A friend and former colleague emailed me the question, “What books should I read to learn data visualization? I’m also interested in keeping up with current trends and best practices.” and I decided to publish my answer (slightly edited), in case this is helpful for anyone else.
I have read quite a lot of our field’s work. I’m passionate about this subject! But if you feel like I’m missing something here, tweet at me and maybe I’ll change my mind.
I hope this list of recommendations can help you too, if you find yourself reading this.
So here is the (edited) email that I responded with:
Connect with the community
I think that 5 years ago I would have said that the best place to learn visualization is on Twitter, because all the big authors, scholars, and “influencers” in visualization share their work there (but not so much these days after Musk took over).
But definitely check out the Nightingale for the best stuff put out by practitioners! I love that publication and the community (the Data Visualization Society, or DVS). It’s a community of some 20k visualization practitioners all over the world.
(Fun fact: I was at Tapestry Conference in 2018 in Miami (RIP), talking with some really cool folks, when Amy Cesal came up with the idea of a society of visualization people. A few months later her, Elijah Meeks, and others started it.)
I’d also recommend that you join the DVS and get in the DVS slack, which is free. The conversations there are good but so are the opportunities to share your work and get feedback. Plus, Amanda Makulec (the current Executive Director of DVS) is just an incredible person. She is a pillar of our whole community and really wants to see us thrive with each other.
So for books!
Top must-read visualization books
The ones I think you definitely should read and I would feel bad if I didn’t at least recommend them to you:
Alberto Cairo’s whole series of work is good (he draws on a journalistic style and ethics in much of his work) and Munzner’s Visualization Analysis and Design still holds up as probably my favorite book on the basics, especially for a scientific context. Jen Christiansen’s latest book Building Science Graphics will probably become the new standard for folks who do scientific graphics writ large (not just visualization of data). And Cogley and Setlur’s Functional Aesthetics is like if academic stuff mixed with design and epistemology. It’s really good for getting the juices flowing on why we do what we do when we design visualizations. These are all the must-reads I’d tell you to check out first!
The best basics for visualization as a practice
If you want to really hit the basics (introductory stuff plus ethics of our practice):
Juuso and Jonatan’s Data Visualization Handbook is a super good introduction. It is really approachable! Plus, they are awesome guys. (They hosted me at Aalto a few months ago and I’ve since completely fallen in love with Helsinki.) And Schwabish’s Better Data Visualizations is really good too, but his domain of practice (policy research) does shine through parts of it, so it isn’t totally comprehensive for all styles of visualization. Schwabish also runs some great “Do No Harm” guides (which are literally free books they call “reports” on various important subjects). The first one was general equity in data practices (ethics/race/culture/etc). The second followed up on that and the third was accessibility (so obviously the one I recommend the most out of the series). The latest is on privacy but I haven’t read it yet.
I just realized I sent a somewhat respectable spread of authors in different domains: Journalism, science, design, and policy research. The missing pillars would be the business intelligence folks (love Wexler’s work in that domain), product (like what I did at Visa or the HIG folks wrote for charts at Apple), humanities + critical perspectives (my points of origin), and data science (I don’t read those, so I don’t have good recommendations).
I’m probably forgetting a major pillar or two lol! But these are all I could recall for now.
Last but not least
And while this final section wasn’t part of my original email, I cannot recommend enough how important Alberto Cairo’s forthcoming book, The Art of Insight, will be for getting a sense of our whole field. Seriously! I wrote a glowing review of it.
If you want to browse around for inspiration, I might recommend looking at the field of data journalism, the Information is Beautiful Awards, or conferences like Outlier. But if you want a book that inspires you to see how diverse our practice is, then read this last book on my list for sure.