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Edward R. Tufte: Envisioning Information
(Graphics Press: 1990)


“The world is complex, dynamic, multidimensional: the paper is static, flat. How are we to represent the rich visual world of experience and measurement on mere flatland? This book celebrates escape from flatland.... Revealed here are design strategies for enhancing the dimensionality and density of portrayals of information - techniques exemplified in maps, the manuscripts of Galileo, timetables, notation describing dance movements, aerial photographs, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, electrocardiograms, drawings of Calder and Klee, computer visualizations, and a textbook of Euclid’s Geometry. Our investigation yield general principles that have specific visual consequences, governing the design, editing, analysis, and critique of data representations. These principles help to identify and explain design excellence - why some displays are better than others. Charts, diagrams, graphs, tables, guides, instructions, directories, and maps comprise an enormous accumulation of material. Once described by Philip Morrison as ‘cognitive art’, it embodies tens of trillions of images created and multiplied the world over, every year. Despite the beauty and utility of the best work, design of information has engaged little critical or aesthetic notice: there is no Museum of Cognitive Art. This book could serve as a partial catalogue for such a collection.... To envision information - and what bright and splendid visions can result - is to work at the intersection of image, word, number, art. The instruments are those of writing and typography, of managing large data sets and statistical analysis, of line and layout and color. And the standards of quality are those derived from visual principles that tell us how to put the right mark in the right place.... [These] principles of information design are universal - like mathematics - and are not tied to unique features of a particular language or culture. Consequently, our examples are widely distributed in space and time: illustrations come from 17 countries and 7 centuries, and, for that matter, 3 planets and one star.”
(Tufte, pp.9-10.)

Visual intelligence, even today, amidst the new wealth of visualizations opened up by the wide spread of modern computing power, is a sadly neglected area among non-specialists. Yet, more and more we are coming to depend on same, in an increasing number of areas. To my mind, the best (and by far the most seductive) introduction to this realm is undoubtedly to be found in the work of Edward R. Tufte...and, particularly in this, the central volume in his landmark trilogy upon visual information...

Now, that may sound surpassingly dry to most... Well, if so, then you can think again, because I’m here to tell you now that this is, almost certainly, the loveliest book I own...beautifully written, laid-out, and printed - and, filled with startlingly shapely graphics and images, which also happen to serve practical ends...like most human art, contra ideology. Tufte’s is truly a name to conjure with amongst those who labour in the cognitive arts - his analyses now supply the gold standard for any discussion of excellence in this area - but, it is criminally little-known in lay circles, despite the fact that this book would beautifully grace anyone’s coffee table. Unfortunately, restricted as I am here to text, I can only assert - rather than show you - the quality of illustration in this review. However, with words & ideas I, as usual, can be most generous. The rest, however, must (hopefully) await your introduction to the book itself...


“Nearly every escape from flatland demands extensive compromise, trading off one virtue against another; the literature consists of partial, arbitrary, and particularistic solutions; and neither clever idiosyncratic nor conventionally adopted designs solve the inherent general difficulties of dimensional compression. Even our language, like our paper often lacks immediate capacity to to communicate a sense of dimensional complexity.... [And] exactly the same design 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.”
(Tufte, pp.15-23)

“Too many data presentations, alas, seek to attract and divert attention by means of display apparatus and ornament.... Lurking behind chartjunk is contempt both for information and the audience. Chartjunk promoters imagine that numbers are boring, dull, and tedious, requiring ornament to enliven. Cosmetic decoration, which frequently distorts the data, will never salvage an underlying lack of content. If the numbers are boring, then you’ve got the wrong numbers.... Worse is contempt for our audience, designing as if readers were obtuse and uncaring. In fact, consumers of graphics are often more intelligent about the information at hand than those who fabricate the data decoration. And, no matter what, the operating moral premise of information design should be that our readers are alert and caring; they may be busy, eager to get on with it, but they are not stupid. Clarity and simplicity are completely opposite simple-mindedness.... Standards of excellence for information design are set by high quality maps, with diverse bountiful detail, several layers of close reading combined with an overview, and rigorous data from engineering surveys. In contrast, the usual chartjunk performances look more like posters than maps. Posters are meant for viewing from a distance, with their strong images, large type, and thin data densities. Thus poster design provides very little counsel for making diagrams that are read more intensely.... Excellence in presenting information requires mastering the craft, and spurning the ideology.”
(Tufte, pp.33-5)

One of the great joys of this book is that it offers us the rare spectacle of tough-minded and clear talk about aesthetic standards (as morality, what’s more), with absolutely no sign of either high-cultural snobbery, or abasement before relativistic idols. The reason for this is simple: in a field where practitioners still totally dominate criticism, and where the functional dimension of quality may be tested by relatively simple means (should people be interested in doing so), the disfigurements of “Theory” have comparatively little purchase, albeit fashions may still obscure matters...

