- Hardcover: 200 pages
- Publisher: Graphics Pr; 2nd edition (January 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0961392142
- ISBN-13: 978-0961392147
- Product Dimensions: 9 x 1 x 11 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 257 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #8,713 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Visual Display of Quantitative Information 2nd Edition
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Diagrams in this book are tiny - and it's not that there wasn't space to blow them up bigger because dear lord this book has a ton of white space. There's some interesting historical info in here about how some graphical representations came about and how to lay out multivariate data in interesting ways but sadly everything about the presentation and examples are anachronistic.
Honestly, unless you're buying this because it's on a class reading list, or have some kind of great love for old-fashioned info graphics, I cannot fathom why you would buy this book.
Tufte's contention is that a lack of adequate knowledge and expertise and a mistaken notion about numbers are to blame for bad visualizations. The principles of good visualizations, on the other hand, are few and simple. The book is all about exposing bad examples and enunciating these good principles, beautifully illustrated with examples, and printed on excellent quality paper.
Supplement this excellent book with at least the following, if you are interested in digging deeper into the area of data visualizations:
- Information Visualization, Second Edition: Perception for Design (Interactive Technologies)
- Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data
The rest of the review can be best told, in my opinion, through quotes from the book:
"The theory of the visual display of quantitative information consists of principles that generate design options... The principles should not be applied rigidly or in a peevish spirit... and it is better to violate any principle than to place graceless or inelegant marks on paper. Most principles of design should be greeted with some skepticism." [page 191]
While seemingly a trivial matter, the issue of the size of charts, whether they should be tall or horizontal, Tufte states that "Graphics should tend toward the horizontal, greater in length than height..." and "Many graphics plot, in essence (cause and effect) and a longer horizontal helps to elaborate the workings of the causal variable in more detail." [pages 186, 187]
Time-series displays are at their best for big data sets with real variability. [page 30]
Chapter 2, "Graphical Identity" Is a stunning collection of graphs that distort, lie, deceive, and exhibit all manners of skills other than those required for data visualizations.
"Much of twentieth-century thinking about statistical graphics has been preoccupied with the question of how some amateurish chart might fool the naive viewer. ... At the core of the preoccupation with deceptive graphics was the assumption that data graphics were mainly devices for showing the obvious to the ignorant. ... The assumption led down two fruitless paths in the graphically barren years from 1930 to 1970: First, that graphics had to be "alive", "communicatively dynamic," overdecorated and exaggerated.. Second, that the main task of graphical analysis was to detect and denounce deception." [page 53]
"A graphic does not distort if the visual representation of the data is consistent with the numerical representation." [page 55]
Which leads to his definition of the term, "Lie Factor", which he defines as the "size of the effect shown in graphic" divided by "size of effect in chart".
"Another way to confuse data variation with design variation is to use areas to show one-dimensional data" [page 69]
An example cited is the depiction of "the rate of inflation", for which, "graphs show currency shrinking on two dimensions, even though the value of money is one-dimensional." [page 70]
A very important observation quoted in Chapter 3 comes from Howard Weiner - "Perhaps the reason is an increase in the perceived need for graphs ... without a concomitant increase in training in their construction." [page 79]
Tufte elaborates: "Nearly all those who produce graphics for mass publication are trained exclusively in the fine arts and have had little experience with the analysis of data. ..." "... many graphic artists believe that statistics are boring and tedious. It then follows that decorated graphics must pep up, animate, and all too often exaggerate what evidence there is in the data." [page 79]
And "The doctrine of boring data serves political ends, helping to advance certain interests over others in bureaucratic struggles for control of a publication's resources. ... as the art bureaucracy grows, style replaces content. And the word people, having lost space in the publication to data decorators, console themselves... " [page 80]
Tufte defines "data-ink" in Ch 4 ("Theory of Data Graphics") as "the non-erasable core of a graphic, the non-redundant ink arranged in response to variations in the numbers represented
Data-ink ration = data-ink / total ink used to print the graphic" [page 93]
So, it should not come as a surprise, when Tufte takes a single bar with a value label at the top of the bar, and states that "the labeled, shaded bar of the bar chart, for example, unambiguously locates the altitude in size separate ways." [page 96].
Chapter 5 - "Charkjunk: Vibrations, Grids, and Ducks" is perhaps the most humorous chapter, as the title itself suggests. A quote from Johnathan Swift, indicting 17th-century cartographers, says it all - "With save pictures fill their gaps, And o'er unhabitable downs, Place elephants for want of towns." [page ] ouch!
"This may well be the worst graphic ever to find its way into print:" [page 118] refers to a "series of weird three-dimensional displays appearing in the magazine American Education in the 1970s (that) delighted connoisseurs of the graphically preposterous. Here five colors report, almost by happenstance, only five pieces of data..." [page 118]
You may not, and I certainly did not agree with Tufte's suggestions for maximizing the data-ink efficiency of the box-plot, in the chapter on "Data-ink Maximization", but they are worth examining nonetheless. However, his redesign of the bar chart, with a border and other accouterments, on pages 126-128, are excellent.
Many examples of bad visualizations cited in the book are from the "New York Times", so it is sort of reassuring when you see that the quality of visualizations on the NYT has improved a lot, and are frequently the objects of animated discussions. There may be hope, after all.
The review title, explained, at least part thereof:
And what about that slightly inappropriate word in the title of the review?
Tufte writes that an art director with overall responsibility for the design of over 3,000 graphics annually had this to say - "graphics are intended to more to lure the reader's attention away from the advertising than to explain the news in any detail. 'Unlike the advertisements,' he said, 'at least we don't put naked women in our graphics.' " [page 80] We must be all thankful for small mercies, I suppose.
Simply and confidently Tufte lays out the basics of the right and the wrong, the good and the bad (and occasionally ugly) regarding graphical depictions of data and information.
This book (The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2nd edition )is the first and the foundation of four books by Tufte (I. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2nd edition. II. Envisioning Information. III. Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. IV. Beautiful Evidence.) that should be read in the order of publication. You will be a wiser person for the effort.
His short book, "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within", while not part of the "four volume set" is a withering attack on the ubiquitous software program, an attack based on the fact that it encourages the user to break nearly every principle that Tufte has spent the last 20 years elucidating in his books regarding the reading and the writing and presentation of well thought out and presented arguments and reports. I've read it and was convinced; PP constrains complex thought, argument, and statistical (indeed any form of) reasoning with its "bullet points", and is a very inefficient means of depicting information as well, cluttering the display space with useless clip art, huge fonts, and often misleading cookie-cutter graphs. (His satirical PP presentation of the Gettysburg Address humorously makes his points, while his analysis of a very real NASA PowerPoint slide from the decision-making meetings regarding the danger to the Space Shuttle Columbia before its destruction on re-entry makes his points in a very sobering manner.)
All this being said, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is a Great Book. In the internet age we all spend many hours per week looking at visual depictions of information. Tufte's book will make you a more critical user of nearly everything, from the newspaper, to websites, to work presentations, the sports pages, and even your car's speedometer and other gauges. It is the foundation to all of his published work from the last two decades.
Buy this book!