then I also like it because you can think of the craft as this long 400-year old tradition that wasn’t born with big data, wasn’t born with the internet, wasn’t born with interactive computers you know the craft stretches very, very far back. And it has always been evolving, it has always been improving, and it will continue to and it’s really out duty to be good stewards of the craft and to keep pushing it forward and keep learning not only to make better information, but how to learn how to better inform people into the future.
JS: So, tell me a little bit about the history because I understand the book is going to touch on that, and you were telling me earlier that you read a book a day for a while.
RJ: For a while!
JS: Is your home just like stacks of books like it’s crazy person stacks of books to the ceiling?
RJ: Yeah. So, every flat surface in my home at one point was definitely – and I love the physicality of books, and there is a sort of idea you know what do you do when you get stuck, maybe not quite writer’s block, but you get stuck like one of the things you can do is you can rearrange your books, and so what does the word ‘information’ mean? Information means putting something in formation like you are arranging like the data doesn’t change, right?
RJ: Like you are just arranging where kind of all the dots are and so, you can do that with books, and you put them in different stacks and then maybe you can get restarted because you notice new connections between different things.
JS: And it’s no t satisfying when you are moving the PDFs on your Kindle but you’d like to stack them up pretty high.
RJ: Yeah, and you can fit a lot of books on your hard drive, but the problems is that they’re not accessible. You can’t see them. There is not this physical reminder. You mentioned kind of the deep history of the craft, and so I was very intentional maybe even strategic in how I wrote my first draft. What I did when I started researching the book I read what I considered to be all the modern classics so Bertin, Tukey, Tufte, Holmes, and Cleveland all wrote really important books between I think 1967 or ’69 by Bertin all the way up to Cleveland’s first big book which came out I think in 1985. So, why that timeframe? Well, two reasons. One is that this is before interactive computer like it really made a big splash. Books after 1985 talked about like how to click, right? Like spoiler alert books are not a great medium for talking like how to click, right? Go on the web and learn how to do that, and so looking at pre 1985 what I was really interested in seeing is like what principles, what lessons, what were they describing from back then that still resonates with what I know as a practitioner today. So, you can think of like two inputs went into the first draft. One input was all these enduring principles that still work, and then my own craft. I figured if the fireworks between those two streams was something that had a chance of not being fashionable, not something that’s going to not make sense in a year from now like something that would be a little bit longer lasting, have a little bit longer shelf life, and so that was one reason to do it. The other reason was I wanted the narrative of the book and the book does have a narrative, it sucks you right through, to be written in my own voice and to have a unique skeleton, and I knew if I read or reread in many cases a lot of the post 1985 work which are honestly a lot of it written by my colleagues, written by my friends that their voice, their perspective would influence me too much. So, pre 1985 I read these modern classics. I write the first draft you know a couple of months later I have a first draft then I can go back revisit post 1985, and polish, and refine, and in many cases talk to these people and say hey like what do you think of this is thing you are framing this thing or that thing.
JS: There is a additional part to the book that I think is important for *** [inaudible 0:08:00]. So, you leave the whole thing out and everything is like hand drawn?
RJ: Yeah. There’s sort of the content of the book, which is sort of what you might walk away learning, and also the enjoyable experience you might remember. But then there is also the form of the book, and so when I mentioned this great opportunity that publisher gave me it was complete creative control. When I say complete creative control I did the layout, I obviously wrote it, and I did these 300 or so hand drawn illustrations but it went a lot further. It was the quality of the hard cover, it was the quality of the paper, it was proofing the color printouts to make sure things are registered correctly. I am a designer, right, and so a designer can become a micro managing perfectionist. Lovely, they didn’t only kick off the project giving me this control but they took every step with me, and engaged with me, and did the iterations with me that I demanded, and they never flinched. They were patient and they said we’re giving you the ball, and we want you to score, and we’re going to support you…
JS: And do it?
RJ: Yeah, to have the opportunity to have that sort of support and engagement it’s just phenomenal, right?
JS: Yeah,. So, were any of the books that you read, did any of those books inspire the form in which the book ultimately to look?
