Wed, 12 Apr 2000

Envisioning Information
Edward R. Tufte
Graphics Press, 1990
Post Office Box 430
Cheshire CT 06410

"We should make things as simple as possible, but not simpler."
  - Albert Einstein
"We envision information in order to reason about, communicate, document, and preserve that knowledge -- activities nearly always carried out on two-dimensional paper and computer screen. Escaping this flatland and enriching the density of data displays are the essential tasks of information design."
  - Edward R. Tufte, Envisioning Information

Sometime between 1401 and 1425, the Italian Renaissance artist, architect and philosopher Filippo di Ser Brunellesco (1377-1446) made his big break from Flatland. What Brunelleschi did was paint two "peepshow" panels that correctly embodied linear perspective.

In 1435, Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) wrote "On Painting", which contains the earliest known geometric and optical analysis of linear perspective. (1)

This escape from Flatland is also a metaphor for the break with the Middle Ages, in 1543 followed by the Copernican revolution. The world itself had only recently been demonstrated to be a sphere, and the transition from a two-dimensional world located smack in the middle of God's universe to a revolving globe perched insignificantly in the outer marches of creation was a triumph of reason and aesthetics over tradition and perceived reality. (2)

Throughout his book, Edward Tufte uses the metaphor of "flatland" to illustrate what he is coaching us to escape. In this he refers to the 19th century book Flatland, which presents a universe in which the residents can conceive more than two dimensions only with difficulty. (3)

The enrichment of a two-dimensional surface as it strives toward apparent three-dimensionality contains a potential flaw: you can overdo it, disguising a lack of substance in a barrage of clutter.

The aesthetic philosophers of the nineteenth century, such as Ruskin, Carlisle, and Morris, were united in a fear and hatred of the Industrial Revolution, specifically the machine and its influence. Their philosophies encouraged excess in the directions of romanticism and ornamentation.

In 1919, Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, reversing the flight from Flatland.(4) The Bauhaus gave us many designs for ordinary objects that look modern and severe and that appear to do particular tasks with a minimum of fuss and bother. This simplicity can be deceptive. Under the guise of functionalism and the paring away of frills, the purified line of the Bauhaus encouraged the elimination of necessary design elements. (5)

The Bauhaus was founded immediately after a war that had introduced unprecedented destruction, and during the great influenza epidemic which, adding to the apocalyptic slaughter of the trenches, killed 20 million people. Although germs and micro-organisms had been discovered, and the causes of disease identified, there remained no better defense than hygiene and prophylaxis. It is not surprising that the dark clutter of the Victorian era was ruthlessly swept away to be replaced with white walls, pure lines, smooth surfaces and above all, order and cleanliness. The late teens and early twenties of this century were the cradle of that generation of fanatic housekeepers whose floors exceeded those of surgical theaters in standards of hygiene and whose avowed purpose for cooking food was not to make it palatable but to "kill the germs."

Out of this shattered world, reeling from the madness of war, largely impotent in the face of disease, and reacting against the pious idiocy of nineteenth-century philosophy, there arose that perennial savior of troubled mankind: the monumental, totalitarian social system. The world and Walter Gropius were desperate for order.

In graphics as in politics there was an attempt to impose order on systems that are essentially disorderly. Often complex systems are made to appear simple and orderly by paring away elements of the truth. False order is the result of false simplicity.

Severe and idealistic, the Bauhaus gave birth to a humorless, sterile child -- the Swiss style of graphic design. As a result of its pervasive internationalism, we have come to accept pared-down representations of almost everything.

In fact, far from enhancing, this minimalist design style impedes communication at almost every level. Unless you have already been told what a particular graphic is supposed to mean, you will have little luck in figuring out what to do when you see one. Less, my friends, is often only less. (6)

Similarly, graphs and charts that distort the truth or are outright lies serve to create only the impression of information whilst either actually deceiving or merely conveying nothing.

Purveying the illusion of communication while sacrificing substance and thought-provoking content betrays a totalitarian interest in withholding actual information.

The fault is broader than bad design, it's bad thinking. Just as the incomprehensible double-speak of bureaucrats and lawyers creeps into our daily speech, polluting language and casting stumbling blocks before us, so does the thoughtless emulation of Bauhaus-inspired corporate graphic design dilute and deaden graphic communication.

Swiss-style graphic presentation is also dull as ditchwater. Designers, puzzled by this failure of minimalism, but philosophically unable to reject the faulty basic idea, have sought to excite their over-simple images with garish color and clever though meaningless graphic tricks.

In response to the gratuitous tarting-up of information, Edward Tufte has coined the term "chartjunk," for "data presentations that seek to attract and divert attention by means of display apparatus and ornament."

The cowardly drivel of politicians, the intentional obfuscation of bureaucrats, the incessant drool of sub-literate newscasters, the stupid lies of ad men; all are furthered by distorted or false information blandly presented in the easy-to-grasp form of gaily colored charts, graphs and diagrams. Chartjunk furthers totalitarianism.

"Lurking behind chartjunk is contempt both for information and for the audience. Clarity and simplicity are the complete opposite of simple-mindedness. Data-thin, forgetful displays move viewers toward ignorance and passivity." - Edward Tufte

The snappy graphics so beloved of Time, the San Francisco Chronicle and USA Today, presenting the minimum of information with a maximum of pizzazz are chartjunk. The Sears-IBM computer information network, Prodigy, is chartjunk: lots of neat-o but ultimately useless graphics shrouding a disturbing tendency towards censorship. (7)

Even though movies manage to escape Flatland with some success, they are not immune to false reductionism. The plodding film Dick Tracy is chartjunk, typifying purposeless simplicity containing no message. What we have here, Mr Beatty, is a failure to communicate. (8)

Chartjunk tends towards strong images, large type and thin data densities. It's big and bold and loud, promising much but delivering little.

