Book Review: Visualizing with Text by Richard Brath
Nov 03, 2020
The creative process is sometimes described in terms of diverge-converge cycles. The diverge step involves experimentation and rewards suspending disbelief, while excesses are curbed and concepts refined during the converge step. Richard Brath's just-released book Visualizing with Text is an important resource that expands our appreciation for the place of text in visual displays.
Books on data visualization fall into recognizable types, of which two popular ones are the style guide, such as Edward Tufte, Dona Wong, and Alberto Cairo, and the coding manual, such as Ben Fry (processing) and Hadley Wickham (ggplot, Shiny). Brath's volume belongs to neither of those - it reads more like an encyclopedic catalog of how text can be incorporated into charts and graphs. He challenges us to blow up our imaginative space for characters, words, sentences, paragraphs and prose. It is a valuable aid for the diverge step of our creative process.
In modern data visualization, text is treated as an accessory, frequently found in titles, labels, legends, footnotes or surrounding text. Brath wants us to elevate text to the starring attraction. Starting with baby steps, such as direct labeling of lines and objects, and coordinating colors between chart elements and words, he experiments with inserting text into unlikely crannies, not shying away from ideas that even he admits may be somewhat of a dead-end.
One of the more immediately useful examples is the use of text labels that hug the lines on a line chart, similar to how roads and rivers are labeled on maps. I wish all software developers implement this function without delay.
A more esoteric example is to replace these lines with small-size text, as Brath makes an analogy between sentences and lines.
I am still deciding if this is a gold mine or a minefield. It is thought-provoking nonetheless.
Finally, the book includes some flights of fancy, like this one:
The red superscripts are numeric codes for French departments (provinces), arranged in ascending order of a given metric, and placed in proportional distance within the prose!
The converge step is left to the reader, as Brath refrains from bullhorning his opinions about chart types, which is why readers should not expect a style guide. He includes many experimental graphics, and may provide the pros and cons of a form without registering a judgement.
Because many of these ideas have yet to enter the mainstream, we'd need to implement these ideas on our own, which is why readers will not find a coding manual. As mentioned above, even the simplest and least controversial tactic of directly labeling lines is not available in Excel, let alone text that hugs or replaces lines. (This proves Brath's point that our community has done text a disservice.) Other ideas explored in later chapters require such features as italicizing numeric proportions of a word, rather than the entire word.
Recently, text has become a mainstay of Big Data. Visualizing with Text is timely, relevant and provocative. It is also clearly written, and tightly organized. Chapter 13 neatly summarizes the key concepts that have appeared along the way. There are plenty of use cases, primarily derived from research or business. After reading this book, you'll revel in the new sandbox of text, and long to free yourself from the constraints of your tool.
I recommend that you get the paper copy of the book. I reviewed the electronic version, and what irony! As you may have guessed, the electronic version ruins the typesetting. On every page, certain paragraphs show up in tiny font that resist all attempts to magnify, making Brath's case that legibility is an important metric for text visualization. Some of the more unusual fonts are dropped. The images are too small, even when popped up.
[P.S. Richard has a webpage where he included larger images and some code.]