Everything is Somewhere: The Practical Obsessions of Edward R. Tufte

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In 1982, Princeton professor Edward R. Tufte finished the manuscript of a book he called The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Not finding a publisher to his liking, he took out a second mortgage on his home and self-published, saying, "My view on self-publishing was to go all out, to make the best and most elegant and wonderful book possible, without compromise. Otherwise, why do it?"

Why indeed? As it turned out, VDQI was immediately hailed as an elegant and wonderful classic, the first book ever to excite general interest in something so ordinary that it had largely escaped scholarly and popular attention–namely, the incredible multitude of charts, graphs, maps, schedules, lists, labels, signs, notation, instruction manuals, etc. in today’s world, that is, all the myriad ways that numerical information is visually conveyed. Tufte has since published Envisioning Information and Visual Explanations; all three books are beautiful, educational, endlessly fascinating.

They are also amazingly useful, even indispensable, to anyone producing any document that is intended to convey information of any kind. The poor, beleaguered surveyor, struggling each day to squash a bewildering amount of spatial, numerical, and even historical information onto a few sheets of paper will use them all, but especially the first, as desk references.

Consider Tufte on something as mundane as a table, e.g., a curve table. He devotes several pages to their proper layout, to methods that make them clearer and more useful, more beautiful. He discusses (and illustrates) issues such as line weight and font selection, and makes these subjects interesting. He finds this quote from Jan Tschichold: "The setting of tables, often approached with gloom, may with careful thought be turned into work of great pleasure. First, try to do without rules altogether. They should be used only when the space between columns is so narrow that mistakes will occur in reading without rules. Tables without vertical rules look better; thin rules are better than thick ones."

When I have applied this information, I have always had to agree–even setting up a table can be pleasurable, and there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it (see Figure 1).

Another concrete and useful example can be found in Tufte’s views on capitalization. He shows that words set in all caps are in fact harder to read–the relative uniformity of capitalized letters (equal height, equal volume, similar width) means that the words constructed from them are similar to each other and therefore harder to tell apart. Words set in ordinary upper-and-lower case are "friendlier", more distinct, easier to read. Until reading this section, I had thoughtlessly set headers, notes and street names in all caps. Now I don’t, and my maps are the better for it.

Compare Figures 2a and 2b, which contrast a header from one of my maps. Figure 2b is not only easier to read and more graceful in appearance, but it is more economical of space, conveying the same information in three lines instead of four–and what commodity is more precious than space on a boundary map?

VDQI is not easily summarized; it is too densely constructed, too slyly humorous, too profusely illustrated to capture in a few paragraphs. But here is a very small sample of the "Grand Principles" sprinkled throughout: a) Show data. b) Show comparisons. c) Show causality. d) Maximize the data-to-ink ratio. Convey information cleanly, without "junk". e) Annotate. Explain one’s sources and reasoning. f ) Direct labeling. Put labels and notes directly beside the thing being explained. g) Do analysis within eye span. Don’t expect viewers to compare information on different pages.

Matters of Life and Death
Principles like these may seem dry and academic, even trivial, but consider Tufte’s investigation of the Challenger disaster, in Visual Explanations. He is able to show convincingly that Morton Thiokol engineers had reached the right conclusion about the infamous O-rings when they issued their only `no-launch’ recommendation in 12 years. In two long phone conferences the night before the launch, the problem of O-ring failure in cool temperatures was specifically debated. The engineers had good data and had analyzed it properly; however, they failed miserably when attempting to convey their reasoning to NASA officials. As Tufte says: "In the 13 charts prepared for making the decision to launch, there is a scandalous discrepancy between the intellectual tasks at hand and the images created to serve those tasks. As analytical graphics, the displays failed to reveal a risk that was, in fact, present. As presentation graphics, the displays failed to persuade government officials that a cold weather launch might be dangerous. In designing those displays, the chartmakers didn’t quite know what they were doing, and they were doing a lot of it… there are right ways and wrong ways to show data; there are displays that reveal the truth and displays that do not."

Simply put, Morton Thiokol engineers were pretty sure that seven astronauts were going to die the next morning—they just couldn’t find a good way to explain it.

