A Tufte Library

By Mike Dickison 01/02/2013

To me, the most important books on presenting data graphics are by Edward Tufte. People who create charts as part of their job should keep one or more of them close by, and regularly reread them.

vdqiThe Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2nd ed.
Edward R. Tufte
Graphics Press, 2001 (orig. 1983) • ISBN: 0961392142

This is the most essential Tufte book, published 30 years ago but so far ahead of its time it looks absolutely contemporary. (Compare it with some of the other data graphics books from the mid-1980s and you’ll see). Tufte here introduces his recurring themes: maximizing the data–ink ratio, stripping away unnecessary furniture and “chartjunk”, showing all the data, and greying out what’s less important. There’s elegant discussions of how readers perceive changes in area, why we shouldn’t think of data as boring stuff that needs livening up, why pie charts suck, and when tables are better than graphs. Some of my favorite examples from here are Minard’s famous chart of the retreat from Moscow, the step-by-step erasure of needless ink from a bar chart, and one of his own early graphs as an example of poor design. And the whole book is beautifully typeset and produced, with restrained use of colour and plenty of white space.

eiEnvisioning Information
Edward R. Tufte
Graphics Press, 1990 • 0961392118

Similar in subject and tone to the first book, though there’s more discussion of mapmaking. The most important concept discussed here is “small multiples”, the fruitful idea that six small graphs instead of one large one can add a new layer of information and reveal large patterns in the data. I’ve personally found this the most enlightening technique to share with newcomers to data graphics, and it’s often the best way to break out of the prison of an unsatisfactory design solution. Tufte also discusses how to use colour effectively and with restraint, and how to successively reveal a process in a linked sequence of diagrams (such as dance notation or calligraphy). I particularly liked his coverage of tabular data, from train and bus timetables to the Vietnam War Memorial. Another fine book.

veVisual Explanations
Edward R. Tufte
Graphics Press, 1997 • 0961392126

This wanders further out of strict chart-and-graph territory to cover depictions of processes, exemplified by the diagramming of magic tricks; if we understand how misdirection works, we can turn it around to draw the reader’s attention to what really matters. There are nice examples of the practical consequences of information graphics, discussing their role in the Challenger disaster and in John Snow’s investigation of the London cholera epidemic. The most valuable concept to me was the notion of the smallest effective difference, with a useful discussion of just how little emphasis is needed to make a point clear in a graphic, and the power of using gray shades and faint lines. (There’s a fun genealogy of rock ’n’ roll too, illustrating parallelism as a graphical tool.) Lovely, but a less immediately practical book than the preceding two.

I’ll be looking at Tufte’s most recent book, Beautiful Evidence, in a later post, as I’ve more to say about that one.

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