Books · Education · Performance & Arts


The Visual Display of Quantitative InformationThe Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I started secondary school I was mildly apprehensive about ‘physics’, an unfamiliar word that elicited an actual shudder from my mother. Fortunately, my elderly teacher had an infectious affection for his subject. I remember that he noticed me examining the monthly night-sky chart pinned to the classroom door, and thereafter would print off an extra copy specially and wordlessly hand it to me if he saw me in the corridor (never in class, not wishing to embarrass me*) Our first lessons tried to tell us what the subject was all about, and a poetic but confusing article telling me that it was about, among other things, not being able to push a blade of grass into the trunk of an oak tree demonstrated clearly that some things are best learned by seeing and doing than by reading.

*he needn’t have worried: evidence of my geekiness was not in short supply.

One of our early experiments was The One With The Pendulum, and our homework was to write it up. When I had finished it, I must have shown my Dad, as he asked why there was no graph. “We weren’t told to draw a graph” I replied. “But graphs are wonderful,” he said. “Let’s draw one anyway.” and he showed me how. Our graph, which is probably still in my parents’ attic somewhere, plotted length of pendulum against swing time, which unfortunately yields an exponential curve that’s hard to work with. You can linearise the graph’s equation by plotting the square of the time period, and then the gradient tells us ‘little g’, the strength of the Earth’s gravitational field. Neat, eh?

I have taught science for a few years now and I could not have failed to notice that kids hate graphs and graph drawing. It is unquestionably hard work and needs an understanding of numbers and design logic. I’m lucky that I got an undeserved merit for drawing an unsolicited graph in my first month of high school, because since that day I’ve been totally freaky for a nice chart. This review is dedicated to my Dad.

Tufte really loves data. This book had an informative, accurate, but kinda DRY title. I would have called it


uhhhh-uhhhh I’ve made a mistake. Tufte says thinking data is boring leads to bad, lying graphs. If your data is boring, just don’t bother! He is crisply derisive of the idea that data needs graphically sexing up to be understood. As Freire tells us


This man is not happy that graphs are designed and drawn by folks trained as artists, rather than folks trained in the relevant mathematics. “Graphical competence demands three quite different skills: the substantive, statistical and artistic… 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”. Don’t decorate the data, REVEAL IT.

Bad graphics also lack integrity. Intead of SHOWING THE DATA, they distort it, usually for some political end. There are LOTS of examples

However, the concern with graphical integrity has often not helped. It tends to encourage the general dislike of graphs and the tendency for publications to dumb them down. Tufte points out that while graphical sophistication is usually low in news publications, journals and text books, the text sophistication is high, sometimes requiring expert knowledge!

Many data sets are better presented in a well-organised table than in a drawing. Tufte follows this principle in presenting data on graphical sophistication and data density, and in showing his commissioned designs. “One super table is far better than a hundred little bar charts”

Oh and for the love of all that is good, follow da Vinci and put the damn chart next to the text, or better nested cosily inside. None of this ‘see fig. 2’

Tufte radically redesigns the histogram and the scatter plot to remove distractions and non-data ink, moving towards clarity, data density and design grace. I won’t spoil. As for the pie, keep it in the kitchen and put pumpkin in it: ‘pie charts should never be used’

Oh and there is plenty of graph-porn for us chart junkies (as opposed to chart-junk, which is definitely out). Tufte’s favourite is Charles Joseph Minard’s extremely famous infographic of Napoleon’s army attempting to invade Russia in 1812-1813. He loves it so much it’s reprinted four times…

But there are all sorts of lovely maps and charts and general loveliness for your graphical delectation.

Debunking the junk is what Ed is here for and the pleasure of the text is in the ARID humour he deploys and the way he trusts the reader to be a fellow smarty-pants. In more of a folks-are-smart way, not an elitist you-and-me-are-smart way. I was laughing. When a quoted designer says he’s all about ‘conveying the essential spirit of the data’. Tufte has got me primed. Fool NO! Show me the
, not its ‘essence’ and not its ‘spirit’

If you work with data, if you draw graphics, if you look at graphics, if you’re interested in politics, economics, geography or science, if you like maths, art, design, truth, beauty, love…

read this.

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