How Great Data Graphics Tap Into Your Caveman Brain

Your brain isn't designed to digest a big matrix of numbers and then just burp out knowledge. It is designed to spot and recognize patterns, and it's been trained to do that over thousands of years. A good data visualization communicates ideas instantly, but designing one can be a complex task—it's more than just throwing together colors and shapes.


In this episode of PBS Off Book, data visualization pioneer Ed Tufte explains how a well-designed graphic can completely change how we perceive information, and how data should always trump style. "Aesthetics cannot rescue failed content," he says. "There are enormously beautiful visualizations, but that's a byproduct of the truth and goodness of the information." Careful information design is paramount to pulling it off. If only all infographics were so lovingly crafted. [PBS Off Book]

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I see a lot of cases where style is elevated over data, but bad visualizations—or lack of visualizations—can really prevent people from having that "a-ha!" moment. I've found that one of the best tools for learning how to display data in a meaningful way is to see what others have done (copying is the sincerest form of flattery?). Different kinds of data obviously lend themselves to different formats. One place I like occasionally visiting is, which has some interesting visualizations. Any other good sites out there?