Pretty as a picture

The latest in Edward Tufte's famed line of graphics manuals is easier on the eye than on the brain.

For 15 years I have lusted in my heart to possess a book by Yale professor Edward Tufte. Tufte is by profession a professor of political science specializing in statistics, but he is also a brilliantly gifted designer, and his first book exploring the art and science of effective information display, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, received the kind of rapturous reviews normally reserved for emergent couturiers or new three-star restaurants: "a landmark book, a wonderful book" . ... "one of the best books you'll ever see"... "beautiful, brilliant"... "a visual Strunk and White." His second, 1990's Envisioning Information, roused architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, no slouches in the design line themselves, to no fewer than four honorific adjectives intensified by one superlative adverb: "an incredibly beautiful, true, refined, and luscious book."

Visual Explanations

by Edward R. Tufte (Graphics Press, $45)

Anyone suffering even a hint of bibliomania would find it hard to disagree with Venturi and Brown. The very proportions of the books, their heavy, pale ecru paper, their classicizing typography (a contemporary version of Monotype Bembo) and generous leading, their exquisitely composed layout and use of color in text and illustration, make a book fan's mouth water, whether interested in Tufte's subject or not. There aren't enough statistical-graphic professionals to explain the books' steady and surprisingly strong sales: Two even turned up on Amazon.com's 1997 mail-order best-seller list.

I do my own impulse buying in bookstores, where at each browsing encounter the price of the volumes ($40 and $48 respectively) caused me regretfully to replace them on the shelf. How privileged I felt therefore to be invited, upon the publication of a third Tufte volume, to acquire for purposes of review all three works—at no cost to myself! And how saddened to discover that the chastely lovely objects I'd lusted after at a distance prove on closer acquaintance beautiful indeed but... not dumb, certainly, but smug, narrow-minded, and just the slightest bit cranky.

Tufte's first self-produced book, Visual Display, is the plainest, most accessible, and most seductive of the three. Its thesis is simple: Charts, tables, and graphs presenting numerical data can either enhance or obscure the information they contain. Drawing upon images as diverse as a 10th-century Chinese map, a chart of Napoleon's Russian campaign, and a portrait of the gauzy distribution of galaxies in space, Tufte demonstrates the hard work and deep thought that go into any first-rate informational graphic, and how useless, when not actively misleading, most contemporary charts and graphs are.

The book also provides step-by-step case studies: Bad or dishonest examples are provided, then refined into clarity and truth through simple alterations in layout, line-weight, and shading. Lay and professional readers alike end up with a deeper understanding of the humble but essential art of information display, and heightened respect for the unsung artisans who perform their task well.

The success of Visual Display encouraged Tufte to even more ambitious effort with Envisioning Information. Numbers here take a back seat to other kinds of information, and the book is full of visual delights: a Swiss photo map that, by dexterous crossing of the eyes, suddenly leaps into three dimensions; a visual deconstruction of a mural by Roy Lichtenstein into its score or more of sly art-historical allusions; a 19th-century eccentric's attempt to teach Euclid's geometry by means of multicolored diagrams irresistibly reminiscent of the rectilinear abstractions of Piet Mondrian.

This time out, though, text and graphics are not so tightly integrated in a linear argument. Tufte's prose, always a little inflated, becomes more polysyllabic and less concrete. His elucidations of diagrams and notations from Galileo's notebooks on the discovery of Jupiter's moons are less clear and enlightening than the texts they're meant to clarify. Some passages, like the ones about the centuries-old attempt to create a system of notation for dance, are more obscure than the accompanying diagrams and transcriptions, which is saying a lot.

In the latest Tufte volume, Visual Explanations, the illustrations are culled from even wider fields—dime-store magic manuals, Renaissance typographics, the illustrations of Babar's creator Jean de Brunhoff, imaginary weeds from Scientific American, before-and-after garden designs by the Georgian architect Humphry Repton. It's tremendous fun looking at the pictures; it's a terrible slog plowing through Tufte's prose, which by now is composed of equal portions inflated double-talk, dogmatic free association, and sidelong sneers at designers less acute than the author: just about everybody, this time around.

The final chapter, titled "Visual Confections," could easily stand in for the work as a whole. It's delightful to discover, among many others, Wesley Pugin's mid-Victorian vision of an England full of nothing but Gothic Revival churches, a 1914 Mormon visual allegory of American Youth standing at the foot of the forking path leading to Happy Home or Pauper's Grave, or a 1930s Russian election poster. But what any of them have to do with the price of tea in China, or Visual Explanation for that matter, escapes me. Tufte began inveighing against those who drown information in decoration. He's ended up turning cholera epidemics in England and the Space Shuttle disaster into material for a coffee-table book.

 
comments powered by Disqus