Sunday, January 9, 2011

2010 Top 10: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Ninth in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2010, presented in alphabetical order.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte

According to Edward Tufte, the purpose of graphics is, “Not the complication of the simple; rather [...] the revelation of the complex.” And his Visual Display of Quantitative Information, first self-published nearly 30 years ago, is now a bible -- a sort of The Elements of Style applied to information graphics.

Tufte reviews how information can be presented (e.g. a minimal amount via a sentence; a moderate amount via a table; a huge amount via a graphic) and then turns his attention to those graphics -- from their beginnings in cartography (no one who reads the book will forget Charles Minard’s graph of Napoleon’s march across Russia) to how to achieve graphic excellence today.

He urges a multi-disciplinary approach, cautioning that, “Allowing artist-illustrators to control the design and content of statistical graphics is almost like allowing typographers to control the content, style, and editing of prose.” He touches on psychology and cognition. He rails against using graphic design to deceive, and enlightens readers by pulling numerous examples of misrepresentation from prominent media. He devotes a large part of the book to improving the effectiveness of graphs by urging the elimination of “chart junk” (e.g. moirĂ©-effect cross-hatching) and numerous other sources of “non-data ink.” In fact, a chapter wherein he strips away seemingly necessary text, frames, hatch marks, etc. (leaving little more than an ether vapor but in the process simplifying and clarifying the meaning) is revelatory.

So many books I've read recently have referenced Tufte, and I'm thrilled to have finally read him directly.

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