Charts, diagrams, graphs, tables, guides, instructions, directories and maps should not look as though they were conveying a single gulp of information as simplistically as possible. The designer should enhance the dimensionality and density of portrayals of information by increasing data.

"Standards of excellence for information design are set by high quality maps, with diverse, bountiful detail, several layers of close reading combined with an overview, and rigorous data. . . . Often the less complex and less subtle the line, the more ambiguous and less interesting is the reading." - Edward Tufte

Envisioning Information, Edward Tufte's second book, is a continuation of the subject explored in his 1983 publication The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Graphics Press). Both these books are a fascinating history of information display as well as a primer in how to make this vital subject interesting and useful.

As well as elevating and praising the good, the pitfalls of incompetent and malicious design are discussed pointedly and at length. Both books are exquisitely printed, and for that reason alone will flatter the bibliophile's shelf.

Tufte's books are the sober inheritors of the tradition established in 1954 by Darrell Huff's clever, timeless How to Lie with Statistics, (New York, W.W. Norton Co.), which advises,

"The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse and oversimplify. Statistical methods and statistical terms are necessary in reporting the mass data of social and economic trends, business conditions, 'opinion' polls, the census. But without writers who use the words with honesty and readers who know what they mean, the result can only be semantic nonsense. A well-wrapped statistic is better than Hitler's 'big lie;' it misleads, yet it cannot be pinned on you."

This trio of books must be included in the library of every graphic designer. Darrell Huff and Edward Tufte have recognized and identified the problem of false communication, and between them give a dense, brilliant course in how to avoid it. Of course, they also provide an excellent primer in how to cheat and lie. But, as Huff points out, "The crooks already know these tricks; honest men must learn them in self-defense."

(1) Further discussion of the invention and significance of Western perspective, Brunelleschi's peep show, and Alberti's practical development of the camera obscura may be had in The Psychology of Perspective and Renaissance Art, Michael Kubovy, Cambridge University Press, 1986   RETURN TO PLACE

(2) For this next big step in escaping Flatland, the interested reader is directed to Thomas S. Kuhn's The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought, Harvard, Cambridge University Press, 1957.

The Copernican break with the Ptolemaic cosmology is purely aesthetic: the Copernican system, like many others of the time, is set up to agree with the principles of geometric perfection, and for that reason alone requires an aesthetically satisfying system of concentric circles. Such a system cannot be made to work with the earth at the center, and as the position of the sun in philosophy is central, so is the sun made central to the universe. Indeed, the Copernican system flies in the face of observed reality, logic and almost all preceding philosophical endeavor.

Furthermore, like many other such theoretical and artistically satisfying systems of the time, it doesn't work! Only well after Copernicus' death, with the expositions and modifications of other, likewise aesthetically-motivated philosophers such as Johan Kepler, does the Copernican system begin to function properly.   RETURN TO PLACE

(3) Edwin A. Abbott's Flatland, originally published in London, 1884 is still in print (Harper & Row, 1983). Its modern successor Sphereland, by Dionys Burger, translated by Cornelie Rheinbolt from the French (Harper & Row, 1983) continues the exercise of imaginined worlds different from our own.  RETURN TO PLACE

(4) For an exhaustive history of the Bauhaus the reader is directed to The Bauhaus, Hans M. Wingler, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1969.   RETURN TO PLACE

(5) For a brilliant discussion of this problem the reader is directed to three works by David Pye, Professor of Furniture Design, Royal College of Art, London. The Nature and Aesthetics of Design, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1978; The Nature and Art of Workmanship, Cambridge University Press, 1968; and The Nature of Design, Studio Vista, 1964   RETURN TO PLACE

(6)This is a play on the Bauhaus theoretician Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's famous aphorism "less is more," itself a quote from Browning's poem Andrea del Sarto (1855).  RETURN TO PLACE

(7) There was a good deal of chat in 1989 over the electronic information service CompuServe concerning homophobic censorship on Prodigy. Of all the information networks, Prodigy is also the most censorious of language, and is especially concerned with criticism of Prodigy itself.

"Most of the ruckus centers on the Prodigy Information Service, owned by IBM and Sears, but it's common knowledge that almost all the online services censor their membership to greater or lesser degrees. Not long ago, it became public that the White Plains, NY-based Prodigy terminated the accounts of eight members who were actively protesting rate hikes to the service's electronic mail system." (Denise Caruso, "Inside Technology", San Francisco Examiner, Sunday November 11, 1990).

A further discussion of Prodigy censorship is to be found in an article "Home-Computer Network Criticized for Limiting Users," by John Markoff in the New York Times, November 27, 1990, and in The New York Times Living Arts section of Thursday, January 31, 1991 in an article by Allen Lacy entitled "When is Gardening a Subversive Act?"   RETURN TO PLACE

(8) This quote is used extensively by Tufte in the book and is clearly a humorous reference to the 1967 Paul Newman film Cool Hand Luke, in which the prison "captain" nonplussed, remarks at Luke's repeated, fey, futile refusals to truckle to authority "what we have here is a failure to communicate." In using this quote I am referring both to the book, the movie and to the medium of film per se.  RETURN TO PLACE

July 9, 1990

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