‘The Truthful Art’: A Must-Read for Mad Times

Charles Saulnier
Oct 10, 2019 · 5 min read

Graphs are powerful, so designers have a responsibility to make sure that the decisions they make will lead to communication that is as truthful as can be.

An aerial view of a mountainous shoreline
An aerial view of a mountainous shoreline
“The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.” — Pastor Ralph W. Sockman

When I started my data visualization journey, I focused on understanding and applying the “left brain” aspect of it: human perception, situation awareness, learning to work systematically with tools like Tableau and Power BI, and trying to develop skills in R and Python. Data viz was not an art to me; it was a branch of data science. As I was exposed to terms like data art and data visualization design, I gained a broader perspective on the field. I realized that to take my skills to the next level, I had to learn how to balance the science, design, and art aspects of data visualization. An enticing mission, but where could I begin?

If you read my previous article, you’ll know that the first data viz book I bought was Storytelling Aith Data: A Data visualization Guide for Business Professionals by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic. I often refer back to it and its website when I am looking to improve my work. Since I am also a Google Play Music subscriber (yeah, I know, who does that?), I started listening to the SWD podcast a little over a year ago. That’s where I discovered Alberto Cairo. Listening to his perspective on truthfulness and uncertainty in Episode 7 made me want to learn more about his work, which in turn led me to The Truthful Art: Data, Charts, and Maps for Communication.

The cover of The Truthful Art by Alberto Cairo
The cover of The Truthful Art by Alberto Cairo
Alberto Cairo: The Truthful Art: Data, Charts and Maps for Communication. © New Riders, 2016. Cover graph by Moritz Stefaner

Cairo offers another angle in this book, a practical yet more academic one. Its content provides tools and ideas to educate and increase our collective knowledge, advocating what he calls candid communication. In his words:

“The purpose of infographics and data visualizations is to enlighten people — not to entertain them, not to sell them products, services, or ideas, but to inform them. It’s as simple — and complicated — as that.”

While this may seem self-evident, we are exposed daily — hourly, dare I say — to graphs that seek to leverage our innate biases and limited attention-spans. Rather than ignoring those biases, The Truthful Art exposes how they affect us, and illustrates how we can try to control them, knowing it is impossible to do so completely.

The Truthful Art is about visual communication, and features abundant graphs and infographics that highlight themes in each chapter. Right from the introduction, Cairo builds the case for enlightenment using concepts such as the Island of Knowledge.

The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder. — Pastor Ralph W. Sockman

The idea is that the “island” represents each individual’s knowledge at a point in time, which can expand in new and unforeseen directions when exposed to information (graphs in this case), then make us think and ask new questions.

Finding the right answers to good questions makes us capable of posing even better and more profound ones — Alberto Cairo

After viewing Moritz Stefaner’s emergence of neuroscience graph, the Island of knowledge expands, and new questions arise
After viewing Moritz Stefaner’s emergence of neuroscience graph, the Island of knowledge expands, and new questions arise
Viewing and analyzing graphs and infographics can lead to an expansion of the Island of Knowledge, as illustrated here. See how the island on the right is larger, and each person’s perspective has moved? Alberto Cairo: ‘The Truthful Art: Data, Charts and Maps for Communication.’ © New Riders, 2016.

While the author’s illustrations are excellent, the book also showcases many stunning examples from designers and data journalism teams around the world where science, design, and art intersect … which is exactly what I was looking for when I acquired this book!

Communication is at the heart of any data viz designer’s work. You want your audience to grasp the right takeaway from your work and the underlying data you analyzed. While some designers may willfully mislead their audience, the vast majority are striving for their work to enlighten and spark discussions and new analyses. If you have one takeaway from the book, I believe it should be this one, the truth continuum:

The truth continuum as illustrated by Alberto Cairo. ‘The Truthful Art: Data, Charts and Maps for Communication.’ © New Riders, 2016.

What does this graph represent? All things being equal, you can never be 100 percent wrong or 100 percent right when communicating with data. You can be spot-on on a hunch, but chances are you won’t be every time! Probably not even a majority of the time. However, with a rational model and valid assumptions that you are able to test, you give yourself a much better chance of being close to the absolute truth.

“When you devise a model, it’s never possible to know exactly where it lies in the continuum. All you know is that evidence-based reasoning may move you closer to the right-most end.” — Alberto Cairo

Keeping this in mind, it is easier to welcome diverging analyses and points of view that may help improve your work, or cause you to revise it entirely.

After reading The Truthful Art (and referring back to it multiple times), I now take additional steps to make designs such as the one below as truthful as possible. These include clearly citing sources, adding explanatory text, trend lines, confidence intervals, and correlation factors are now essential parts of my toolbox. I aim to make my graphs as clear as possible, while by no means pretending they represent the unequivocal truth. By sharing my sources, I invite viewers to take their own crack at the data.

A sample scatterplot displaying the frequency of words in Info We Trust by R.J. Andrews
A sample scatterplot displaying the frequency of words in Info We Trust by R.J. Andrews
An example of a simple personal design striving to enlighten, created by me as part of the Makeover Monday challenges.

In my opinion, for anyone involved in the visual display of information, reading The Truthful Art is a must. Well written, beautifully illustrated, and addressing a subject that is as relevant as ever, it builds a compelling case for communicating as truthfully as possible. Alberto’s blog is another excellent source of inspiration for data visualization designers of all backgrounds.

While I have focused this review on the “truthful” part of the book, it also offers a broader overview that includes statistics, basic visualization principles, and working with maps.

On October 15, Alberto Cairo’s most recent work, How Charts Lie, will also be available everywhere. You can visit his blog to learn more about this and his other books. It looks poised to be a worthy addition to the topic of trust in communication.

Because hopefully, even in our time of “fake news,” striving to be truthful will never go out of style.

Many thanks to Clare Harvey for her insightful suggestions and recommendations!

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The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

Thanks to Clare Harvey

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Charles Saulnier

Written by

Manager @LarochelleGC. Always looking to improve my viz and design skills, and share my passion with anyone who will hear me out :)

Nightingale

The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

Charles Saulnier

Written by

Manager @LarochelleGC. Always looking to improve my viz and design skills, and share my passion with anyone who will hear me out :)

Nightingale

The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

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