Book Review: Visual Explanations

Visual Explanations: Images And Quantitative Evidence And Narrative, by Edward R. Tufte

This book fits along the general path of Tufte’s work in the explanatory power of excellent visual images [1], with this work specializing on the way that good graphic images can convey an understanding of “verbs,” as in active areas of understanding that dynamically change over time. As is customary in his work, what might be considered “boring genius Tufte” if someone was to be witty about it, Tufte examines a wide variety of design graphics, ranging from woodcutss by Albrecht Durer to a brilliant and poignant confection showing the hidden dangers of the Potomac River that was printed in the Washington Post by a designer for that newspaper who had once seen a young woman carried off to her death by that treacherous river’s currents. One of the chapters of this book is even co-written by an illusionist who provides intriguing and thought-provoking insights on information design from the world of magic.

In terms of its contents, the roughly 150 pages of this book are divided into several chapters that demonstrate various successful and unsuccessful ways of conveying dynamic qualities in static, flatland images. The first chapter gives an introduction in how images show quantities. Then Tufte covers visual and statistical thinking, examining how evidence is displayed to make decisions. After this comes a chapter on magic that seeks to explain magic tricks, demonstrate how the teaching of magic has been done through 2-D representations, often without the flair of magic demonstrations, and furthermore demonstrates how magic tricks are an example of disinformation design, carefully crafted to distract the attention of the person even when they know that a trickster is trying to deceive them. This enlightening and critical area of discussion is followed by an examination of the smallest effective difference, which contrasts the too fine distinctions in some contemporary art with the fuzziness of magic tricks and many contemporary presentations. After this comes an examination of parallelism, showing repetition and change, comparison and surprise, followed by a chapter on the showing of multiples in space as a way of showing change over time. Here in these chapters Tufte talks about familiar issues such as the problem of scale and the information that is lost in converting fluid motion into a series of static pictures. The book closes with the most important part of the book, which ties all of its concerns together, a look at visual confections and how they combine different images together to create a visual argument that can be easily understood by a discerning audience.

In looking at Tufte’s work, such as this one, one sees an obvious respect for the audience. The visual examples are many, and the principles that Tufte discusses are sound. Tufte manages to be gently critical of some of the artists to be found here, harsher when it comes to failures such as the failure of the engineers during the Challenger disaster to successfully convey the dangers of a launch in below-freezing temperatures, which could have been conveyed by a simple scatterplot comparing the number of signs of damage to the O-rings and the temperature of the given shuttle launch, which would have conveyed the engineering truth that the O-rings became increasingly damaged as a result of rigidity due to lower atmospheric temperatures, a reality which led to the deaths of seven astronauts. Some of the graphics are particularly critical of the low-resolution capabilities of screens and the way that excessive frames and grid elements decrease the information value of many graphics. The last paragraph of this world describes confections and also provides a way to appreciate and understand this book as a whole: “The development of perspective by Florentine architects during the 15th-century Italian Renaissance was a special gift to the world of visual thinking, for now people could see diverse objects located in a geometrically correct context. Confectionary designs are a similar gift to understanding. Like perspectives, confections give the mind an eye. Confections place selected, diverse images into the narrative context of a coherent argument. And, by virtue of the architecture of their arguments, confections make reading and seeing and thinking identical (151).” Is that not what we all strive for in our communications, after all?

[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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