Belarius's Reviews > The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte
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's review
Apr 23, 08

bookshelves: nonfiction-finished, reference, reviewed
Recommended for: People With Eyes
Read in April, 2008

It's difficult to convey how important Tufte's work is, given the extent is it relatively unknown. Consider the following: every time you open a newspaper, or watch television, or go on the Internet, you're likely to see some graphical representation of data. It might be a map colored according to party politics, or a line chart showing the latest dip in the Dow Jones, or a pie chart about procrastination. These 'visualization' have become so ubiquitous that we largely take them for granted.

Tufte wants you to know two things. First, these kinds of displays are historically new; 200 years ago, they were essentially unknown, and graphs of this kind represent an area of still-feverish innovation. Secondly, mos graphs you see present the data they encapsulate poorly, or in a misleading manner. We've had hundreds of years to refine what "good writing" means, but only a scant few generations to start really thinking about graphs. In short, society is still getting used to this notion of visual data, and still mostly suck at it.

Tufte's Visual Display Of Quantitative Information is nothing short of the first volume of a Bible of visualizations. Tufte lays down a list of core principles for understanding and designing visual data to maximize the elegance and clarity shown. Mixing the sensibilities of a graphic designer with the rigor of a mathematician, Tufte cuts away the fat and lays down the law on how to make graphics that naturally convey (rather than obscure or distort) the data they represent.

This doesn't come across as an especially sexy or fascinating topic to many, I would imagine, but Tufte is the sort of pioneer who may largely go unappreciated in his time. As the complexity of the modern world is laid out before us, the need for intuitive, truthful visualizations is steadily increasing. Already, we see it shaping how we think politics, commerce, and demographics. Mastery of these topics will require mastery of data-handling in general, and Tufte boldly carries his beacon into the hinterlands and beckons us to follow.

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