RJ: Yes. So, two books in particular inspired the form from the get-go, and so one is the book by Robert Greene called The 48 Laws Of Power and this book is very interesting. It’s a very interesting read. The content of the book is entertaining. The idea is that, it’s sort of, I don’t know, a late 20th century Macubelle. These are laws of power do with them what you will. This is how power works. That book has a sort of Tom Murdoch or biblical form design kind of inspiration and that it’s packed with marginalia. So, all the central narrative is black, the marginalia is red very much like a Bible, right?
RJ: And so, it has this parallel or multiple narrative form to it. So, I love that book because what marginalia does is it lets you squeeze in all these little points of inspiration that if you had to put them in the main narrative it would slow down the narrative and it would distract you from the flow of the narrative, and so if I have a great quote from Loewe Sur [0:10:12] from the 1880s when he is talking at the Statistical Conference and it’s something that somebody in the 1880s is saying, and I am bringing it forward not because I want you to hear something that’s dusty but I want to show you that somebody who is informing people in 1880s is saying something that’s as relevant today as it was back then. I don’t have a spot in my narrative to put that. To frame it the book would go from 208 pages to 400 pages and that’s a drag. So, I can put it in the margin and it’s there if you want to dance between the black narrative text or the blue marginalia you can do that or forget the marginalia come back to it some other time, and so there’s opportunity to really almost choose your own adventure in terms of how you read the book. That was one important book. The second important book that inspired the form was Oliver Byrne’s 1843 The Elements of Euclid, and so this is a very famous book in the book design community. Tough to even pay homage to it in one of his books, but the idea is that, I don’t know, maybe 60-70 years before people like Mondrian were using primary colors that do sort of very abstract diagramming. He was explaining Euclidian geometry using geometric shapes right in line with the text, and so instead of saying the words red circle he would just illustrate a red circle, and so his primary color palette of dark blue, burnt orange, golden yellow is what I rift onto get my primary color palette. I tried to adopt his illustrations in-line and what I found is that very small illustrations are too close to emoji and they just don’t work. In a similar way that a marginalia quote would interrupt the narrative flow I find that the in-line illustrations also interrupt the narrative flow. What do you want to do when you are reading a book is that you want to sort of use a sense of self and you want to co-create the narrative with the author, right? So, the author is giving you an input and the author is exciting this story that you’re creating in your brain, co-creating with the author and like little diagram illustrations right in-line I found were disruptive.
JS: So, I was in a side then I have to ask are you an Infinite Jest David Foster Wallace’s fan?
RJ: So, people ask me about that and I actually only looked at that once I started showing people my prototype chapters, oh you have to check.
JS: You have to check *** [inaudible 0:13:09].
RJ: Yeah, the multiple narratives.
JS: Yeah, the multiple narratives. Okay, so you’ve gone through the modern text and book is, I get a sense of it, you’re talking about which aspects of those works still ring true today, but I’m also curious are there aspects that no longer hold true?
RJ: Sure. So, when you open up some of these older books, especially Bertin they’re quite large like 400 or 500 pages, I mean, they’re honestly sort of textbooks and I’ve already written and published some design essays on what I think is so great from all of them, and so without kind of reiterating that that space. There is a portion of each of these books which is essentially a product of their time, so instructions for how to use a graph paper or basically how to do things that just we don’t have to worry about anymore. And because they are textbooks, some of these books have pages of data tables, they have examples or case studies which you don’t really have to read every word of. So, you can really skim a lot of these books and get to the good things. Okay beyond these anachronisms what I found is, in Bertin, is that style wise Bertin sort of over frameworks everything and everything fits into a 2×2 hierarchy and it was very, very important for him to do this because what he was doing was really building a structure like so the academic bridge between cartography and data visualization in a way that created such a strong foundation that decades and decades of authors have been able to react to it. But that doesn’t mean that what he put forward is like state-of-the-art, right?
RJ: So, maybe that’s Bertin. For Tufte and maybe I’ll say something a little bit more critical to Tufte, and so in that sense what I’ll say is positive for Tufte is that he built one of the best describers of what’s so magical about the craft. In terms of being able to capture why this is so wonderful he was able to do it – you know you read his contemporaries and nobody seem to get that. Nobody seem to get sort of this like just human magic that was happening with this craft.
JS: The beauty of graphs and charts as opposed to like well it’s just a way to get numbers?
