What are functional aesthetics?

I mention aesthetics quite a lot in this blog (and in my upcoming book) but not with any great appreciation for what the term might mean, especially when applied to data visualisation. My own definition probably just covers something that looks visually pleasing. But this post reviews Functional Aesthetics for Data Visualisation by Vidya Setlur and Bridget Cogley. In talking about functional aesthetics, they are describing the sweet spot of beautiful, yet meaningful visualisations and dashboards.

Straight away, you can tell this is a labour of love – the enthusiasm and validity with which the authors describe elements from the three elements of theory, academia and practice really shine through. With backgrounds covering all three of these areas, it makes for a complete publication, full of examples not just from practical situations as a practitioner, but from theory – focusing in particular on theory of presentation, psychology, conversation and cognition. All things which influence creation of functional and aesthetic dashboards, most of which, like me, you probably hadn’t considered in requisite depth until now.

You might be at a small disadvantage if, like me, you’re not familiar with Japanese food and restaurants. From the start, the concept of a bento box is used as an example of something outside the world of data visualisation and dashboarding which is functional and aesthetically pleasing. It’s easy to see from here where the comparisons lie in dashboard design. But although the analogy was unfamiliar to me, the idea of inspiration from fields outside of dataviz is very much not … and so this was one of the first of many new things I learned from the book!

(The image below, as well as the description, come from blueapron.com)

Bento box – a single-serving packed meal native to Japan,
traditionally containing rice, meat or fish, and vegetables in a portioned, lacquered wooden box.

One of my favourite parts right away is the inclusion of several triangular guides throughout the book. Now you probably already know that I love a good triangle! Every triangle highlights the multidisciplinary nature of the book, with examples such as these below:

Snapping of charts – balances practice and research
Balancing perception and semantics – balances theory and research

The book has a perfect flow – I love how every chapter references findings from previous chapters and every chapter summary, whilst doing just what it sets out to do, places the reader firmly in the right position in the narrative of the overall book. I know from experience that’s not an easy thing to do in such a textbook! With the book divided into sections around perception, semantics, and intent, that journey is made easier, and the final chapter on bringing all of the previous chapters together leads to a truly useful and detailed checklist of considerations to consider when designing your perfect functionally aesthetic dashboard.

And it’s this final chapter and checklist that encapsulates the system introduced throughout the book. Throughout, the book has allowed readers to make their own decisions, giving them the tools to do so, rather than just focusing on best practices or unbreakable principles. It feels like a useful and practical checklist that fully references the theory, practice and research behind every point, that can be used by visualisation and dashboard practitioners in any discipline.

One of the authors, Bridget Cogley, has introduced #FindtheFiat to get some buzz around the book. It’s a perfect hashtag, because the book feels like a discussion comprising of all the best expertise from two authors with from separate fields but with a combined passion, and was dreamt up on a physical journey in a Fiat. The car itself makes an appearance on the front cover (and featured image of the book) – and I encourage you too to find the Fiat and improve your own learnings around functional aesthetics!

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