This is a long overdue review of the Book of Circles by Manuel Lima. Before we get into it, a couple of housekeeping points. Firstly, I was given a copy of the book to review and secondly, I’m not nor do I pretend to be a book critic.

2016 was an interesting year, a year where I explored a lot more in my data visualisation work. I tried new things and often enough I tried a circular approach. In some cases, it was a deliberate move towards data art like in this analysis of the NYC tree census.

Or in this case where I replicated a visualisation by the Guardian team.

Myself, like many other newcomers to the world of data visualisation are fascinated by these circular shapes, and while they are not the easiest to read they are without a doubt visually striking. In his book, Manuel Lima delves into quite a bit of history to show us that the circular shape has been in our lives for centuries and as such they are quite familiar to us.

Book of Circles is not a how-to book or a book analysing each visualisation and evaluating it. It’s rather more a collection of circular data visualisation examples some dating back centuries. It provides us with a mesmerising panoply of colourful and detailed examples united by using the circle in their core design.

Manuel Lima, created a catalogue of the different types of shapes involving circles with plenty of examples for each of the chapters.

Taxonomy of Circles

  • Rings & Spirals
  • Wheels & Pies
  • Grids & Graticules
  • Ebbs & Flows
  • Shapes & Boundaries
  • Maps & Blueprints
  • Nodes & Links

The introductory chapter however, is a rich and detailed analysis of the use of circular shapes in history, reflecting on the ubiquitous presence of these shapes throughout the centuries.

“Whenever humans gather around a particular scene or object, they instinctively form a circle. This universal behaviour underlies the shape of many ancestral entertainment structures, such as circuses, arenas, theatres, coliseums, concert halls, and stadiums. More than an organising principle for entertaining, circularity has been incorporated into numerous religious, political, commercial, and residential edifices in ancient and modern times…” (Lima, 22)

I thoroughly enjoyed spending time looking over some of the old visualisations, such as the Astrological Calendar by Oronce Finé 1549 (p131), or the more recent Life in Data by Ben Willers 2011 (p169). It is a book that I can see myself going back to for inspiration from time to time and a great addition to the library of anyone with even the faintest interest in visualisation and design.

Thank you for reading,

David