Innovation & Design

Tufte's Invisible Yet Ubiquitous Influence


Edward Tufte combines a policy wonk's love of data with an artist's eye for beauty and a PR maestro's knack for promotion

"My father once told me that I would never be successful because I have too much contempt for authority," says Edward Tufte. "I think that's been an enormously successful strategy."

At 67, Tufte (pronounced TUFF-tee) defies easy categorization. He has been a university statistician and a public policy wonk. And these days, he's more excited about turning bulldozers into sculpture than the abstractions of information analysis.

But Tufte's fame all flows from a rethinking of information design. He has consulted with IBM (IBM) on how to cultivate innovative thinking, helped The New York Times redo its information graphics and advised NASA on mission-critical software interface design. "[Tufte] has made it clear that in a cluttered Information Age we need methods of cutting through the brush," says Steven Heller, a design educator and critic who has been art director of both The New York Times Book Review and Screw magazine.

A Simple Approach

Tufte's influence is at once invisible and ubiquitous. And in the less-is-more era of Google's (GOOG) home page and Apple's (AAPL) category redefining devices, his thinking resonates. (See and hear Tufte's musings on the design thinking of the iPhone's interface here.)

Tufte's approach is deceptively simple. In his self-published books and in his popular auditorium gigs, he teaches by visual example. Next to a bad example of a graph, he positions a sublimely clear treatment, often using the same data. Simple as it sounds, the effect has proved to be riveting for a generation of nonprofessional designers. Tufte's work is relevant to anyone who needs to write or present information clearly, from business executives to students.

In dismantling some of the worst habits of two dimensional design, he has framed new analytical terms that flicker through many design conservations. For Tufte, "chart junk" is the kudzu of modern information work. It includes the ubiquitous, unneeded words and addenda that tend to crowd the margins of corporate communication, from PowerPoint to project management charts and financial reports. Most of this junk can be removed without diminishing understanding. "Clutter is a failure of design, not an attribute of information," Tufte writes in Envisioning Information.

Father of the "Sparkline"

Tufte's approach is not strictly critical. He also endorses densifying information, albeit intelligently. His "sparklines" are tiny graphical devices that can communicate enormous volumes of data in just a few characters. "They can be embedded in-line in a sentence, summarizing millions of points of data in the space of a word," says Tufte. Naturally enough, financial and sports pages have been quick to pick up the approach, including the example shown from BusinessWeek, above.

Born 1942 in Kansas City, Mo., Tufte studied statistics at Stanford before moving to Yale to earn a PhD in politics. He began teaching at Princeton Universityin 1967, and his scholarly roots are evident in his design thinking, which merges a statistician's concern for accuracy with a policy wonk's love of data along with an artist's eye for beauty.

For his polymath gifts, Tufte might still be just another PhD toiling in a closed circle of cognoscenti were it not for his other great gift: an inexhaustible knack for self-promotion.

Self-Published Juggernaut

Unimpressed with the deal offered by a university press to publish his first book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, in 1983, Tufte instead chose to launch his own imprint. He had to remortgage his house—at nearly 18% interest—but the decision to launch Graphics Press gave Tufte unprecedented control over production, pricing, and sales. He was, for example, able to charge less than his publisher planned to, yet keep more from each sale. For decades, Tufte has been printing artfully minimalist ads for his books in the back of The New York Times Magazine and similar heady journals and he says he's sold nearly 1.5 million copies, at around $40 apiece. To keep sales humming, Tufte also runs a non-stop road show, with a few appearances each month adding up a few dozen events each year.

In university halls and conference centers, Tufte's cultish appeal crackles. Crowds of mostly men fill seats for up to $380 apiece, a fee which includes copies of his books. Fans spend the day looking at art and information through Tufte's eyes, as he walks them through images and analysis of his books. Some 150,000 people have attended the talks to date. And while many graphics titles gather dust in remainder stacks, Tufte's books have sold steadily.

About 10 years ago, The New York Times crowned Tufte the "da Vinci of data." A more fitting title might be the "Galileo of graphics." Where da Vinci is remembered as an inventor of new technologies, Galileo put right our understanding of the solar system by positioning the sun at its center. Tufte, who owns a handful of nearly 400-year-old first editions by Galieo, considers the early scientist a master of analytical design.

A Study in Contrasts

Tufte points to a page from Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems to contrast the two views of the solar system. Ptolemy's earth-centered rendering is a tangled knot. Galileo's sun-centered solar model is elegantly simple. Then as now, clean design reflects clear thinking, and has a way of wiping away junky analysis and poor presentation.

Aston is Energy Environment editor for BusinessWeek in New York.

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