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I See the Numbers September 21, 2009

Posted by Carlos Lievano in Show Me the Numbers, [Books] Visualization & Presentation.
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It is hard to get started on reading Show Me the Numbers by Stephen Few. In the introduction he claims to approach the book as an educator, and the first chapters are very basic. He starts by doing an overview of statistics, which are helpful for designing tables and graphs, and would be very helpful for someone without that background. However, after being through the statistics review of our core curriculum, I simply wish I had skipped this chapter. And the next chapters as well! The truth is that the book doesn’t provide anything new for the first 5 chapters.

However, once you get to chapter 6, things become truly enlightening. In the introduction he warns you not to skip it, despite its scientific content, and he does so with a good reason. In that chapter, Stephen Few describes the process by which we sense and perceive through vision, and therefore lays the foundation for all the recommendations he makes for design. Without this chapter, you will just learn a couple of best practices, but it is the principles in it that truly allows you to understand the reasons behind those best practices, and by knowing why, you are also endowed with the possibility to play with the rules, create some of your own, and be better prepared to face the challenges of presenting data in new ways that might not be covered in the book.

After this, the book keeps going into a great detail of design issues, both for tables and graphs. His advice is great, and even if you have already been using some of his rules, you will end the book with the reasons that support these rules, so that you have enough arguments if you ever find yourself discussing any of them. However, the last chapter, which is only two pages long, invites you not to treat the great advice as unchangeable rules. In pursue of innovation, it invites you to create standards that work for your organization and objectives, so that having all the right decisions regarding our table and graph design, you can focus on the really interesting task, which is to deal with the insights you get from the proper visualization of data. Despite the rough start with the book, I found it very useful, and would recommend it to anyone who has to present data as the basis for larger arguments. It really helps to tell your story.