RJ: Yeah, and not a superficial beauty but the beauty of informing a mind and exciting a mind to a new way of seeing the world like very poetic language describing what’s happening that’s what I like most about him. But he has a very prescriptive style, right, do this, don’t do that and honestly the craft evolved, the craft is very complex, and so that very hard prescriptive style I don’t think has aged well at all. And so the other thing about a lot of these authors but particularly Tufte I think is that he is a critic, he is analyst, right? Academics are so the analysts are like that. It’s their job, right? Their job is to say that’s not working, and so the critic analyst doesn’t bring the same thing to the table as a maker, as a creator such as one of his contemporaries and sort of one of his – they kind of went back and forth a little bit, but Nigel Holmes who was a maker and was able to say this is why you do it and see here are all of the examples that I have done and I’ve done successfully in that space I want to listen to Nigel not to Tufte because Tufte is like well this is how I think from my ivory tower.
JS: With no real like quantitative support with no evidence.
RJ: No evidence. And maybe he has done a lot but that’s not what the book is full. The book is full of other people’s work and his thoughts on it, and the thoughts are often really interesting and really inspiring. But that’s sort of like a gap there, and I mean maybe the only other thing is that he anchored very hard on efficient encoding that sort of graphic efficiency, right, but if you are going to design for efficiency you want efficient decoding, efficient informing, and so a great example of that is if you’re going to use multiple graphic visual channels to communicate the same thing. So, we are going to use both size and color to encode this particular data dimension. Graphically is that efficient or maybe not as efficient it’s only using one element.
JS: One element, yeah.
RJ: But from a decoding informing perspective it’s much more efficient because it’s much more easy for somebody to hook into what’s going on.
JS: Right, Interesting. So, let me put it this way, what modern works are you like these are the ones that you put up on the…
RJ: On the pedestal.
JS: On the pedestal like the top of the book shelf, right?
RJ: Sure. So, there are three categories and I actually think there are some emerging categories which is very exciting, but there are one category of books which is how to use a particular technology, how to pull the levers. Okay, that’s one category. Another category are coffee table books, and so big beautiful full color photo kind of photo vases like maybe one of the great example of this. But there is subcategory emerging of historic viz which is being published in – so you have Sandra Rendgen’s Minard book, you have the Boyd’s book that just came out. So, it’s been a really exciting year for historic data viz coffee table books. That’s the second category. The third category is approaches to the craft and kind of like no matter what technology levers you are pulling here some principles that you want to be aware of, and so personally Alberto Cairo has put the functional art, which I think came out in 2013 that was the book for me. So, that was the book that I read when I was just starting out and that’s the one that really turned my mind on. It wasn’t the first book I read, but it was the one that made things start to click and really sent me down this path. So, personally that book is still very important to me. In terms of citations like what modern book that I cite the most in my own book it’s probably Tamara Munzner’s book and what’s great about what she does is that the data viz academic literature is not the most accessible *** [inaudible 0:19:52] work, and so what we’re relying on – me not being an academic is what you’re relying is people like Kennedy Elliott would really be a great roundup of some of the literature at – he was Kennedy.
JS: Yeah, at OpenVis.
RJ: At OpenVis maybe three years ago or so, and then I think Lisa Charlotte Rost has done a bunch of also kind of like summary kind of work and that editorial work is so valuable to practitioners because it’s hard to read through the papers, but that summary work used in Lisa’s work those are sort of medium length articles and we go read them. But then if you want to go a little bit deeper then go pick up the Munzner’s book because she is able to explain it all in a way that it’s not a narrative that pulls you through like a story but it is a book that has a lot of punch per pound. There’s a incredible amount of value throughout it and it’s a great – I mean there are other ways to hack learning the research where we can look at citations and there are ways to read research in an efficient way that doesn’t take over your life but like read Tamara first.
JS: Do you view her book as the kind of natural evolution of Cleveland’s book, and then even Bertin before that where it’s a little more academic, a little more rooted in the research as opposed to sort of a prescriptive or a critical or a beautiful coffee table book?
