The Information Sage

Illustration courtesy The Washington Monthly
Joshua Yaff, The Washington Monthly

Edward Tufte is a statistician and graphic design theorist. Over the last three decades, he has become a kind of oracle in the growing field of data visualization — the practice of taking the sprawling, messy universe of information that makes up the quantitative backbone of everyday life and turning it into an understandable story. He is a philosopher king who reigns over his field largely because he invented it.

His four self-published books on the subject have sold almost two million copies, and in his crusade against euphemism and gloss, he casts a shadow over the world of graphs and charts similar to the spectre of George Orwell over essay and argument.

In his 2007 book Beautiful Evidence, Tufte introduced what he called “sparklines,” numerically dense, word-size graphics that show variation over time. They have since appeared on the financial pages of Yahoo! and the sports section of the New York Times.

In November 2009, Microsoft attempted to patent sparklines for use within the spreadsheets that will appear in the latest version of Excel. The notion that the company could patent an innovation that Tufte has championed for several years struck him as “a great lark,” and a sign of “characteristic overreaching” on the part of Microsoft. But for a man who clearly takes no small satisfaction in seeing his ideas adopted, even by nefarious software conglomerates, it wasn’t an entirely awful development. “I’m happy … Sparklines are everywhere else, so why not in Excel too?”

The underlying philosophy behind sparklines — and, really, all of Tufte’s work — is that data, when presented elegantly and with respect, is not confounding but clarifying. “There is no such thing as information overload,” Tufte says, “only bad design.”

Graphics aren’t just useful for displaying numbers, in other words, but for clarifying just about anything one person is trying to tell someone else. Tufte says “basic human cognitive questions are universal, which means that design questions should be universal too.”

This attitude puts him in opposition, at least in his own mind, to much of the contemporary design world. As Tufte sees it, graphic design has become a tragic field, a rich and storied craft knowledge that has been taken out of the realm of “nonfiction,” as he calls it, and into that of “fiction,” or marketing and propaganda. He told me several times of his contempt for “commercial art,” the graphic design that is “part of a fashion and a style and will be different someday.” Most designers, he said, want to do something new each time. “But I’m interested in the solved problem,” he said. “I’m interested in high art and real science.”

Read the full profile by Joshua Yaffa at The Washington Monthly …