How To Raise Your Data-Viz Game Without A Design Degree

Good Charts may look like “Edward Tufte for Dummies,” but it might also be the design manual of the year.

The best design books, like the best designers, value pragmatism over purity. My Edward Tufte books look great on the coffee table, but Good Charts will be joining Design Is a Job on the bookshelf that I can reach easily from my desk. I expect to consult it that regularly.


Good Charts does what it says on the tin: It tells you how to design diagrams, charts, and infographics that do the job you intended them to do. According to author Scott Berinato, those jobs tend to fall into four categories. There’s “idea illustration” for when you want to succinctly capture a complex concept, argument, or system; “idea generation” for when you’re scribbling on whiteboards or napkins; “visual discovery” for when you’re trying to sift signal from noise; and (my favorite) “everyday dataviz” for when you just need to make a point without fussing over it in Keynote or Illustrator for four hours.

Berinato is an editor at Harvard Business Review, which probably has a lot to do with why his book treats the practice of infographic design with more bluntness than reverence. Nothing against Tufte, but most people aren’t interested in painting the chart version of the Sistine Chapel. Nor do they particularly care about trading sick burns on Twitter about the inefficacy of pie charts. Instead, a basic fluency in data visualization–much like desktop publishing, image editing, and (increasingly) programming–is just one more mode of expression that modern humans expect each other to have.

The refreshing thing about Good Charts, however, is that it doesn’t implicitly urge readers to become data-viz experts overnight or risk becoming roadkill on the corporate autobahn. As a self-taught “data-viz geek,” Berinato writes not from a position of priestly eminence (à la Tufte) or outsized talent (e.g., Nicholas Felton of “Feltron Annual Report” fame), but from a grounded peer-to-peer perspective that feels genuinely encouraging and empowering. Making good charts doesn’t require memorizing a talmudic corpus of dos and don’ts (Four legs good! Spider charts bad!); mastering a suite of intimidating, expensive design apps; or even being a “creative type.” It’s more like learning how to write clearly–part language, part craft, all practice. And just like with writing, you can up your data-viz game with nothing more than pencil, paper, and a few trusted principles to guide you. Good Charts delivers those principles in a manner that never feels like nagging, scolding, or–at worst–homework. For that alone, it may just be the design book of the year.

[Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Good Charts: The HBR Guide to Making Smarter More Persuasive Data. Copyright 2016. Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Charts created using the IN-SPIRE™ software developed at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, operated by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy, and Tableau Software. Reproduced by arrangement with Boeing.]


About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.