RJ: Yeah. I mean they are so far apart in time that you’d have to fill in I mean through a second book, and then Wilkinson. There are other dots along the way, but it’s certainly in that low. One thing that’s interesting, and this is another early design decision I made with my book is one thing that really impresses me about Cleveland is that the book is almost entirely black and white, very sterile, very sort of like surgically precise charts and they are fantastic I mean if you want to take information to *** [inaudible 0:22:13] or something like it’s really outstanding and really impressive to have a visual consistency throughout the whole work and demonstrate all the principles he is talking about with all these datasets that he has selected in order to demo these principles. And as a n author you know that choosing the example dataset to show a principle is like not always an easy thing to do. One of the things I leaned on Cleveland for is in some of my examples I looked at what dataset he used, and then I went back to that dataset and refreshed it with the last 30 years worth of data. There are lots of tributes and *** [inaudible 0:22:54] throughout my book and that’s one of them is that I am actually using some of the same data but updated with filling in the last 30 years. So, Tamara is a little bit different that it’s a much graphically richer book in that she is calling on a lot of different examples from a lot of different sources, right?
RJ: So, in that sense it’s broader, it’s more expansive but then it doesn’t have the same kind of personality punch that Cleveland’s book does, and so it’s not a one is better than the other approach. It’s certainly a different animal.
JS: Right. So, let’s get back to the design of the book because one of the things that – I’ve seen the book and your sort of last few weeks of priming the book on Twitter with all these drawings and illustrations that you got. One of the things that I find, and I have talked with lots of people on the podcast, is about drawing and a lot of people who are data scientists or analysts who are more sort of identify with the statistics or the data side they don’t want to draw like they are like I am not an artist, I am not a designer, I can’t draw you that. So, do you have a prescription for people who say I can’t draw and so I am not going to draw?
RJ: Sure. So, let’s make sure that just like when you’re visualizing data you can keep drawing into two categories. One is I am drawing for my own personal discovery and insight, and then I am drawing to inform others. It’s a communication tool. So, as a communication tool, and this isn’t strict either, but as a communication tool you might think well this should look nice. But let’s put that aside for now. Let’s talk more about drawing for yourself. So, drawing for yourself even if you didn’t know how to draw well you’re not going to draw well when you’re drawing for yourself, and so what do you need to know. You need to know how to draw a square, how to draw a line, how to draw a circle that’s like pretty much it, and so Visual-Thinking author Dan Roam like this is his banner, right?
RJ: And he extends that knowledge for drawing for yourself, but drawing even collaboratively with others. Okay, so anybody can draw a square, a circle, a line so why is it so important to go off the screen and draw? Okay, one is that there is nothing faster, there is no tighter link between the brain and externalizing the idea from the brain to the outside world than drawing. It happens very, very fast. It happens so fast that you don’t have to think about it, and so why that’s important is that as soon as you externalize and get it out of your brain it’s less wrapped up in your own identity and who you are. It’s less fragile because you’re not going to forget it, but even more important than that is that you can look at it, you can say there it is and you can react to it, and you can make another drawing and you can have another thought, and another idea, and you can keep thinking, and you can keep drawing, and you can have a dialog with yourself by drawing. And so, this is something that I learned even more about from Nick Sousanis the author of Unflattening a comics professor, the power of drawing as a thinking tool. Now, power of drawing as a thinking tool that’s sort of like you know there’s a whole body of work you know kind of idea about that. But there’s also an idea of using drawing in data visualization and data storytelling to explore form, and so personally I am maybe not the most talented developer-coder and so I’m not always going to prototype everything in code. Maybe sometimes we do, but often we don’t and that’s because I’m very fast with just sketching. I bring out my arts and craft supplies and I go wild, but even if you were the best coder in the world well coding is a certain angle on the problem. You should be taking advantage of every angle on the problem, right? So, why not try something new even if it looks bad, especially if it looks bad. If you’re a good coder it’s going to look great, so why not try something that doesn’t look great and see what you learn from it.
JS: Right. So, I think this split is great because I think when you say to who are data people and you ask them to draw I think their first instinct is oh this is something that we’re going to show. Well, it’s not. I want to understand your thoughts about how you want to present this. So, when you work with partners and clients and collaborators do you have to have these hard conversations with them like are you trying to convince them to draw?
RJ: I’m trying to convince them to draw. I’m trying to convince them to write and to describe.
RJ: So, when you are working with a partner or collaborator like the value that always materializes that for whatever reason a lot of people don’t expect is that there is an enormous value to getting everybody around the same table and actually having a conversation.
