Edward Tufte

envisioning information

tufte lecture by peter durand

Edward Tufte (b. 1942) is an American statistician and professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale University. He is noted for his writings on information design and as a pioneer in the field of data visualization.Tufte’s writing is important in such fields as information design and visual literacy, which deal with the visual communication of information. He coined the term ‘chartjunk’ to refer to useless, non-informative, or information-obscuring elements of quantitative information displays. Other key concepts of Tufte are the ‘lie factor,’ the ‘data-ink ratio,’ and the ‘data density’ of a graphic.

He uses the term ‘data-ink ratio’ to argue against using excessive decoration in visual displays of quantitative information. Tufte states, ‘Sometimes decorations can help editorialize about the substance of the graphic. But it’s wrong to distort the data measures—the ink locating values of numbers—in order to make an editorial comment or fit a decorative scheme.’

Tufte also encourages the use of data-rich illustrations with all the available data presented. When examined closely, every data point has value; when seen overall, trends and patterns can be observed. Tufte suggests these macro/micro readings be presented in the space of an eyespan, in the high resolution format of the printed page, and at the unhurried pace of the viewer’s leisure.

Tufte uses several historical examples to make his case including John Snow’s cholera outbreak map, Charles Joseph Minard’s ‘Carte Figurative’ (a flow map published in 1869 on the subject of Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign of 1812), early space debris plots, and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. (the listing of the names of deceased soldiers on the black granite of Lin’s sculptural memorial is shown to be more powerful as a chronological rather than as an alphabetical list; the sacrifice each individual made is thus highlighted within the overall scope of the war).

Tufte has criticized the way Microsoft PowerPoint is typically used. He argues that it is used to guide and to reassure a presenter, rather than to enlighten the audience, and has unhelpfully simplistic tables and charts, resulting from the low resolution of early computer displays. Furthermore, the outliner causes ideas to be arranged in an unnecessarily deep hierarchy, itself subverted by the need to restate the hierarchy on each slide. Powerpoint also enforces a linear progression through that hierarchy (whereas with handouts, readers could browse and relate items at their leisure). He also criticizes poor typography and chart templates; and simplistic thinking, from ideas being squashed into bulleted lists, and stories with beginning, middle, and end being turned into a collection of disparate, loosely disguised points.

Tufte’s criticism of PowerPoint has extended to its use by NASA engineers in the events leading to the Columbia disaster. Tufte argues that the most effective way of presenting information in a technical setting, such as an academic seminar or a meeting of industry experts, is by distributing a brief written report that can be read by all participants in the first 5 to 10 minutes of the meeting. Tufte believes that this is the most efficient method of transferring knowledge from the presenter to the audience. The rest of the meeting is then devoted to discussion and debate.

One method Tufte encourages to allow quick visual comparison of multiple series is the ‘small multiple,’ where several small charts can better present information than one overfilled large one.

Tufte also invented ‘sparklines’ — a simple, condensed way to present trends and variation, associated with a measurement such as average temperature or stock market activity. These are often used as elements of a small multiple with several lines used together. Tufte explains the sparkline as a kind of ‘word’ that conveys rich information without breaking the flow of a sentence or paragraph made of other ‘words’ both visual and conventional.

Outside his academic endeavors over the years, Tufte has created sculptures, often large outdoor metal ones which were first primarily exhibited on his own rural Connecticut property. In 2010, he opened a gallery, ET Modern, in New York City’s art district.

Also in 2010, it was announced that President Barack Obama would appoint Tufte to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s Recovery Independent Advisory Panel ‘to provide transparency in the use of Recovery-related funds.’

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