Data visualisation might be the glamorous, public face of data work.

They are omnipresent. We are all regularly exposed to graphs and data visualisations on our favourite websites, sports broadcasts and even advertisements.

And in contrast to the complexity of data science, the sheer volume of data mining, and the verbosity of data journalism, data visualisation is simple, accessible and short.

Data visualisation also appeals to potential practitioners; possibly because it seems easy. DataViz outputs mostly seem like something we could create. We’ve all drawn charts in Excel and used them in PowerPoint. How hard could it be?

But the reality is that it is not easy to create good data visualisation. To do that, a data visualisation must be accurate, visually impactful, and persuasive. This is a high bar (chart) to meet, and one that requires a good grasp of multiple domains such as statistics, visual communication, programming and even human perception and biases.

In this article, I put together a few books that I think will be helpful in getting started with data visualisation. Moreover, I tried to keep the list diverse, to cover something from each relevant subject area.

If you think I missed anything, let me know in the comments or on Twitter!

Note: Some of these books are free (isn’t this community wonderful?). The others’ Amazon are affiliate links, which means that at no additional cost to you, a small commission goes to me.

Data Visualization — General

Fundamentals of Data Visualization (Claus Wilke)

If you’re not sure where to get started, this is as good a place as any.

Wilke’s book is one of those rare books that is suitable to be used as a reference manual, yet innately readable. I found myself simply reading chapter after chapter because I found the experience joyous and enlightening.

I should not be surprised that a book on data visualisation is well laid out and communicates its ideas economically, but Wilke does it well. As a simple example, Wilke marks example visualisations ‘ugly’, or ‘bad’, which seems like such a simple, obvious idea but really captures your attention and gets your mind going and engaged as to ‘why’ and how it should be done instead.

It is free of clutter, and free of cost (if you so choose), as Wilke has made the whole manuscript available online as a beautifully presented website.

Available for free here | Also on Amazon

The Truthful Art: Data, Charts, and Maps for Communication (Alberto Cairo)

Alberto Cairo is almost a celebrity in the data visualisation world. He has the journalistic and the academic credentials, and he is quite active in social media, often praising others’ good work and leading the fight against misinformation.

You really can’t go wrong with any Albert Cairo books on data, or data visualization, in my view.

If I had to pick one, though, it would be this one. His first book is more of an introductory book that tends to lie a little more on the abstract portion of the spectrum, and his latest book is aimed at the consumers of visualisations rather than the creators. This one is probably in the sweet spot for me, in being slightly more practical (in my view) and aimed at… the supply side of data visualisations.

Available on Amazon

Storytelling with Data (Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic)

Everything about this book is quite unassuming, from its simple title to the no-nonsense cover.

It is all part of the magic of this book. Written for business professionals, Storytelling with Data is a good generalist book that is not as technical as some of the others, and perhaps not as intimidating as a result.

I would recommend this for those without as much of a background on statistics or data analysis, but perhaps not as much for those with experience in data-adjacent fields.

Available on Amazon

Good Charts: The HBR Guide to Making Smarter, More Persuasive Data Visualizations (Scott Berinato)

Don’t let the words ‘HBR’ in the title turn you off. This isn’t some generic, lowest-common-denominator book on the very basics of data visualisation.

While it is undoubtedly written to be accessible to the uninitiated, Berinato does not skimp on the history and mechanics, or sciences of data visualisation.

The resulting product is an effective, beautiful book for practitioners, managers, or the layperson. Berinato has a focus on creating purposeful charts that help decision-making, and it really comes through in his work.

I often find that a technical book that is ‘business-focussed’ tends to simplify it down, but in this case it helps as it channels its energy to achieving goals and helping decision makers.

Available on Amazon

Data Visualisation & Programming

Python Data Science Handbook (Jake VanderPlas)

For most people working on data visualisations, it is likely that their work also involves wrangling data.

Python is my language of choice for data science and analytics, which means I am often using packages numpy and pandas.

This book provides a great introduction to both — and despite the somewhat intimidating title that involves the words ‘data science’, it is one of the easier books on the subject if you are familiar with Python at all. It’s available for free!

Available for free here | Also on Amazon

Interactive Data Visualization for the Web (Scott Murray)

D3.js is the visualisation library for the serious practitioner looking to create custom, interactive visuals.

Having built on top of JavaScript, it does come with a steep learning curve. So much so that a number of easier to use, higher-level libraries have been top of it (like Vega Lite, or Plotly).

If you want to, or need to, use D3.js this book is an excellent place to start. Murray guides you through the journey of familiarising yourself with D3.js, and even though it is a long journey he manages to inject enough humour and small wins to make it easier. He’s also made this book available online for free, as well as the code to follow along with.

No, simply this book won’t make you a master at D3.js, however that is true of any programming language or library. But it will probably save you a significant amount of time and grief.

Available for free online here | Also on Amazon

Background Material

Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data (Charles Wheelan)

I think that a having good intuitive understanding of statistics is very important in a modern society.

This applies doubly in my view for anyone who is a ‘knowledge worker’ and if you do anything with data, a solid grasp of statistics is mandatory.

Unfortunately, I have also attended a few statistics classes in my time, and understand that they are mostly taught in the most alienating manner possible. So when I saw this book, I absolutely had to recommend it to everybody.

Statistics for most shouldn’t be about the complex mathematical notations and esoteric discussions of p-values, or which distribution is best suited. It is about getting an intuitive understanding of the observations we make about the world. In turn, it helps us strip away the lies that other people try to tell via distortion of statistics, while on the other hand helping us tell the stories that are right for us. Highly recommended.

Available on Amazon

The Complete Color Harmony, Pantone Edition (Leatrice Eiseman)

If you don’t have a background in design like me, you might not have as good an understanding of colours as you would like.

While I understood the physics behind colour and had some rudimentary understanding of different colours, this book helped me to understand emotional perceptions of colour.

Some of the descriptions can seem somewhat inexact as a fair portion of the framing and language is emotional; however I think she’s more or less on the mark in capturing reactions to colours and why they are used the way they are.

Available on Amazon

Bonus books: Data-adjacent

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (Michael Lewis)

Finding a Michael Lewis book at the bookstore is bad new for me.

Mostly because of my inevitable fidgeting around, adrift in visceral sense memory of my love for Lewis’ books like The Flash Boys and The Big Short while time just sails by me.

I recommend this book because simply knowing about behavioural psychology is an enriching experience, and because the chapter with the Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey is worth the price of admission by itself.

If you are into sports, and data, read that chapter, and think about how amazing it would be to have a boss like Morey whose mission is to make the best possible decision with the best data possible. Also, Lewis is one of the best writers of our time, able to transmute a seemingly mundane subject matter into narrative gold.

Available on Amazon

Obviously it wasn’t an easy task selecting a small few out of tens of great books out there, but I hope at least some of these help you get started. I intend to update these from time to time, so please do let me know if you think I’ve made some egregious omissions :).

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