Book Review: Design for Information, by Isabel Meirelles

Design for Information: An introduction to the histories, theories, and best practices behind effective information visualizations, was written by Isabel Meirelles in 2013. Meirelles, who is currently a Professor in the Faculty of Design at Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD) University in Toronto, Canada, wrote the book when she was at Northeastern University. 

This is not your typical data visualization book. Rather than examining the design of bar charts, line charts, and scatterplots, the author takes a wider view and looks at the fundamental structures of information and their associated visualizations. The chapters cover:

  • Hierarchical Structures: Trees
  • Relational Structures: Networks
  • Temporal Structures: Timelines and Flows
  • Spatial Structures: Maps
  • Spatio-Temporal Structures
  • Textual Structures 

The book’s subtitle accurately reflects the author’s approach. Meirelles introduces the reader to the history, theory, and best practices for each topic. The chapter on hierarchical structures is typical of her approach.      

While design continues to evolve and innovate, it is incorrect to think that design is new. Previous work forms the foundation for today’s visualizations. Meirelles places the current practices of visualizing hierarchical structures in context by including a wide variety of examples from Bishop Isidore of Seville’s genealogical trees in the 7th century to Munzer’s 1998 “3-D Hyperbolic Tree.” 

Meirelles delves into theory and comprehensively defines the variety of potential representations for each structure. For hierarchical structures, options include cartesian, polar, and other geometries. The examples of cartesian systems cover node-link layouts, dendrograms, indented layouts, cone-trees, icicle trees, and treemaps. She adds marginal information highlighting the relevant gestalt principles to the visualizations. These perception principles describe how people group similar elements, recognize patterns and simplify complex images.

Each chapter finishes with “Case Studies” that detail the best practices for each information structure. The hierarchical structures chapter case study is titled “TREEMAPS: SmartMoney Map of the Market.” It focuses on Martin Wattenberg’s 1998 online, interactive treemap of stock market performance by sector. While this specific graphic is no longer available online, there are other similar examples, such as finviz’s treemap of Standard and Poor’s 500 index stocks categorized by sectors and industries. 

Meirelles analyzes Wattenberg’s treemap, identifying the domain, task, structure, data types, and visual encodings. She deconstructs the treemap, identifying and explaining the role and design of each element of the visualization. Meirelles finishes the case study with examples of treemaps on topics other than finance, showing a variety of styles and design options. This is helpful not only for understanding the graphics, which may be unfamiliar, but for inspiring the design similar of graphics.

While providing a strong foundation for understanding various structures, Meirelles avoids the pitfall of tying her work to specific software packages, which would easily date the publication. Although data visualization has continued to evolve since publication of the book, the contents are still relevant.

In his review, Alberto Cairo (University of Miami) sums up the beautifully designed and illustrated book nicely by saying…

I’m not very good at writing book reviews, so let me just say this: Get Isabel Meirelles’ “Design for Information: An Introduction to the Histories, Theories, and Best Practices Behind Effective Information Visualizations.” … This book should be part of any infographics and visualization personal library.


Design for Information: An introduction to the histories, theories, and best practices behind effective information visualizations. Book on Amazon.

Book: Design for Information. Book website. Author website.

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