Review: Information is Beautiful, David McCandless, 2009, published by Collins

Information is Beautiful - visually stunning and a page turner

With 255 pages of diagrams and graphs, including a table of interesting facts about dictators wives (Milosevic met his when she borrowed his library card at school) “Information is Beautiful” by David McCandless is a tribute to the effectiveness of good design and to how interesting raw information is if accessibly presented. I have already lost two friends and a girlfriend  for hours each in this, the consummate coffee-table book, by just showing it to them. It is the consumation of a wider project of making information accessible with graphs and bright colours continued by the associated website, http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/, along with a blog and a facebook group. Particularly interesting is McCandless’s willingness to do graphic design in real-time as facts come out, as he did for the recent UK emergency budget (here).

In the book the miscellany of facts on climate change, shown in colourful visual form, include how individual lifestyle choices can affect carbon emissions on a daily basis (the difference between a thermostat on 24 degrees and on 25 degrees, or between snacking on strawberries or on apples), which countries have kept to and overshot their Kyoto targets and by how much and how far above the current sea-level various cities are. It also has one of the clearest lists of climate sceptic vs. climate consensus arguments present on a concise four-page spread, also available online here.

Its environmental credentials on other issues are also impressive, detailing fish stocks, remaining supplies of key metals and their uses and the extent of recent Amazon dieback.

Images of polar bears are among the more controversial in climate change arguments

One of the problems of communication climate change, undoubtedly like many other issues, is that it aspects are fundamentally technical and therefore somewhat inaccessable. Up to a point one can point to pictures of melting glaciers and polar bears, but the attempt to make climate change easier to understand is caught between the rock of physical science and the hard place of economics, not to mention Kyoto targets, relative emission levels of different countries, per capita emission levels, projected population growth etc. etc.

It is also interesting that climate change has reached the level of popular awareness that it features in passing in so many books not specifically related to global warming, oil supplies or environmental degradation like this, providing tiny windows on the discussion rather than throwing open their doors to the whole topic as many of the major books do. It demonstrates that climate change discussion has become so ubiquitous now, it can be treated (as is the central argument of Mike Hulme’s “Why We Disagree About Climate Change”) as a cultural phenomenon rather than a purely scientific problem.

No doubt the figures are open to scrutiny by intrepid analysts, but as far as making information accessible goes, this book is well ahead of the curve. This kind of design is one to watch for those wanting to get the detail of their message out for the masses, not just the nerds.

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