Revolution Lullabye

March 13, 2009

Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Tufte, Edward R. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. 2nd ed. Cheshire, Connecticut: Graphics Press, 2001.

Excellent, elegant graphics give the viewer a large amount of complicated, relational statistical information in a compact, data-rich space. Tufte’s book explains the fundamental principles of good graphic design by showing both good and bad (deceptive and distracting) graphics (in Part I) and by giving a theory and a language to explain the creation and design of good graphics (Part II). High-quality graphics follow his principles of graphical excellence and graphical integrity, and throughout the book, he shows the importance of careful crafting and revision to only include the necessary information in the most ink-efficient graphic, a technique that usually yields graphics that invoke a viewer’s sense of curiosity, intrigue, wonder, and discovery. Part II contains a lot of information about how to create graphics, as he argues that the job of creating good graphics doesn’t belong to an uninterested artist, but rather, the author should consider the construction of graphics to be as integral to a text as the words. He demonstrates this principle in this book, with its intricate integration of graphics and words on almost every page. He argues in Part II for new ways of displaying quantitative information, emphasizing multifunctioning graphical elements that take on more than one duty or function in a graphic, offering revisions of bar charts, histograms, and scatterplots that have redundant and unnecessary non-data ink.

Quotable Quotes

“Graphical elegance is often found in simplicity of design and complexity of data” (178).

“Design is choice. The theory of the visual display of quantitative information consists of principles that generate design options and that guide choices among options. The principles should not be applied rigidly or in a peevish spirit; they are not logically or mathematically certain; and it is better to violate any principle than to place graceless or inelegant marks on paper. Most principles of design should be greeted with some skepticism, for word authority can dominate our vision, and we may come to see only through the lenses of word authority rather than with our own eyes” (191).

“Context is essential for graphical integrity” (74).

Notable Notes

kinds of graphics include data maps, time-series, narrative graphics of space and time, and more abstract relational graphics (that show the relationship between two or more variables, the most elegant and sophisticated kind of graphic that isn’t used as often as it should be in trade magazines and papers)

founders of statistical graphic design are J.H. Lambert and William Playfair; 20th century John Tukey

Charles Minard’s invasion and retreat of Napoleon’s army into Russia (41)

Lie Factor = size of the effect shown in the graphic/size of the effect in the data; don’t use two or three dimensions to show one-dimensional data because it augments (usually wrongly the magnitude of the difference of the numbers)

reasons we don’t have good graphics: lack of statistical skill in illustrators, thought that quantitative information is boring, perception that the audience is stupid – why graphics lie and use simple (not relational graphics) designs

data-ink ration

chartjunk = unintentional optical art (moile effect, hatching that’s become more popular with computers), unneccessary grids (should be as a first step in making a graphic, but not after), and the duck (a graphic for the sake of the graphic)

data density – but must be clear to the viewer

don’t have a lot of info? use tables

continuum from sentences…text tables…tables…semi-graphics…graphics

principles to follow to create elegant graphics – last chapter


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