You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Edward Tufte: Saving America from "Intellectually Impoverished" Data Design

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, May 11 2011

Edward Tufte; photo by Nancy Scola.

Over in the Washington Monthly, Joshua Yaffa has a deep profile of information design legend Edward Tufte that includes a look at how he answered his country's call to service and got involved in the design of the federal government's stimulus tracking site

[Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board chair Earl] Devaney showed Tufte a prototype of, the site that catalogs all the projects funded with federal stimulus money around the country. Thinking about it now, Devaney remembers that the proposed pages were full of “classic Web site gobbledygook, with lots of simple pie charts and bar graphs.” Tufte took one look at the Web site mockups that the board’s designer had prepared and pronounced them “intellectually impoverished.”

It was a classic Tufte moment: a spontaneous and undiplomatic assessment that immediately struck everyone in the room, even the designer himself, as undeniably true. The site would get a wholesale redesign. The model, as Tufte explained it, should be the Web site of a major newspaper, with Devaney and his staff as reporters and editors. “I told them that it isn’t an annual report,” Tufte told me later. “It shouldn’t look stylish or slick. It’s about facts.” As Tufte and Devaney talked, a number of staffers gathered in the hall, waiting for the meeting to finish. “The guys from the IT department had lined up outside my door to shake his hand and say they met the guy,” Devaney remembers.

Yaffa's full profile of Tufte is worth a read, as this is important stuff that's getting more important. We're awash in data, and if the open government free-the-data movement gets traction even more of it will be pilling up. Our struggle becomes figuring out how to make it intelligible to humans. Much of what we will come up with will be narrative, but much of it will be visual. Without overestimating the transformative power of the sparkline, there's something encouraging in the fact that someone like Tufte is getting a hearing in Washington, and amongst a wide swath of people; Yaffe reports that Karl Rove "attended one of Tufte’s courses in Austin in the 1990s and considers himself a 'huge' fan." Here's where you go to get your copy of Tufte's classic "The Visual Display of Quantatative Data."

I'm piggybacking off Yaffa's profile to offer my own photo of Tufte (above), and a brief annecdote about the interaction it captures. About two months ago, I and some companions happened to stumble into Tufte's tiny corner gallery in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood. We were offered a tour by a gallery staffer sitting behind the reception table, who gestured towards a demure looking man whom I assumed to be a weekend guide. Turned out it was Tufte. Quiet as he seemed at first, as he got going about his visualizations and, his newer passion, sculpture (as in Magritte's Smile, his wonderful giant metal fish), he just sparkled. He spent about an hour with the handful of us, talking, listening, and sharing his work. It was a delightful afternoon, and a reminder that as we go about the world engaging with ideas, it should be, well, at least a little fun.