Book Review: Envisioning Information

Envisioning Information, by Edward Tufte

This book is the second in order of Tufte’s ongoing series on visualization and graphic information design, although it is the fourth book of the series I have read [1], or the fifth in one includes the short critique on the cognitive style of Power Point. In this particular short volume, which is about 120 pages or so of excellent graphics, witty conversation, and insightful lessons, the focus is on the visualization of nouns. Tufte is a writer of such consistency that a book like this can easily be taken for granted in the body of his larger work. If one wishes to compare this to the other books in the series, this book shows up in the middle in terms of devastating wit, and with a focus on giving praise to worthy visualizations of graphics, even to his students, who provide some of the graphics shown in this work. Indeed, in this particular work the author justifies his principle-based approach to the visualization of data and information by pointing out that such a strategy makes it clear that one’s decisions are based on open and transparent principles that may be understood by others and that such matters are not subjective and arbitrary. Whether he is pointing out the tawdry basis of some information graphics involving the annual price diamonds over several years in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and what appears to be a Vegas showgirl whose immodest appearance is designed to distract from the thinness of the data (which is not even adjusted for inflation in a high-inflation period), or praising an unusual and striking Japanese act of espionage that allowed for the mastering of the complicated schedule of a Dutch-administered Javanese train network during the 1930’s, throughout the work Tufte points out the need for people to show respect for the audience of data representations and to act in harmony with textual explanations as well as the ways that the brain processes visual data, for the greatest possible comprehension.

This being a work by Tufte, there is both a great deal of wit and thoughtful principles to be found here. In terms of the thoughtful examination of the limited set of strategies that people have for visualizing data, Tufte has this to say: “Note all the different techniques for displaying sunspots during 380 years of data analysis—from Galileo’s first precious observation of the solar disk, to small multiple images, to dimensionality and data compression, and finally to micro/macro displays combining pattern and detail, average and variation. Exactly the same strategies are found, again and again, in the work of those faced with a flood of data and images, as they scramble to reveal, within the cramped limits of flatland, their detailed and complex information. These design strategies are surprisingly widespread, albeit little appreciated, and occur quite independently of the content of the data (23).” As far as Tufte’s trademark wit and sarcasm, a couple of examples will suffice. First, Tufte uses a relatively modern mocking of the style of Medieval woodcuts to say the following: “The ducks of information design are false escapes from flatland, adding pretend dimensions to impoverished data sets, merely fooling around with information. They don’t work, just as this royal dining table, caught up in flatland, fails to hold the pots and plates. The king and queen watch in exasperation, as their meal slides off, “It’s the way they draw these wretched tables (35).”” The second example pokes gentle fun at the symbolic meaning of the courthouse of Vicksburg, Mississippi and its comparison with the ineffective New York to New Haven train schedules: “All the little boxes create an elaborate but false appearance of systematic order. It resembles the county court house in Vicksburg, Mississippi—a big portico, inflated Ionic columns, with the real work done in back rooms.” All discussions of statistics and data representation should come with such pointed and biting critique.

In terms of its contents, this book is remarkable in that its title page provides all of the chapters of the book and also include examples of the graphics that are found in those chapters. The first chapter discusses the fact that there are limited strategies that are used across all contexts for people who seek to communicate through visual data to escape flatland and represent multivariate quantities in 2-d paper or screen space. The second chapter looks at macro and micro readings, showing how the ability to properly understand data is helped by the addition of detail that allows one to see local context and overall patterns. The third chapter looks at layering and separation, showing how a subtle use of shading and color can allow the same graphical features to simultaneously give information in several layers, and also points out that the absence of color can also be seen as a layer, which can complicate the understanding of data when graphics are made with large areas of non-data in bright colors like white. The fourth chapter looks at small multiples, and the way that a repeated set of drawings with the same scale and features allows the mind to intuitively perform visual reasoning on that data to understand important aspects of the underlying data being represented. The fifth chapter looks at color and information, using the case study of a Falklands Island surveyor named Oliver Byrne’s aesthetically appealing use of color to replace the usual letters in a visually stunning edition of the first six books of Euclid’s Geometry, and also discusses the ways in which subtle, natural color and shading can allow for information to be presented in an effective manner. The book closes with narratives of time and space, focusing on the ways that a well-designed graph can convey an understanding of motion, whether one is trying to show bus and train routes or the motion of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter in elegant curves. As is often the case with Tufte’s words, the last words in the Epilogue are particularly important: “In 1613, when Galileo published the first telescopic observations of Saturn, word and drawing were as one. The stunning images, never seen before, were just another sentence element. Saturn, a drawing, a word, a noun. The wonderful becomes familiar and the familiar wonderful (121).” Is this not the desire of everyone who communicates, to take what is odd or unusual and to make it comprehensible to others, and to see the beauty and wonder what is familiar and often taken for granted?

[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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