Nonetheless, issues of art, craft, and science can, still, easily find their (naturally complementary) footing when dealt with by an analytic generalist/craftsman such as Tufte, to the benefit of all... And, if you thought his initial statements promised more rigour than anyone could deliver on qualitative issues, then think again. Because it’s exactly in the details where his work makes its strongest points, as in this evocation of the richness we can bring to visual information:


“Micro/macro designs...[can usefully deliver] large quantities of data at high densities, up to thousands of bits per square centimeter, and 20 million bits per page, pushing the limits of printing technology. Such quantities are thoroughly familiar, although hardly noticed: the human eye registers 150 million bits, the 35 mm slide some 25 million bits, conventional large-scale topographic maps up to some 150 million bits, the color screen of a small personal computer 8 million bits.... We thrive in [such] information-thick worlds because of our marvellous and everyday capacities to select, edit, single out, structure, highlight, group, pair, merge, harmonize, synthesize, focus, organize, condense, reduce, boil down, choose, categorize, catalog, classify, list, abstract, scan, look into, idealize, isolate, discriminate, distinguish, screen, pigeonhole, pick over, sort, integrate, blend, inspect, filter, lump, skip, smooth, chunk, average, approximate, cluster, aggregate, outline, summarize, itemize, review, dip into, flip through, browse, glance into, leaf through, skim, refine, enumerate, glean, synopsize, winnow the wheat from the chaff, and separate the sheep from the goats.”
(Tufte, pp.49-50)

“Fine texture of exquisite detail leads to personal micro-readings, individual stories about the data.... Detail cumulates into larger coherent structures...[and, therefore] simplicity of reading derives from the context of detailed and complex information, properly arranged. A most unconventional design strategy is revealed: to clarify, add detail.... At work is a critical and effective principle of information design. Panorama, vista, and prospect deliver to viewers the freedom of choice that derives from an overview, a capacity to compare and sort through detail. And that micro-information, like smaller texture in landscape perception, provides a credible refuge where the pace of visualization is condensed, slowed, and personalized. These visual experiences are universal, rooted in human information-processing capacities and in the abundance and intricacy of everyday perceptions. Thus, the power of micro/macro designs holds for every type of data display, as well as for topographic views and landscape panoramas. Such designs can report immense detail, organizing complexity through multiple and (often) hierarchical layers of contextual reading.”
(Tufte, pp.37-8)

And, should you have been misled by modernist aesthetic ideologies into overvaluing simplicity, Tufte (with some help from Josef Albers and psychological researchers) can set you right with ease for, as I said, the functional dimension of such artwork is eminently testable...and the results rather different from what we have been led to expect...


“Visual displays rich with data are not only an appropriate and proper complement to human capabilities, but also such designs are frequently optimal. If the visual task is contrast, comparison and choice - as so often it is - then the more relevant information within eyespan, the better. Vacant, low-density displays, the dreaded posterization of data spread over pages and pages, require viewers to rely on visual memory - a weak skill.... Micro/macro designs enforce both local and global comparisons and, at the same time, avoid the disruption of data switching...[and] allow viewers to select, to narrate, to recast and personalize data for their own use. Thus control of information is given over to viewers, not to editors, designers or decorators.... Now and then, it is claimed that vacant space is ‘friendly’ (anthropomorphizing an inherently murky idea) but it is not how much empty space there is, but rather how it is used. It is not how much information there is, but rather how effectively it is arranged. Showing complexity is hard work. Detailed micro/macro designs are difficult to produce, imposing substantial costs...similar to that of first-class cartography (which, in the main, can be financed only by governments). The conventional economies of declining costs for every additional bit will usually be offset by a proliferation of elaborate complexities provoked by interacting graphical elements. Still, a single high-density page can replace twenty scattered posterizations, with possible savings when total expenses are assessed.... [And,] what about confusing clutter? Information overload? Doesn’t data have to be ‘boiled down’ and ‘simplified’? These common questions miss the point, for the quantity of detail is an issue completely separate from the difficulty of reading. Clutter and confusion are failures of design, not attributes of information. Often the less complex and less subtle the line, the more ambiguous and less interesting is the reading.”
(Tufte, pp.50-1)

