Monday, April 12, 2010

Doing the unprecedented is overrated

Blog post by Stephen Few

...doing the unprecedented is highly overrated.

Most of what we can do to make the world a better place involves, not doing the unprecedented, but doing what matters and what works [emphasis mine], whether unprecedented or not. This might not be as exciting as the unprecedented, but it’s desperately needed. I believe that too many opportunities are wasted because we glorify the unprecedented for its own sake.

In the field of data visualization, failures are more common today than successes, not due to complexity, but to the fact that few people have been trained in the simple principles and practices of graph design. As a result, they rely on software tools to do the work for them and most of those tools lead them astray, encouraging them to produce silly, useless displays...

Here’s an example of one of the earliest quantitative graphs, hand drawn by William Playfair in 1786. In his time, Playfair did the unprecedented by inventing or greatly improving many of the quantitative graphs that we use today.

1786! I think it's pretty clear that software isn't the issue. It's taking the time to learn what the right things are, and being disciplined enough to use them every time you're presenting information. Proper dataviz shouldn't be saved for "when you have time" - it should be an inherent part of the data analysis process.

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