the functional art: The Book

Epoca Magazine (Sao Paulo Brazil) from Cairo's book (P.48-49)

Epoca Magazine (Sao Paulo Brazil) from Cairo’s book (P.48-49)

When I first heard of the functional art (Cairo, 2012), I asked myself: What makes this book different from the many other information graphics books which are currently out there? At the beginning, the word ‘functional’ caught my attention as it was in line with my practice approach and research interests. Then, during the Malofiej 20 conference early last year, Cairo gave a more detailed review of the book content and its approach to designing information. That talk helped answer my initial question: clearly, the book was not about information graphics and visualisations; it was tackling a broader problem. Most case studies included in the book do belong to the visual journalism domain, however conceptual design, cognitive and perceptual principles discussed throughout it also could be relevant to many other domains to enhance understanding and visual communication.

Overall, the book gives a comprehensive explanation of core information design principles while real-life examples and case studies are consistently used to illustrate the theory. Cairo elaborates on the following topics:

  • The theory that Graphics are tools to be read, and not just to be seen
  • Mechanisms involved in the brain processes to help people become better communicators
  • Differences and similarities between infographics and information visualisation
  • Art-visualisation relationship
  • Rational and (more) creative design approaches

You won’t find specific sections under those heading, but you will find plenty of answers to questions within those areas.

In the book, Cairo defines Graphics (information graphics and visualisations) as tools designed to mainly accomplish four tasks: ‘present, compare, organise and correlate’ information. Readers assess the level of completion of those tasks, therefore the reader or user has a key role in the design process. Cairo encourages communicators to think as readers and to never underestimate their appetite for learning and exploration: ‘tell [the reader] as much as you can, seek deeper.’ Of course, to be useful, the complexity of a graphic should respond to the nature of the reader too (P.59).

As the title of the book indicates, Cario highlights function as an important aspect of graphics. To explain it, he revises the ‘form follows form’ theory by offering a more bidirectional approach. Cairo argues that ‘form doesn’t always follow function; in many cases, the function follows a form that previously followed another unrelated function’ (P.35). He states that ‘functions constrain forms’, and explains that:

the form should be constrained by the functions of your representations. Choosing visual shapes to encode information shouldn’t be based on aesthetics and personal tastes alone (…) the better defined goals of an artifact, the narrower the variety of forms it can adopt.’

The above quote points out the need of having well-defined, clear aims and objectives, and thorough understanding of the intended user when designing a communication piece. To facilitate the translation process of textual information to visual language, Cairo presents the ‘visualisation wheel’ (P.51); his own tool to designing information. This tool could be used to verify whether each visualisation variable has been considered, for example functionality, multidimensionality, originality, familiarity, novelty, among others.

Cairo also devotes a chapter to interactive graphics which gives an overview of the basic principles of information interactive design, most of them closely related to that of print design: visibility, consistency, structure, exploration. Independently of the medium, designing information in a clear and effective way seems to respond to the same rationale.

The book ends with a series of profiles of influential practitioners, artists and more academic names from various domains, all of them related to the creation of information graphics and the visual presentation of information.

Particularly, I extracted the following useful recommendations from the book:

  • ’10-15 min planning can improve the resulting graphic.’ Conceptual design and deep problem understanding is essential prior start thinking of or prototyping potential solutions.
  • ‘Things are context-dependent.’ Theories, ideas, solutions are relative and intrinsically related to the environment. Concrete examples and details are a must to facilitate clear communication and understanding.
  • ‘Healthy curiosity.’ Starting each day with a beginner’s mind allows learning new stuff, evolving and growing.
  • ‘Support your ideas’. Using concrete examples and case studies to explain ideas/theories/solutions facilitates the understanding of those ideas and makes them more credible and reliable.
  • ‘Learn about everything, then go deeper into something.’ Looking at the bigger picture of a problem helps understand the context and consider a wide range of alternatives. Then, a closer look is essential to gain thorough understanding of that particular situation.

In addition to the content, I enjoyed Cairo’s informal but highly informative and well-supported narrative style. Almost as you were having a face-to-face conversation with him or attending to one of his workshops, he unravels models and theories (e.g. Bertin’s, Tufte’s, Gestalt’s theory, cognitive principles) which might not be commonplace for domain-outsider readers.

The function art sits within many domains, just to name the obvious ones: information design, journalism, information and data visualisation. Therefore, it should be of interest for members of those communities: students, practitioners and academics, but also to other people interested in learning how we process information and how we can visually communicate it.

– Cairo, A., 2012. The functional art. An introduction to information graphics and visualization. US: New Riders

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