Viegas and Wattenberg propose that successful data displays often make it easy for people to find their own demographic (“You are here”), and let people talk about them (the social object theory).
As for the quote in the title itself, it is from type designer Erik Spiekermann.
(B)y the time the first data point hits the screen, you're communicating. The catch: it’s a fallacy to think communication happens solely through the data you're plotting. Even before viewers understand the data, they form strong impressions of the intended message based on colors, fonts, and the like.
Because visualizations are, well... visual, their design is a crucial part of what they communicate. This means that when you try your hardest to build a “neutral” visualization, with subdued tones and discreet type, you are in fact creating a specific mood: “This is serious, serious business.”
Almost paradoxically, this means that you can communicate that a graph is not worth examinining before anyone gets to the data, which would be a shame.
The clearest, most precise graphic in the world communicates nothing if nobody looks at it.
And that’s as true for conference posters as for graphs and data visualization.
Photo by Roo Reynolds on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.