Graphic Discovery by Howard Wainer

Graphic Discovery sounded more interesting in the table of contents, preface, and introduction than it actually was. Caveat emptor.

Specific gripes about the book are listed below.

Why Graphic Discovery Was Disappointing

The layout, oddly enough for a book on visual display, didn’t collect related text, graphs, and footnotes together in an accessible way, and despite the odd wide dimensions of the book, the gutter margin was too narrow. Perhaps it’s not fair of me to evaluate this book so soon after reading one of Edward Tufte’s exquisitely laid-out award-winning tomes, though.

The book reintroduces and refers to people, topics, and facts in a way that makes the book feel like it’s a loose collection of papers and not the coherent narrative that the TOC, preface, and introduction make it out to be.

Ironically, after explaining that “Alabama first” (alphabetization) is usually a lousy strategy for ordering data, the collection of biographical thumbnails at the back of the book is alphabetical, rather than ordered chronologically or according to field of accomplishment (Supreme Court justices, contemporary academics, European Enlightenment scientists). As a result, Thucydides (Athenian general b. 460 B.C.) is followed directly by Edward Tufte (American political scientist and graphics expert b. 1942). At the start of this list, which he calls “Dramatis Personae”, the author has written “I hope this is as much fun to read as it was to prepare.” A hope unfulfilled in my case, I’m sure.

Extremely Questionable Choice of Typeface

Also—again, oddly for a book on visual display—every time the author created a graph himself, he used the Papyrus font for the labels. No, I’m kidding, of course he wouldn’t do that.

Actually, he used Comic Sans. I’m not kidding. He used Comic Sans!

The first reworked graph to appear (you can find it on page 18) is “a summary of population changes in the twelve tribes of Israel as they emerged from their almost four decades of wandering in the Sinai after their exodus from Egypt, which began in April 1446 B.C.” The text was translated from Aramaic after the physical document was recovered from the Qumran caves near the Dead Sea.

In short: Howard Wainer’s book depicts historical data from a three-thousand-year-old Dead Sea scroll using the world’s most hated typeface.

a modified public domain-image of one of the Dead Sea scrolls

Just yesterday I was told about some education research suggesting that people retain information better if an “ugly” or “difficult” font is used, presumably because your brain is emotionally or intellectually activated in some additional way and thus pays more attention to such text. The study came out years after Graphic Discovery and no such subtle reason was given to justify the terrible font choice.

I imagine that Wainer (or perhaps some hapless assistant?) wanted the text to be readable, but there are many, many sans-serif typefaces available and just about any other one of them would have been better. Heck, I’d rather have seen that first graph labeled in Papyrus, since that’s what (some of) the Dead Sea Scrolls were made of. True, it would have been a lame gimmick, but it would have been an understandable one. That anyone would choose to document ancient Hebrew tribe populations in Comic Sands is absurd.

Using Comic Sans suggests “this content is for popular entertainment and/or kids, thus, not serious in the slightest”. Using Comic Sans in a serious context without any kind of explanation conveys willful ignorance of best practices in the field of visual design.

the first two sentences of the Wikipedia article on Comic Sans… shown in Comic Sans

Here’s a website offering an attractively presented, concise, kind, sensible explanation of when to use Comic Sans and when not to.

Incidentally, if I’ve misidentified the typeface and it’s not Comic Sans but some sort of lesser-known cousin, everything I’ve said still applies.

When and Why I Read Graphic Discovery

I have decided to continue reading on the theme of representing information visually. This book published by Princeton University Press during my time there contains the names of several esteemed former colleagues of mine. [I hold none of them responsible for the ugly graphs.]

Genre: non-fiction (applied mathematics)
Date started / date finished:  24-Apr-17 to 29-Apr-17
Length: 172 pages
ISBN: 0691103011 (hardcover)
Originally published in: 2005
Amazon link: Graphic Discovery