Book Review: Envisioning Information, by Edward Tufte

When I purchased Envisioning Information, I expected it to merely discuss the nuances of communication through graphs and infographic-style pictography. Rather, the author is an artist, and describes his work as celebration of the escape from flatland. While artistic, he is concisess, laser-focused on his belief that graphical representations of data must be clear and information-dense to be successful.

Tufte pulls examples from some obvious places, like train schedules and maps, and some less obvious, like architecture, cave paintings, and modernist art. The book begins with the drawings of several Renaissance scientists. Several pages are devoted to Galileo, showing drawings of the sun through a telescope, which Galileo used to prove not only the existence of sunspots, but also that the sun is spherical. Here, Tufte shows his philosophical bent, complaining that scientists who include the seal of their patron introduce useless, so-called chartjunk into their work. While I disagree with this conclusion, it introduces a fascinating line of thought. does knowing the patron of a work contribute by indicating a source of bias, or distract, by including a visually distinct and complex stamp in the middle of a chart?

To be fair, the real problem that concerns him is all too common use of meaningless imagery which distracts and distorts underlying data- clip-art lines bolder and brighter than faint data, data that is presented at odd angles, and so on. He compares this to the architectural piece, “Big Duck”, an apparently satirical commentary on architects who construct buildings solely as decorations.

The book is divided into six chapters, representing different facets and techniques of two dimensional communication: “Escaping Flatland”, “Micro/Macro Readings”, “Layering and Separation”, “Small Multiples”, “Color and Information”, “Narratives of Space and Time.” Each of these could be expanded into a book itself. Rather than trying to describe every facet of each category, he provides the most thought-provoking examples of the best and worst. A fair amount of time is devoted to the practical and challenging design of train timetables, including many examples in Japanese, which contributes to the visual character of the book.

The book is a joy to hold and flip through, visually. All borrowed images are redrawn in a fairly consistent visual style- a clean, crisp computerized drawing style reminiscent of my personal favorite illustration style, pen and ink with watercolors. I suspect this partly obviates a lot of copyright problems, while clearing away any distractions that might be caused by a differing artistic styles in the originals. While the point about copyright may sound cynical, this is clearly more than just a book- it is a business as well. This book came with a catalog of more books, classes, prints, and training materials. Since then I’ve received similar catalogs in the mail- Even the catalogs are set in Tufte’s distinctive visual style.

Overall this book is a joy to read, not the typical mundane technical fare. Choosing the best and brightest examples of visual design allows him to write at a level useful to many people. Clearly much time went into making the book look good, as it is pleasant to look at, even to hold in your hand, even before reading the content. Envisioning Information is very thought-provoking, and provides insights and sustain interest long after the reading is done.

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