Survey documents, of course, are only occasionally a matter of life and death but they are always a matter of wealth and property, not unimportant topics. And it is certainly possible to prepare these documents badly, in ways that obscure the truth and lead to bad decisions, and arguments, and court battles, and lifelong feuds. It is possible to do good research, good fieldwork, and good reasoning, and then to present all that good work badly, in ways that obscure truth and cause pain. Ultimately, the real worth of these three books is in showing that the mundane tasks of our profession, of any profession, also deserve attention, that they can be done with excellence or thoughtlessness. In a word, they inspire.

New Perspectives
Look around you. Unless you are reading this during a backpacking trip—and sometimes even then—there are probably several dozen examples of informational texts and graphics within your field of view. They may be as simple as an exit sign, or as complex as a subdivision plat. When done badly, they create confusion and stress, when done well, our world is a friendlier, saner place. Reading these three masterpieces (and the forthcoming Beautiful Evidence) gives one a new dimension by which to measure the world. Reading the daily paper becomes a much richer experience, and often a more aggravating one. So many graphs and charts are just so incredibly bad—they lie, to put it bluntly.

I can remember my beginning bird watching days—I suddenly began to see about twice as many varieties of birds, right in my own neighborhood. I was sensitized to bird varieties. These books have sensitized me to informative graphics—examples leap out at me now. Thankfully, there are good  examples, as well as bad. described object as data points. A complex idea is conveyed succinctly.

The thing is, our world is coated with symbols—and has been for some time. Man, the symbol-manipulating animal, has remade his environment into a place of symbols. Charts and diagrams have long been used to succinctly convey complex ideas (as in Figure 3 Figure 3). Expertise in symbol decoding is now a survival skill, just as tracking and hunting once were. Symbols are misused constantly, often intentionally, in ways that lie and propagandize. There are professionals, for example, that specialize in courtroom displays that subtly slant the truth, and there are en
tire firms that provide propagandizing graphics to advertisers and political campaigns. Given the right tools, we are less likely to be taken in by visual lies, which means we are less likely to buy the wrong product or vote for the wrong man. If the symbol doesn’t fit, we will not acquit.

When I read through the paragraphs above, I fear that I have trivialized Tufte, made it sound as if he is obsessed with minutiae such as font weight. He is obsessed by font weight, but his real obsession is much grander—truth. How can the truth be told with symbols? How can we keep from lying, and being lied to?

One of Tufte’s recent causes is the nearly ubiquitous PowerPoint presentation. He believes—and demonstrates—that, “…the popular PowerPoint templates (ready-made designs) usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis.” And he has much more to say about what he calls, “the cognitive style of PowerPoint.” So here his obsession with truth is asking a sort of ultimate question—how do we keep from lying to ourselves? When one realizes that millions of copies of PowerPoint are being used to produce millions and millions of slides, it suddenly becomes clear that the issue is not at all trivial.

Learning More
The obvious way to learn more about Tufte and his work is to read the three books cited. They are still self-published by his own company, Graphics Press and are available on Amazon and elsewhere. They are not cheap, $40-50, but are reasonable compared to art books or textbooks. Also, www.edwardtufte.com collects his shorter work and is a rich reference site—its forum, “Ask E.T.” is a genuine resource for intelligent discussion of problems in information presentation.

Tufte regularly gives one-day seminars, which I highly recommend. I attended one in Chicago and met the
man himself. He is an engaging speaker, clearly brilliant and not especially modest, but very generous and energetic in his presentation. He takes questions and uses visual aids almost constantly. A highlight for me was seeing an original edition of Galileo’s Starry Skies, passed around by a latex-gloved assistant.

A Call for Good Examples
It is my hope that this column becomes an exchange, and not a one-way conduit of information. To that end, I will be calling for examples and occasionally instituting a contest. In this case, I am asking for examples, from boundary maps, of quantitative information excellently (and innovatively) displayed. Please send or e-mail your examples to me, care of The American Surveyor. Some of the best will be featured in future issues. Suggestions for future columns are also appreciated.

Angus Stocking is a survey department manager for MSA Professional Services in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. He has written humor and nonfiction for newspapers and magazines on a puzzling variety of topics.

A 1.541Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE