Book: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

12 March 2006

After far too long a delay, today I finished reading Edward Tufte’s delightful book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. What can I say? Anyone who cares about the presentation of data in print should read this book.

Tufte provides a wealth of insight about data graphics. Even better, though, he humanizes the subject by treating it as a dynamic art that cannot be reduced to rules.

The best graphics are about the useful and important, about life and death, about the universe. Beautiful graphics do not traffic with the trivial. (177)

The principles should not be applied rigidly or in a peevish spirit; they are not logically or mathematically certain; and it is better to violate any principle than to place graceless or inelegant marks on paper. (191)

The second passage calls to mind the last of the rules that George Orwell set out in his famous essay, “Politics and the English Language”: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” Tufte’s book shoulders the comparison to Orwell with ease. Tufte’s idea of good data graphics centers around telling things as they are, not distorting them to inflate newsworthiness or for polemical effect.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is a work of beauty in itself. It is also an antidote for the routinization of lies in the media.


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