Envisaging Information

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Author: Edward R Tufte

Year: 1990

Category: information theory

Publisher: Graphics Press

ISBN: 0-9613921-1-8

Wikipedia says that “Edward Rolf Tufte (born 1942) is an American statistician and professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale University.” According to Tufte’s website, this book

celebrates escapes from the flatlands of both paper and computer screen, showing superb displays of high-dimensional complex data. The most design-oriented of Edward Tufte’s books, Envisioning Information shows maps, charts, scientific presentations, diagrams, computer interfaces, statistical graphics and tables, stereo photographs, guidebooks, courtroom exhibits, timetables, use of color, a pop-up, and many other wonderful displays of information

It does indeed do this, and in addition it provides a comparative analysis of how different graphical approaches may be applied to similar problems with very different results.
He begins the book by announcing his area of interest, and his purpose in exploring it:

Even though we navigate daily through a perceptual world of three spatial dimensions and reason occasionally about higher dimensional arenas with mathematical ease, the world portrayed in our information displays is caught up in the two-dimensionality of the endless flatlands of paper and video screen… Escaping this flatland is the essential task of envisaging information – for all the interesting worlds that we seek to understand (physical, biological, imaginary, human) that we seek to understand are inevitably and happily multivariate in nature.

His examples look closely at the ways in which design can support analysis of complex data or distract the viewer away from reasoned analysis. He discusses lines, geometry, and color:

Of course color brings to information more than just codes naming visual nouns – color is a natural quantifier, with a perceptually continuous (in value and saturation) span of incredible fineness of distinction, at a precision comparable to most measurement.

He also discusses various strategies for layering information, including the use of three dimensions. With regard to the latter he offers cautionary advice:

effective layering of information is often difficult… An omnipresent, yet subtle, design issue is involved: the various elements collected together in flatland interact, creating non-information 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… Such patterns become dynamically obtrusive when displays leave the relative constancy of paper and move to the changing video flatland of computer terminals.

The reference here is to Interaction of Color by Joseph Albers, published by New Haven in 1963, and revised in 1975.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is its wholeness. It is difficult to quote from it because the arguments he advances are woven tightly into the illustrations and examples that he draws upon. He slowly builds an implicit theory through carefully chosen indicative expositions without ever pontificating from a loftier position.

This makes the book something that one experiences rather than reads, and in this respect it is a living example of the approach that he advocates.

Posted on March 16, 2007