“The concept that ‘the simpler the form of a letter the simpler its reading’ was an obsession of beginning constructivism. It became something like a dogma, and is still followed by ‘modernistic’ typographers. This notion has proved to be wrong, because in reading we do not read letters but words, words as a whole.... [whilst] ophthalmology has disclosed that the more the letters are differentiated from each other, the easier is the reading...[so] when comparing serif letters with san-serif, the latter provide an uneasy reading. The fashionable preference for san-serif in text shows neither historical nor practical competence.”
(Josef Albers, quoted in Tufte, p.51)

“So much for the conventional, facile, and false equation: simpleness of data and design = clarity of reading. Simpleness is another aesthetic preference, not an information display strategy, not a guide to clarity. What we seek, instead, is a rich texture of data, a comparative context, an understanding of complexity revealed with an economy of means.... But, finally, the deepest reason for displays that portray complexity and intricacy is that the worlds we seek to understand are complex and intricate.”
(Tufte, p.51)

While each chapter in this book has its own centre of gravity - typically a basic approach to the display of information - the argument is more recursive, returning again and again to the perceptual biases of viewers, the necessity for trade-offs between conflicting ideals, and the omnipresence of the interaction effects which mean that honing such displays can never be reduced to a simple formula:


“Among the most powerful devices for reducing noise and enriching the content of displays is the technique of layering and separation, visually stratifying various aspects of the data. Effective layering of information is very difficult; for every excellent performance, a hundred clunky spectacles arise. An omnipresent, yet subtle, design issue is involved: the various elements collected together on flatland interact, creating non-informational patterns and texture simply through their combined presence. Josef Albers described this visual effect as 1+1 = 3 or more, when two elements show themselves along with assorted incidental by-products of their partnership - occasionally a basis for pleasing aesthetic effects, but always a continuing danger to data exhibits. Such patterns become dynamically obtrusive when our displays leave the relative constancy of paper and move to the changing video flatland of computer terminals. There, all sorts of unplanned and lushly cluttered interacting combinations turn up, with changing layers of information arrayed in miscellaneous windows surrounded by a frame of system commands and other computer administrative debris.... What matters - inevitably, unrelentingly - is theproper relationship among information layers. These visual relationships must be in relevant proportion and in harmony to the substance of the ideas, evidence, and data conveyed. ‘Proportion and harmony’ need not be vague counsel; their meanings are revealed in the practice of detailed visual editing of data displays.”
(Tufte, pp.53-4)

“Layering of data, often achieved by the felicitous subtraction of weight, enhances representation of both data dimensionality and density on flatland. Usually, this involves creating a hierarchy of visual effects, possibly matching an ordering of information content. Small, modest design moves can yield decisive visual results, as in the...intriguing demonstrations of the illusory borders of subjective contours.... The noise of 1+1 = 3 is directly proportional to the contrast in value (light/dark) between figure and ground. On white backgrounds, therefore, a varying range of lighter colors will minimize incidental clutter.... These are not trivial cosmetic matters, for signal enhancement through noise reduction can reduce viewer fatigue as well as improve accuracy of readings.... Clarity is not everything, but there is little without it.... Information consists of differences that make a difference.”
(Tufte, pp.60-5)

Perhaps Tufte’s favourite strategy, at least to judge by the (self-designed) cover of his book, is that of the small multiple...which creates an array of easily comparable images. This is because, clearly, such a display insistently draws us to comparison and - as long as the structure is simple to decode - will reliably deliver no matter how innumerate (or nonanalytical) the audience.

And besides, they do have an aesthetic charm all their own...


