Meet Edward Tufte, the graphics guru to the power elite who is revolutionizing how we see data.
Over the years, in his books and courses, Tufte has called the Minard map perhaps the best statistical graphic ever made, and his endorsement has turned this obscure historical artifact into something of a cult object. Tufte’s long and discursive speech on the map serves as the dramatic climax of his courses, the equivalent of an old rock band playing its greatest hit on tour.
He usually does his explication of the map just before lunch. In Seattle, we were about to break, and he was finishing up. His voice quickened. “Minard made this because he hated war,” he said. The map wasn’t about Napoleon, the war’s surviving hero, who is mentioned nowhere on the page, Tufte explained, but of the quiet, anonymous misery of tens of thousands of French soldiers. “This was meant as an antiwar poster.”
The man sitting behind me, a middle-aged software engineer with a laptop, let out a puff of air. “Wow.”
The course finished at five that evening. I walked outside to the hotel’s parking lot, where a white stretch limousine was parked near the entrance. Two men in loose black suits were leaning against the hood, and they introduced themselves as the limo’s drivers, Vlad and Vlad. A minute later, Tufte came out, his face tired and hair wet. “These shows can really wipe me out,” he said. Behind him walked two roadies who travel with him from city to city, helping to set up the equipment for each class and handling registration. We all got in the limo, pulled onto Interstate 5, and headed toward Portland, where Tufte would be teaching the course again two days later.
Tufte, who taught political science and statistics at Yale from 1977 to 1999, first gave his six-hour course in 1993. Since then, more than 190,000 people have attended. The day costs $380, which includes Tufte’s four books, which he self-publishes under the name Graphics Press. He is a very wealthy man. In his carriage and attitude, Tufte appears most comfortable still thinking of himself as an academic: at his courses, many people in the audience call him “Professor,” and during breaks and lunch he answers questions and signs books as part of “office hours.” (More than a decade after leaving the university, he still uses his yale.edu email address.) But he is not beholden to any institution, nor to any product except his own, of which he has become a highly refined salesman.
Tufte’s rise mirrors that of information itself, which, since the dawn of the computer age, has infiltrated every aspect of modern life. If the production of data and its graphic representation was once a specialized trade, it is now accessible to nearly everyone. Information is all around us, but so is what Richard Saul Wurman, an architect who, along with Tufte, shaped the field of information design in the 1970s and ’80s, calls “non-information,” the flotsam and noise that are the by-products of a hyperactively quantitative culture.
The modern history of information design has its roots in the Bauhaus, an arts institute founded in 1919 in Weimar, Germany. Later, in postwar America, designers like Nigel Holmes at Time magazine and George Rorick, who invented the modern weather map at USA Today, began to draw playful graphics that boiled down a question to a few numbers and then presented them in a colorful package. They were inviting and simple drawings, like a cascading stack of oil drums to show the rising price of oil, and were generally more full of good cheer than hard data. Tufte has derided the genre, calling them “chartoons.”
For a long time, there was a split between designers who were making graphics for mass consumption and scientists who relied on graphics to communicate their findings. What was meant to be accessible should not look too technical, while for those making complex and substantive points, there was a sort of honor in making impenetrable graphics. “Making something look good was considered treacherous,” said Erik Spiekermann, a German typographer and designer who created the typeface used on German railways. “If you make something look pretty it means you’re lying. If you want something true it’s got to hurt.”
In his books, the first of which, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, came out in 1983, Tufte aimed to destroy this myth, largely by relying on historical examples like the Minard map. “Tufte killed the idea that we are afraid of numbers,” said Tobias Frere-Jones, a typographer who keeps Tufte’s books on a shelf above his desk in downtown New York. “And once you get over that idea, you can’t really justify the birthday-party-clown school of data visualization, where you need bright colors and shiny things to convey that the stock market went down this week.”
Tufte has coined several terms that have come to define his style, such as “data-ink ratio,” the proportion of graphical detail that does not represent statistical information, and “chartjunk,” ornamental and often saccharine design flourishes that impede understanding. Jonathan Corum, a former graduate student of Tufte’s at Yale who is now the science graphics editor at the New York Times, said that using Tufte’s principles is a way of respecting the reader’s intelligence. “I think of it like I’m starting with this rough, unpolished stone,” he said. “So how do you cut the perfect gem?”
Many of Tufte’s neologisms have come to carry a sort of Talmudic authority in design firms and newsrooms, though they are also quoted by engineers, financial analysts, consultants, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, political strategists. Karl Rove, senior adviser to former President George W. Bush, attended one of Tufte’s courses in Austin in the 1990s and considers himself a “huge” fan. “I must have bought a hundredplus copies” of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information for colleagues and friends, he told me. “Particularly in the early days in the White House, someone would come in and show me a presentation full of chartjunk”—in this context, Rove explained, extraneous graphics or, say, bar charts drawn from interlocking dollar signs—“and I would send them off with Tufte’s book to do it again.”
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.