Book Review: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

The Visual Display Of Quantitative Information, by Edward Tufte

Having already read a bit of Tufte’s work already [1], albeit out of order, reading this book is comfortable and pleasant, and it is striking to see how from the beginning of his career as a writer on information design that Tufte both honored the founders of his craft, including his mentor Tukey, and also struck out authoritatively in critiquing the graphical design of our contemporary age. Although this work is not written with the same sense of devastating wit as some of his other works, it is written in such a way that it demonstrates skillful graphical information design as a node between fields requiring a combination of art history and criticism, mathematics (particularly statistics and analytical geometry), and mastery of mechanical or graphic design for the technical art work. As an originally self-published book, a story which Tufte tells in his modest and self-effacing introduction, this work manages to combine many interests and also exemplars of poor and excellent design in an effective manner that integrates text, numbers, and graphics, admirably living up to its own principles discussed within the book. Despite the immense depth and richness of many of the graphics of this book, the book itself is not a graphical puzzle—it is very clear that Tufte is aiming at improved graphics that are data-driven and that convey a large amount of information efficiently and effectively, showing respect for the data and for the viewers of that data. This is an approach that serves well in many areas of communication.

In terms of its organization and structure, the book is divided into two roughly equal sections in terms of overall size with unequal divisions into chapters. The first part of the book, Graphical Practice, takes about 90 pages to examine three interrelated matters: graphical excellence, graphical integrity, and the sources of graphical integrity and sophistication. Here the author examines questions of aesthetic judgment and the fine balance between artistic skill and skill in grasping numbers and their relationships, as well as the moral importance of conveying information accurately and transparently so that it may be understood and acted on. The second part of the book takes about a hundred pages to provide a principle-based theory of data graphics, examining such areas as the reduction of non data-ink in graphics within reason and the redesign process of graphics to make them more effective and more efficient, the avoidance of chartjunk, grids, and ducks (which includes a humorous picture of a building actually shaped like a duck to make its point clear), the maximization of data-ink density within design by several means, using graphical elements that serve multiple functions to increase the information value of graphics within reason, the increasing of data density by smarter graphic design, including the use of small multiples, tables, and shrinking thin graphics to make them more dense, closing with an examination of aesthetics and technique as well as very short and principled discussion designing for the display of information.

As someone with a strong personal and professional interest in the intersecting concerns of this book—art history and criticism, the moral and technical aspects of communication, the creation and understanding of data presentation and graphics—this book is part of a growing collection of works that I view with a great deal of respect and pleasure. As this book seeks to encourage those in my profession to great data presentations that are rich in narrative value, in integrity and humility, and with a strong desire to be well-understood and to communicate effectively, it mirrors my own concerns in a variety of areas both personal and professional. This is a book that has deserved its wide respect and regard, as it can be appreciated on many levels, in the pleasure of its aesthetic beauty and occasional bits of humor (like the aforementioned picture of the duck building or its enjoyment of graphical puns), as an encouragement to morally upright data practices that support integrity and that show respect for one’s reading audience, and as a thoughtful work on art history and art criticism that is richly informative and instructive in sound graphical techniques as well. It is little wonder that these works are considered masterpieces in their fields—the honor is richly deserved.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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