More of a reference than an actual book with a beginning, middle, and end, . However this is how I read it, and now I have a pretty good sense of the...moreMore of a reference than an actual book with a beginning, middle, and end, . However this is how I read it, and now I have a pretty good sense of the sheer variety of so-called styles that the world has known at one time or another. I did feel like Steven Heller was making things up half the time, but that's okay because it was entertaining. Basically, if design were to perform in a variety show, this would be it. Also, great for fishing for ideas.(less)
This was a completely worthwhile read. I was able to get through it really quickly by only briefly glancing at the many graphics. This either means I...moreThis was a completely worthwhile read. I was able to get through it really quickly by only briefly glancing at the many graphics. This either means I somehow didn't notice Tufte's resounding plea to appreciate graphics, or that it is a testament to the lucidity and elegance of many of the graphics in this book. Hopefully, the latter. =)
Edward Tufte is a huge data dork and has evidently studied the topic of data graphics deeply. The book is chock full of visual examples from diverse sources—news publications, historical treatises, scientific journals, etc. Not all are excellent; many are superlatively bad, such as the full-page chart that only manages to convey four data points. However, all charts used are well-chosen to illustrate each of his points.
He is also very opinionated and doesn't hesitate to adopt an authoritative tone in sharing his Commandments of Good Data Graphics. Like a wise teacher however, he gives license on the last page to intelligently disobey (keyword "intelligently") any of them. He also sounds like a 19th-century scholar—there is something irrepressibly didactic in the prose—but a fabulously dorky sense of humor makes occasional cameos, which keeps this work from being dry.
As a designer, the most striking aspect of this book was the extreme utilitarianism of Tufte's attitude towards graphics. Tufte's principle of maximizing data-ink and minimizing non-data-ink, for example, essentially states that ink should not be used at all if it is not conveying data in some meaningful way. He hates, above all else, "chartjunk," a phrase he uses to refer to superficial decorative elements that do nothing to express the data. To some extent, chartjunk also includes "helper marks" like grid lines, rule lines, tick marks, etc. He also detests graphics that lie by exaggerating or framing data subjectively. He has even come up with a few empirical measures for the truthfulness and meaningfulness of info graphics, such as the Lie Factor and the Data Density of a graphic.
His super-utilitarian attitude is reminiscent somewhat of classic Swiss design, which seeks to distill things down to their minimal essentials in the name of clarity and directness (how well this actually works is up for the revisionists to debate). It also evokes that cliché of mid-century Modernism—"form follows function." In these latter 2 cases, interestingly, the focus on function eventually gave rise to "styles." In contrast, Tufte's many examples of effective information graphics range across many different styles and seem, if this is possible, style agnostic. In this way, Tufte's charts can be seen as going much closer to the ideal of pure function that the Modernists tried to achieve.
As a graphic designer, there is a lot to be learned from Tufte's almost obsessive focus on maximizing data-ink. Even if you don't find yourself making charts and diagrams all that often, it serves as a reminder that marks made on a surface should serve foremost to convey information: the more layers of information, the better. Whether they be data numbers or lines used to formally divide up a page layout, they must all serve a meaningful purpose. It's easy in the age of vast Internet stock art sites to get carried away with putting tons of stuff onto a page and not really thinking about what it is doing there. But Tufte's insistence on the abolishment of chartjunk reminds us that, instead of just serving decorative or vaguely evocative purposes, graphical elements used in all types of design can and should be given a solidity of purpose and richness of meaning, such as that of a well-placed single dot that expresses several numbers all at once.
The book is clearly a tour-de-force of uncompromising ideals and high standards of excellence. By the end of Chapter 1, "Graphical Excellence," I felt like I'd just read a rousing call to arms. However, in light of reality, I can't help but think that you have to take Tufte's idealism with a grain of salt. In a perfect world, everybody would recognize their capacity for understanding efficient, elegant graphics and naturally gravitate towards work of Tufte's ilk, but no—we in fact love ourselves some colorful displays that dress up our data like a duck-shaped building.
Although he argues all of his points with verve and I'm sure he has the magnificent data sets to prove all of them, he just makes it sound way too easy, even trivial, to defeat old-fashioned art director thinking with pure reason. In my limited experience, this is very, very hard. I wonder what Tufte's early experiences convincing higher-up doubters were. Now that he is wildly famous, the former doubters actually come to him for advice, but for the rest of us, it's much tougher to enact your ideals when you're just wee younglings in the big design industry.
But don't get me wrong, I think he is right on many counts. So I can only hope for the courage to stick to my ideals as well as he's sticking to his.
Anyway, it was a very informative resource, and even a bit of an inspiring read. Tufte can make data displays inspiring; that's how good he is. I'd gladly continue onwards to read the other 3 books of his that we have at the office. =)(less)