Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrativeby Edward R. Tufte, Weilin Wu, Dmitry Krasny, Bonnie Scranton
Riveting ideas on presenting better information design. Few would disagree: Life in the information age can be overwhelming. Through computers, the Internet, the media, and even our daily newspapers, we are awash in a seemingly endless stream of charts, maps, infographics, diagrams, and data. Visual Explanations, the latest book by Edward R. Tufte, a Yale/i>… See more details below
Riveting ideas on presenting better information design. Few would disagree: Life in the information age can be overwhelming. Through computers, the Internet, the media, and even our daily newspapers, we are awash in a seemingly endless stream of charts, maps, infographics, diagrams, and data. Visual Explanations, the latest book by Edward R. Tufte, a Yale design professor, is a navigational guide through this turbulent sea of information. The book is an essential reference for anyone involved in graphic, Web, or multimedia design, as well as for educators and lecturers who use graphics in presentations or classes.
Visual Explanations is the third volume in Tufte's series on the science of information design. Few scholars have been able to present the theories behind this rapidly evolving field in such a fascinating, approachable, and witty manner. Like its predecessors, Envisioning Information and The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, this book is exquisitely designed and printed. It includes built-in flaps to emphasize before-and-after comparisons. With its elegant, classical typesetting and reproductions of medieval engravings, one feels like one has discovered some obscure or antiquated tome, the strange dissertations of a forgotten philosopher.
However, Tufte's ideas are contemporary and increasingly relevant: What are the most effective ways to present information? Visual Explanations offers numerous examples that illustrate better methods of communicating complicated ideas in print, in presentations, and on the computer screen. Tufte's critical eye is quick to suggest improvements to the examples he cites: He will often redesign a graphic or chart, and his changes offer helpful guidelines on how to put theory into practice.
The first section of the book reveals the history behind our current methods of depicting information. Many conveniences we often take for granted, such as graph paper, pie charts, and topographic maps, have evolved over the past 5,000 years as scientists and statisticians have found better ways to put onto paper the events and phenomena they observed in daily life.
The historical background in this book covers a diverse range of topics. How do we explain the illusions behind a magician's tricks? What is the best way to show the size and scale of Giacometti's sculptures? What are the shortcomings of a supercomputer's animated video of a thunderstorm? Could better organization of data have prevented the tragic explosion of the space shuttle Challenger? The second part of the book considers strategies that can be used to arrange information in a more visually exciting way, not only on the printed page but also on the video and computer screen. The daily log, or "cyclogram," drawn by a Soviet cosmonaut orbiting hundreds of miles above Earth is contrasted with the engravings of ancient astronomers. Other examples that Tufte has culled from history include a Degas sculpture, ancient letters engraved on the Trajan columns, and some mugshot photographs of criminals indicted in the Watergate conspiracy.
The latter section of the book also delves into the design of computer interfaces and Web sites, whose limited screen resolution makes the presentation of text and graphics particularly challenging. This concise discussion shows how to expand the visual capacities of the screen and is extremely helpful. For anyone who would like to better organize, manage, and present information, Visual Explanations is truly an enjoyable reading experience and an invaluable reference to have on your bookshelf. -- Philip Krayna
All of us technical writers, at one time or another, have had our explanations of some complex topic mangled into unrecognizability by a well-meaning but technically-clueless editor, or found our work embellished with a callout or cover blurb that bore no sensible relation to (or even directly contradicted!) the content. On such occasions, we mutter dark threats and entertain pleasant fantasies of an alternate universe where we could personally shepherd our brilliant prose all the way from manuscript to newsstand or bookstore. Realistically, of course, hardly any of us have the design, editing, publishing, and marketing talents to pull off such a stunt at all, let alone end up with a product that could bear comparison against the mainstream.
On the other hand, there's Edward R. Tufte and his increasingly famous series of books about the graphical representation of data. Tufte, an artist, scholar, and entrepreneur of the first rank, assumes responsibility for his books at every level from beginning to end, even unto the direct-mail advertising campaigns. I wouldn't be too surprised to find out he personally hand-picks and chops down the trees that are used to make the paper. The books are elegantly written and crisply executed on highest quality stock with gorgeous 4-color figures throughout, some quite elaborate (foldouts, overlays, popups, etc.). And, perhaps due to the elimination of much of the traditional overhead of publishing and distribution, they are delivered to us at a remarkably low price.
About his three books on information design, which have appeared over a 13-year period, Tufte says:
"The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is about pictures of numbers, how to depict data and enforce statistical honesty.
"Envisioning Information is about pictures of nouns (maps and aerial photographs, for example, consist of a great many nouns lying on the ground). Envisioning also deals with visual strategies for design: color, layering, and interaction effects.
"Visual Explanations is about pictures of verbs, the representation of mechanism and motion, of process and dynamics, of causes and effects, of explanation and narrative. Since such displays are often used to reach conclusions and make decisions, there is a special concern with the integrity of the content and the design."
From a reader's perspective, the topical distinctions between the books are not so clear-cut. Visual Display was startling in its originality, eclecticism, and cost-is-no-object presentation. It stood in the same relation to its predecessors as did Star Wars to earlier science-fiction movies. Envisioning Information, while visually handsome, seemed relatively shallow. Visual Explanations is clearly the best of the three books so far. Tufte continues to evolve his own unique style, which tightly integrates a direct but spare narrative with stunning illustrations drawn from hundreds of years of manuscripts. The graphics are so closely interwoven with the text, in fact, that they sometimes substitute for traditional chapter subheads, signaling a change of topic and providing a context for the following discussion.
Every part of Visual Explanations is engrossing. The heart of the book, a chapter entitled "Visual and Statistical Thinking," is based on analyses of the London cholera epidemic of 1854 and the Challenger disaster of 1986. The latter includes reproductions of defective graphs and charts used before the launch (by the Thiokol managers and engineers) and after (by the investigators). One can't help but be shocked by the carelessness with which the lives of the astronauts were thrown away by the NASA bureaucracy, and by how effectively the true roots of the disaster were subsequently swept under the carpet.
"Above, a scatterplot shows the experience of all 24 launches prior to the Challenger [on January 28, 1986]. Like the table, the graph reveals the serious risks of a launch at 29°. Over the years, the O-rings had persistent problems at cooler temperatures: indeed, every launch below 66° resulted in damaged O-rings; on warmer days, only a few flights had erosion. In this graph, the temperature scale extends down to 29°, visually expressing the stupendous extrapolation beyond all previous experience that must be made in order to launch at 29°. The coolest flight without any O-ring damage was at 66°, some 37° warmer than predicted for the Challenger, the forecast of 29° is 5.7 standard deviations distant from the average temperature for previous launches. This launch was completely outside the engineering database accumulated in 24 previous flights." -- Visual Explanations, page 45.
The detection of visual misinformation, whether intentional (as in cigarette package and billboard health warnings) or unintentional, is an important underlying theme throughout the book. A lengthy chapter on "Explaining Magic" demonstrates how tricks deceive the eye of the layman, how they are passed down from one generation of magicians to the next by means of closely guarded texts and diagrams, and, by counter-example, how data can be presented without misdirection. Additional chapters on "Smallest Effective Difference," "Parallelism," "Multiples in Space and Time," and "Visual Confections" draw from sources as diverse as Jean de Brunhoff and Galileo to convey their lessons. At the end, the reader closes this book with a sigh of satisfaction and deep admiration.-- Dr. Dobb's Electronic Review of Computer Books
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