Painting with Numbers

Painting with Numbers (ISBN 1118172574) is a new book of advice on making numerical presentations.

The book is very elementary. It contains no math beyond arithmetic, and it focuses almost entirely on financial data in Excel spreadsheets. But it does have useful tips. A lot of presentations would be easier to understand if the presenter had read this book. Think of it as a sort of Tufte-lite.

One of the themes in the book is a list of 18 “deadly sins” of presentation. Here are the first three.

  1. Not right-justifying a column of numbers.
  2. Basing column width or row height on the length of the caption.
  3. Using visual effects for any reason other than clarifying, distinguishing, or adding meaning to information.

I like #17: “I know most of you can’t read the numbers on this slide, but …”

5 thoughts on “Painting with Numbers

  1. SteveBrooklineMA

    I don’t really understand what he means by item 2. By “caption” does he mean the column title? Is he saying columns shouldn’t be the width of the title?

    Let me take this opportunity to mention an Excel pet peeve. If, for example, I type 3.14*5^2 and hit enter, Excel assumes I mean the text “3.14*5^2” Shouldn’t it be smarter than that and guess that I have entered some math? It happens often enough to be annoying.

  2. As far as #2, he means that the column width should be determined by the logic of the content. Columns containing similar data should have the same width so that your eyes group the data appropriately. He gives examples where failing to do this creates a wrong impression visually. If the column heading doesn’t fit the logical width, use abbreviations, or footnotes, or rotate the headings.

  3. Number three there is reminiscent of the data-ink ratio. Perhaps you’d also like Tufte’s “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” for some good guidelines that apply to presentation of results.

  4. How does it compare quality-wise? Let’s say Tufte (VDQI) is like a 9/10, up there with Strunk & White — and the last book you read and thought was fine but wouldn’t think about afterwards is a 5. Where does this PwN rank?

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