“[One key form of display] is the small multiple, with the same design structure repeated for all the images. An economy of perception results; once viewers decode and comprehend the design for one slice of data, they have familiar access to data in all the other slices. As our eye moves from one image to the next, this constancy of design allows viewers to focus on changes in information rather than changes in graphical composition. A steady canvas makes for a clearer picture.... Small multiples work as efficient and convincing summaries of data or an argument, making the same point again and again by offering complementary variations on the major substantive theme.... Such displays are likely to be especially persuasive and memorable in situations where most information consists of spoken words - as in a trial. Courtroom graphics can overcome the linear, nonreversible, one-dimensional sequencing of talk talk talk, allowing members of a jury to reason about an array of data at their own pace and in their own manner. Visual displays of information encourage a diversity of individual viewer styles and rates of editing, personalizing, reasoning, and understanding. Unlike speech, visual displays are simultaneously a wideband and a perceiver-controllable channel.... Small multiples whether tabular or pictorial, move to the heart of visual reasoning - to see, distinguish, choose.... Their multiplied smallness enforces local comparisons within our eyespan, relying on the active eye to select and make contrasts rather than on bygone memories of images scattered over pages and pages.”
(Tufte, pp.29-33)

By the time we have arrived at colour, Tufte has impressed upon us just how difficult it is to balance the conflicting demands made by the design of information display...but, once there, it is clear that colour makes some of the toughest demands of all. Nonetheless, as always, Tufte shows us exactly what the best strategies are, just why (in psychological terms) we deal better with these than their (often fashionable) rivals, and tops this off with cautionary insights into the design process of the kind that non-practitioners can rarely deliver...


“In representing and communicating information, how are we to benefit from color’s great dominion? Human eyes are exquisitely sensitive to color variations: a trained colorist can distinguish amongst 1,000,000 colors, at least when tested under contrived conditions of pairwise comparison.... For encoding abstract information, however, more than 20 or 30 colors frequently produce not diminishing but negative returns. Tying color to information is as elementary and straightforward as color technique in art, ‘To paint well is simply this: to put the right color in the right place,’ in Paul Klee’s ironic prescription. The often scant benefits derived from coloring data indicate that even putting a good color in a good place is a complex matter. Indeed, so difficult and subtle that avoiding catastrophe becomes the first principle in bringing color to information: Above all, do no harm.”
(Tufte, p.81)

First rule: Pure, bright, or very strong colors have loud, unbearable effects when they stand unrelieved over large areas adjacent to each other, but extraordinary effects can be achieved when they are used sparingly on or between dull background tones... The organization of the earth’s surface facilitates graphic solutions of this type in maps. Extremes of any type - such as highest land zones and deepest sea troughs, temperature maxima and minima - generally enclose small areas only. If one limits strong, heavy, rich, and solid colors to the small areas of the extremes, then expressive and beautiful patterns occur...”
(Eduard Imhof, quoted in Tufte, p.82)

Cautionary notes sounded, Tufte then goes on to analyse the fundamentals of colour use - note the implicit hierarchy involved in his list, which also makes for an interesting way of viewing color use in the natural world, not to mention other forms of (non-cognitive?) art...


“The fundamental uses of color in information design [are] to label (color as noun), to measure (color as quantity), to represent or imitate reality (color as representation), and to enliven or decorate (color as beauty).”
(Tufte, p.81)

“What palette of colors should we choose to represent and illuminate information? A grand strategy is to use colors found in nature, especially those on the lighter side, such as blues, yellows, and grays of sky and shadow. Nature’s colors are familiar and coherent, possessing a widely accepted harmony to the human eye - and their source has a certain definite authority. A palette of nature’s colors helps suppress production of garish and content-empty colorjunk. Local emphasis for data is then given by means of spot highlights of strong color woven through the serene background.”
(Tufte, p.90)