RJ: I’m like what’s actually there like when we use these words what do we need? And so, one of the values I bring is playing a fool and saying what do you mean by that word, like what you’re referring to like explain. No, no, no, no what exactly is that thing, and then when you do that, when you push people and you don’t worry about annoying them is that you realize that often that a lot of people talk about you know use the same word to talk about you know having different understandings. Every words comes with a whole sort of network of concepts that are all related to one another, and so when anybody uses one word they’re highlighting a portion of those concepts and that’s sort of what they’re leaning into, and so you use certain words you can have different understanding from what’s really going on. We’re talking about drawing?
JS: We are talking about drawing, yeah.
RJ: So, with partners drawing together is great. I’ve done this activity one-on-one with people where I’ll cover a kitchen table with like a butcher board paper and like each take a different color, never red like maybe black and blue, right? And then we’ll just talk and we’ll both be just like do it even while we talk with one another and kind of like – so that’s like a very loosey-goosey kind of fringe form fuzzy, right, of approaching it. Dan Roam will show you much more I think sort of constructive and like precision ways of working with other people. So, and this broaches the topic of criticism too a little bit, but there is – I don’t know if it’s a design thing or a art thing but it’s like don’t show unfinished work to idiots because they don’t have the context. They don’t have the context to understand that this is unfinished work and nothing is polished. These are the things that aren’t polished because they are not supposed to be polished. These are the things that aren’t polished because we don’t know what we’re doing yet. We need to work on this, and so when you are showing somebody sketches it’s useful to sketch and fly it in front of them and talk them through and sort of explain the thinking of what – and then like maybe better than that is you already have the sketches and you’re showing and introducing them. Sending them the sketches and asking them to react to them that the risk increases like what’s important and we need to focus on right now is going to get lost in all the other things because they can say that’s all great, like who cares, that’s not what’s important.
JS: That’s not what’s important right now. Right. So, let me ask the last question because I want to get back and make sure you get back on the book. So, you had mentioned earlier that hopefully people are going to buy it or hopefully they enjoy it, and they take some away from it. So, I want to give you a chance to just say like or talk about what is the thing that you hope people take away from the book when they turn that last page like what are they going to get out of this book that is not yet in the library of this field?
RJ: Yes. So, I am visualizing in my head, and it’s important that when we use the word visualize we remember that visualize didn’t always mean make a scatter plot. Visualize used to mean when you close your eyes what do you see? What do you see with your mind’s eye when I ask you what’s your favorite color like what is that thing that happens when you can see it. So, right now I am closing my eyes and I am visualizing the last page of my book and when you’re a storyteller people remember two things. They remember the emotional peak of your story and they remember whatever happens at the end, the last thing. So, the last part of the book is that I am hoping to fill you with enthusiasm, a little bit of pride in the craft, and sort of also like a sense of duty that this craft is important. It’s important to not only data science or business or academia, but it’s actually important to everyone, to all of civilization, to all of society. That’s a real took that you can take and use to do really, really fantastic things. This has been used over and over across the last 400 years to push civilization forward and create a better world, and what I want you to do is that if you’re a practitioner to feel empowered and emboldened to go do that, and that if you are not a practitioner or if you’re maybe adjacent to the craft somehow is that you recognize the creators, the makers, the data storytellers out there who are doing that. So, the people in the arena sort of thing, and that you support them, and that you become fans of the craft as well even if you are not practicing and that’s sort of I mean it’s a very not utopian but optimistic sort of cheerleading rah, rah, rah let’s go do the thing. It’s a book that’s very much focused on championing the maker, not the critic, not the analyst but the maker, the person in the arena and that’s what I hope people turn that last page and feel.
JS: Sounds great. I’m looking forward to reading it.
RJ: Thanks so much.
JS: Thanks so much. I appreciate it. Lot of fun.
So, again thanks for tuning into this week’s episode of the PolilcyViz podcast. I put links to a lot of the books that RJ mentioned in our discussion on the show notes page. There is also an Amazon collection that I pulled together from a blog post that RJ wrote. So, you can go in and explore any of those books. Of course, if you haven’t picked up your purchase of his new book be sure to do so. So, until next time this has been the PolicyViz podcast. Thanks so much for listening.