By Edward Tufte
“Clarity and excellence in thinking is very much like clarity and excellence in the display of data. When principles of design replicate principles of thought, the act of arranging information becomes an act of insight.”
This book is Edward Tufte’s passionate manifesto for intelligent information design. He is concerned with the need for scale, accuracy, and truthful proportion in the visualization of data. The book derives much of its charm from the beautiful reproduction of its illustrative materials. The author includes engravings, photographs, maps, computer-generated images, and even built-in flaps showing both motion and before and after effects. The diversity of his examples is just as impressive, drawn as they are from scientific papers, conjurers’ manuals, and even books designed to be read underwater. In one stunning example, he uses video snapshots of his own two-dimensional yet dynamic visualization of a thunderstorm.

Tufte (pronounced “TUFF-tee”) makes his central argument in a chapter which has now become famous, in which he discusses the misrepresentation of data related to the 1986 Challenger space shuttle that resulted in a disastrous explosion and the death of all the astronauts on board. His dense technical analysis of data-presentation and bad practice is used to argue that the fatal accident could have been averted if charts and diagrams had been designed more intelligently to present the relevant data more clearly.

A chapter on conjuring tricks focuses on the clever representation of temporal progression in single illustrations from how-to books. However, it has to be said that sometimes Tufte’s point is not quite clear, and he seems to be struggling with the obvious: that it’s difficult to represent fluid motion in static, two-dimensional images. Eventually it emerges that he wishes to compare magic with its opposite—teaching. One amazes by concealment, the other should inform by revelation. “Your audience should know beforehand what you’re going to do.” That’s a useful insight for some of us.

The author is enormously confident and persuasive, yet the reader can’t help but notice that Tufte doesn’t always follow his own advice in the presentation of materials—and this in a book which he wrote, designed, and published himself. On some pages, it’s difficult to link illustration to argument; some reproductions are too large for the point they are making; and he pursues the odd habit of crowding the generous page margins with bibliographic minutiæ that would normally be reserved for chapter end notes.

He writes in a cryptic, elliptical manner, and is much given to compressed generalizations and gnomic claims such as “to make verbs visible is at the heart of information design.” This approach can sometimes be quite witty, as when he dismisses one of the bad examples as “better than nothing (but) that’s all it’s better than.”

Despite these occasional oddities, there are thought-provoking ideas on almost every page. For instance, Tufte believes that the public health warnings on US billboard cigarette advertisements are less effective because they are difficult to read—crammed tightly into boxed text, using sans-serif fonts, in continuous capitals, and underlined—which makes four typographical solecisms in one. As usual, he has the illustration that supports his claim.

The wide variety of Tufte’s graphic presentations are amazingly orchestrated onto single or double-page spreads in a book that is often irresistibly beautiful. What he’s actually talking about is visual rhetoric: “by establishing a structure of rhythm and relationships, (graphic) parallelism becomes the poetry of visual information.” We might wish to query some of his theoretical claims, but it’s very hard to be critically detached from such a seductive presentation of evidence—which ironically is one of Tufte’s warnings.

—Roy Johnson

Cover, Visual Explanations Copyright © 1997 Edward R. Tufte
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This review originally appeared at the Clifton Press website © 1999 R. Johnson.

Related Publications
Envisioning Information by Edward Tufte

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte

Related Links
Review of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Review of Envisioning Information

Tufte’s Website

Dr. Roy Johnson is the author of a number of books on writing, study skills, and computer technology. He’s the director of Clifton Press and the editor of “Writing & Computers”

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Visual Explanations: Images & Quantities, Evidence & Narrative
Author: Edward R. Tufte
Publisher: Graphics Press [March 1997]
ISBN: 0-9613921-2-6
Binding: Hardcover, 156pp, 10 3/4" x 8 7/8"

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