Tufte’s Work

Hi Marc, There is no hurry to dive in here. Let’s see if we can have this be a like a smorgasbord, where you go and pick out what you have a taste for, when you have appetite. We have both been on this path for decades. We can use our sense of appetite and digestion - and midwifery for chronos and kairos here.

When you want to begin to unpack Tufte, here are the two pages that Tufte has people read in at the opening of his 60 minute "study hall” in his one day seminars.

I think I see why he starts here. I believe this is the biological and cognitive basis for much of his work.

You can see why I was so happy to orginate today, along these lines = we need to have complex ways of seeing and understanding (complex systems) for Dealing with Complex Problems.

And yet it seems that we need to display all of that complexity in graphically clear ways, within our “Eyespan”.

Let’s see what doors this opens…



From page 50-51 Envisioning Information, Micro/Macro Readings, Edward Tufte.

We thrive in information-thick worlds because of Our Marvelous and Everyday Capacities to select, edit, single out, structure, highlight, group, pair, merge, harmonize, synthesize, focus, organize, condense, reduce, boil down, choose, categorize, catalog, classify, list, abstract, scan, look into, idealize, isolate, discriminate, distinguish, screen, pigeonhole, pick over, sort, integrate, blend, inspect, filter, lump, skip, smooth, chunk, average, approximate, cluster, aggregate, outline, summarize, itemize, review, dip into, flip through, browse, glance into, leaf through, skim, refine, enumerate, glean, synopsize, winnow the wheat from the chaff, and separate the sheep from the goats. And a lot of data are processed: recent evidence indicates that the optic nerve connecting eye's retina to brain operates at 10 Mb per second, equivalent to an Ethernet.

Visual displays rich with data are not only an appropriate and proper complement to human capabilities, but also such designs are frequently optimal. If the visual task is contrast, comparison, and choice-as so often it is-then the More Relevant Information within Eyespan, the better. Vacant, low-density displays, the dreaded posterization of data spread over pages and pages, require viewers to rely on visual memory- a weak skill-to make a contrast, a comparison, a choice.

Micro/macro designs enforce both Local and Global Comparisons and, at the same time, avoid the disruption of context switching. All told, exactly what is needed for reasoning about information.

High-density designs also allow viewers to select, to narrate, to recast and personalize data for their own uses. Thus control of information is given over to Viewers, not to editors, designers, or decorators.

Data-thin, forgetful displays move viewers toward ignorance and passivity, and at the same time diminish the credibility of the source. Thin Data rightly prompts suspicions: "What are they leaving out? Is that really everything they know? What are they hiding? Is that all they did?" Now and then it is claimed that vacant space is "friendly" (anthropomorphizing an inherently murky idea) but it is not how much empty space there is, but rather how it is used. It is not how much information there is, but rather how effectively it is arranged.

Showing complexity often demands Hard, Thoughtful Work. Detailed micro/macro designs have substantial costs for data collection, design, custom computing, image processing, and production-expenses similar to that of first-class cartography. But once there's a good template, intense data flows can be managed routinely, as the initial front-end investment in design is repaid by a great long run template. And the usual economies of declining costs for each additional data packet may well persist. One excellent high-resolution data display image can replace 20 scattered slides. And our readers might keep that one really informative image, although they will surely discard those twenty slides and all their chartjunk, administrative debris, and empty space.

What about Confusing Clutter? Information overload? Doesn't data have to be "boiled down" and "simplified''? These common questions miss the point, for the quantity of detail is an issue completely separate from the difficulty of reading. Clutter and confusion are failures of design, not attributes of information. Often the less complex and less subtle the line, the more ambiguous and less interesting is the reading. Stripping the detail out of data is a style based on personal preference and fashion, considerations utterly indifferent to substantive content. What Josef Albers wrote about typography is true for Information Design:

-The concept that "the simpler the form of a letter the simpler its reading" was an obsession of beginning constructivism. It became something like a dogma, and is still followed by "modernistic" typographers.

-This notion has proved to be wrong, because in reading we do not read letters but words, words as a whole, as a "word picture." Ophthalmology has disclosed that the more the letters are differentiated from each other, the easier is the reading.

-Without going into comparisons and the details, it should be realized that words consisting of only capital letters present the most difficult reading-because of their equal height, equal volume, and, with most, their equal width. When comparing serif letters with sans-serif, the latter provide an uneasy reading. The fashionable preference for sans-serif in text shows neither historical nor practical competence.

So much for the conventional, facile, and false equation: simpleness of data and design = clarity of reading. Simpleness is another aesthetic preference, not an information display strategy, not a guide to clarity. What we seek instead is a rich texture of data, a comparative context, an understanding of complexity revealed with an economy of means. Robert Venturi open his Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture with a broad extension of Albers' point:

-I like complexity and contradiction in architecture .... I speak of a complex and contradictory architecture based on the richness and ambiguity of modern experience, including that experience which is inherent in art. Everywhere, except in architecture, complexity and contradiction have been acknowledged, from Godel's proof of inconsistency in mathematics to T. S. Eliot's analysis of "difficult" poetry and Joseph Albers' definition of the paradoxical quality of painting .... Architects can no longer afford to be intimidated by the puritanically moral language of orthodox Modern architecture .... an architecture of complexity and contradiction has a special obligation toward the whole: its truth must be in its totality or its implications of totality. It must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion .... Where simplicity cannot work, simpleness results. Blatant simplification means bland architecture. Less is a bore.

But, finally, the deepest reason for displays that portray complexity and intricacy is that the worlds we seek to understand are Complex and Intricate."God is in the details," said Mies van der Rohe, capturing the essential quality of micro/macro performances.