“Any color coding of quantity (whether based on variations in hue, value, or saturation) is potentially sensitive to interactive contextual effects. These perceived color shifts, while an infrequent threat to accuracy of reading in day-to-day information design, are surprising and vivid - suggesting that color differences should not be relied upon as the sole method for sending a message amidst a mosaic of complex and variable data.... Color itself is subtle and exacting. And, furthermore, the process of translating perceived color marks on paper into quantitative data residing in the viewer’s mind is beset by uncertainties and complexities. These translations are nonlinear (thus gamma curves), often noisy and idiosyncratic, with plenty of differences in perception found among viewers (including several percent who are color-deficient). Multiple signals will help escape from the swamp of perceptual shifts and other ambiguities in reading. Redundant and partially overlapping methods of data representation can yield a sturdy design, responding in one way or another to potential visual complications - with, however, a resulting danger of fussy, cluttered, insecure, committee-style design. A crystalline, lucid redundancy will do. Transparent and effective deployment of redundant signals requires, first, the need - an ambiguity or confusion in seeing a data display that can in fact be diminished by multiplicity - and, second, the appropriate choice of design technique (from among all the various methods of signal reinforcement) that will work to minimize the ambiguity of reading. Disregard of these conspicuous distinctions will propagate a gratuitous multiplicity.”
(Tufte, pp.92-4)

Of the trilogy of which this forms the second volume, Tufte has stated that the first is about number, the second about nouns, and the third about verbs...albeit I would argue there is considerable overlap, particularly in this central volume. And, whilst number is frequent here, scattered throughout the examples, he mostly saves the “verbs” in this one for the final chapter, a preliminary exploration of the narrative lodes to be mined in the third volume, Visual Explanations. Here, while the argument is more tentative, he expresses most clearly the aesthetic lesson of his work...a lesson all Humanists should truly take to heart, rather than continuing to rehearse the prejudices of our training:


“Systems of dance notation translate human movements into signs transcribed into flatland, permanently preserving the visual instant. Design strategies for recording dance movements encompass many of the usual (nearly universal, nearly invisible) display techniques: small multiples, close text-figure integration, parallel sequences, details and panorama, a polyphony of layering and separation, data compression into content-focused dimensions, and avoidance of redundancy. Now and again, the paper encoding reflects the refinement of the dance itself - a flowing and graceful line embellished by disciplined gesture, a dynamic symmetry inherent to both individual and group proceedings. Moreover, some notation systems engender a visual elegance all their own, independently of the motions described. Our understanding of the aesthetics of information is enriched by examining dance narratives and their visual texture. We come to appreciate how the underlying designs bring about and enable the joy growing from the comprehension of complexity, from finding pattern and form amidst commotion.”
(Tufte, pp.114-15)

Edward R. Tufte’s Envisioning Information is a genuinely gorgeous book, as befits its status as a groundbreaking exploration of types of art too often taken for granted. Yet, as the quotations above - unceremoniously stripped of their visuals - show so clearly, it is also a beautifully-written book, in which the art, craft and science of this area are all accorded their proper due by Tufte, whilst nonsense is treated as rudely as it deserves...something all too rare in explorations of aesthetic terrain. Moreover, precisely because the art he examines has a purpose apart from the aesthetic - as, in fact, has most art over the span of human history - it is much simpler to separate the wheat from the chaff here, thus providing us one clear route, at least, into the troubled terrain of the aesthetic.

And, it is not only the aesthetic that Tufte provides us w/a route into... In an era when the Humanities is almost totally dominated by overly language-centric models, Tufte’s work clearly shows us just how (and why) we think visually - and, by exploring how designers can best aid us in that, through copious (and beautiful examples) - he teaches us to properly comprehend this neglected dimension of our understandings...a crucial lesson for even those who will never attempt visual design themselves, although that, today, is a shrinking group indeed. In its uncompromisingly high production standards, too, this book offers us, in toto, a genuine vision of something to aspire to...in an age when excellence is, sadly, all-too-readily confused w/elitisms of varying sorts. For, in all these ways, and for all of these reasons, this is truly a book to treasure...


“We envision information in order to reason about, communicate, document, and preserve that knowledge - nearly always carried out on two-dimensional paper and computer screen. Escaping this flatland and enriching the density of data displays are the essential tasks of information design. Such escapes grow more difficult as ties of data to our familiar three-space world weaken (with more abstract measures) and as the number of dimensions increases (with more complex data). Still, all the history of information displays and statistical graphics - indeed of any communication device - is entirely a progress of methods for enhancing density, complexity, dimensionality, and even sometimes beauty. Some of these methods, identified and described on the chapters that follow, include micro/macro readings of detail and panorama, layering and separation of data, multiplying of images, color, and narratives of space and time. By giving the focus over to data rather than data containers, these design strategies are transparent and self-effacing in character. Designs so good they are invisible.”
(Tufte, p.33)


John Henry Calvinist