Good Graphics

Edward Tufte owns the world of graphics. In the mid-eighties, I read his first book “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” a few times because it was so engaging and interesting. He was a professor at Yale from 1977 until 1999 before leaving academia to successfully spread the word of good graphics to the public.

The other day I saw something about Tufte’s “sparklines”( word-sized graphics) now showing up in tweets and thought I’d post something about him. Then I ran across a profile on Tufte I liked by Joshua Yaffa in “The Washington Monthly” (via Kottke).

If you’re a Tufte fan, click on the link and read the whole profile. If you just want a taste or are short on time, here’s my excerpted version of “The Information Sage:”

Over the last three decades, he has become a kind of oracle in the growing field of data visualization—the practice of taking the sprawling, messy universe of information that makes up the quantitative backbone of everyday life and turning it into an understandable story.

For years, graphic designers were regarded as decorators, whose primary job was to dress up facts with pretty pictures. Tufte introduced a reverence for math and science to the discipline and, in turn, codified the rules that would create a new one, which has come to be called, alternatively, information design or analytical design. His is often the authoritative word on what makes a good chart or graph, and over the years his influence has changed the way places like the Wall Street Journal and NASA display data.

In the public realm, data has never been more ubiquitous—or more valuable to those who know how to use it. “If you display information the right way, anybody can be an analyst,” Tufte once told me. “Anybody can be an investigator.”

Tufte’s rise mirrors that of information itself, which has infiltrated every aspect of modern life.  Information is all around us, but so is “non-information,” the flotsam and noise that are the by-products of a hyperactively quantitative culture.

“Tufte killed the idea that we are afraid of numbers,” said Tobias Frere-Jones, a typographer in New York. “And once you get over that idea, you can’t really justify the birthday-party-clown school of data visualization, where you need bright colors and shiny things to convey that the stock market went down this week.”

Tufte has coined several terms that have come to define his style, such as “data-ink ratio,” the proportion of graphical detail that does not represent statistical information, and “chartjunk,” ornamental and often saccharine design flourishes that impede understanding.

Good design, then, is not about making dull numbers somehow become magically exhilarating, it is about picking the right numbers in the first place. “It’s about data that matters to you,” said Dona Wong, a student of Tufte’s at Yale and later the graphics director at the Wall Street Journal.

Tufte introduced what he called “sparklines,” numerically dense, word-size graphics that show variation over time. As an example, the fluctuations of the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the course of February and March look like this: . The dramatic dip in the figure represents the March 16th panic over the nuclear disaster in Japan.

The underlying philosophy behind sparklines—and, really, all of Tufte’s work—is that data, when presented elegantly and with respect, is not confounding but clarifying. “There is no such thing as information overload.” Tufte says “Only bad design.”

As Richard Grefe, the executive director of the American Institute of Graphic Artists, which awarded Tufte its highest medal in 2004, explained, Tufte has shifted how designers approach the job of turning information into understanding. “It’s not about making the complex simple,” Grefe told me. “It’s about making the complex clear.”

Tufte decided “to be indifferent to culture or history or time.” He became increasingly consumed with what he calls “forever knowledge,” or the idea that design is meant to guide fundamental cognitive tasks and therefore is rooted in principles that apply regardless of the material being displayed and the technology used to produce it. As Tufte explains it, basic human cognitive questions are universal, which means that design questions should be universal too.