May/June 2011 The Information Sage

Meet Edward Tufte, the graphics guru to the power elite who is revolutionizing how we see data.

By Joshua Yaffa

Tufte may be one of the few theorists—design or otherwise—lauded in both the Bush and Obama administrations. After their first meeting on Pennsylvania Avenue, Earl Devaney sent Tufte’s resume to the White House, leading to his appointment last March as an official adviser to the Recovery Transparency and Accountability Board. But his influence in the administration has reverberated beyond that office. Peter Orszag, who left his post as head of Obama’s Office of Management and Budget last year and then took a job as vice chairman of global banking at Citigroup, spoke to me recently in his office on the thirty-ninth floor of the bank’s headquarters in lower Manhattan. He was first given a copy of Tufte’s Visual Display of Quantitative Information as a college graduation present. As Orszag explained, the challenge of designing graphics to represent the nearly infinite stream of data coming out of government offices is to be compelling but not to oversimplify. The description sounded like many of the maxims I heard on tour with Tufte. Indeed, at the end of our conversation, Orszag told me that “Tufte’s spirit” has “been taken to heart by an entire generation of data analysts.”

Before his work with Devaney, Tufte’s most public engagement with the federal government came in the form of a scathing crusade against its endemic use of Microsoft PowerPoint. In January 2003, the space shuttle Columbia took off from Kennedy Space Center. Seconds into its flight, a piece of foam insulation broke off from the shuttle’s fuel tank and punctured its left wing. For days, as the shuttle orbited the earth, engineers at NASA and Boeing debated how serious the hole might be. Much of this communication was done in the form of PowerPoint, a software program that Tufte says is constricting and obfuscating and “turns information into a sales pitch.”

After reviewing several PowerPoint presentations, NASA officials decided to proceed with the shuttle’s return flight. On February 1, Columbia burned up as it reentered the earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crewmembers on board. Tufte has called PowerPoint a “coconspirator” in the shuttle disaster.

Tufte dissected NASA’s PowerPoint slides on his Web site, showing that the program didn’t allow engineers to write in scientific notation and replaced complex quantitative measurement with imprecise words like “significant.” He then published a twenty-eight-page essay called “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint,” in which he analyzed hundreds of existing PowerPoint slides and showed that the statistical graphics used in PowerPoint presentations show an average of twelve numbers each, which, in Tufte’s analysis, ranks it below every major world publication except for Pravda. The low information density of PowerPoint is “approaching dementia,” he wrote.

Later that year, in August 2003, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board issued its own report on the shuttle accident. On page 191, in a section called “Engineering By Viewgraphs,” the board cited Tufte’s research, and wrote that it “views the endemic use of PowerPoint slides” as “an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.”

While PowerPoint still takes a rather severe lashing at Tufte’s courses, he says he has largely moved on from the debate. “It’s a public and corporate disaster for Microsoft,” he said. “But it’s a trivial issue to me.” The general backlash against PowerPoint has only grown, however. In 2009, Thomas X. Hammes, a retired Marine Corps colonel who is now a fellow at the National Defense University, wrote a widely circulated essay in Armed Forces Journal that argues that PowerPoint has had a “toxic effect” on the culture of debate and discussion within the U.S. military, claiming that “senior decision-makers are making more decisions with less preparation and less time for thought.”

As Hammes explains it, the reliance on PowerPoint often means that battle orders are rendered in incomplete, often unclear sentences and maps are squashed and stripped of meaningful detail, leaving essential battlefield questions of geography dangerously unclear. The details are classified, but Hammes told me that he has seen war plans for the Korean peninsula prepared in PowerPoint in which massive terrain issues were completely glossed over. On the whole, Hammes told me, the rise of PowerPoint in the military has made the decision-making process less intellectually active. And Tufte, he added, “is the master on this whole thing.”

The spread of technology over recent decades has fostered a comfort with data, and an appetite for more of it, in an ever-increasing portion of the general public. This cultural shift was especially visible in the dense data displays that appeared in newspapers, and especially online, in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election. Here, too, Tufte’s influence was evident. Nate Silver, who runs the political Web site FiveThirtyEight, now part of the New York Times, uses many of Tufte’s maxims in the site’s design. Silver told me that he tries to keep the “data-ink” ratio of his current site very high, meaning most of the pixels on the screen show actual numbers or data points; he also thinks of the site’s design in terms of “small multiples,” another Tufte neologism that refers to a series of related numbers that reveal subtle differences over time. “Tufte treats data like good writing,” he said. “You have a certain thought—how clearly and beautifully are you conveying it?”

Good design, then, is not about making dull numbers somehow become magically exhilarating, it is about picking the right numbers in the first place. “It’s about data that matters to you,” said Dona Wong, who was a student of Tufte’s at Yale in the 1980s and later the graphics director at the Wall Street Journal.

This idea is especially relevant for how the federal government measures and displays the impact of the stimulus. What are the most informative comparisons? And what, for lack of a better word, is simply chartjunk? Tufte first suggested that the recovery board rethink how the projects are ranked. Until now, they have been sorted by location, with the idea that any person could look up projects in his or her county or zip code. “But what’s it matter where the project is? We already know where Texas and California are,” Tufte said. Geographic space helps little in this context. “Always order things substantively,” Tufte explained. He would like to bring in all other kinds of data sources to add context to the stimulus and track its actual effects. Soon, if Tufte has his way, Recovery. gov will display analytical graphics that measure funded projects alongside metrics like infant mortality, traffic flows, and education. After all, as he told me, “understanding doesn’t come from project descriptions.”

Someday, the Web site might also use what has proven to be one of Tufte’s more popular inventions. In his 2007 book Beautiful Evidence, Tufte introduced what he called “sparklines,” numerically dense, word-size graphics that show variation over time. They have since appeared on the financial pages of Yahoo! and the sports section of the New York Times. (As an example, the fluctuations of the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the course of February and March look like this: . The dramatic dip in the figure represents the March 16th panic over the nuclear disaster in Japan.)

Joshua Yaffa is an associate editor at Foreign Affairs.


  • Dona Wong on May 11, 2011 3:12 PM:

    Thanks for a wonderful article.

    Best regards,
    Dona Wong
    Author, The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics

  • tom o'neill on May 11, 2011 9:18 PM:

    I was fortunate to be a graduate student of Tufte's at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School in 1968-70. As a teacher he was mesmerizing and enormously effective, with the ability not only to teach liberal arts majors to master regression analysis (done by hand on a mechanical Frieden calculator) but to present the results clearly and graphically. He taught a valuable lesson in his comment on one long paper I did that tried to predict the outbreak of civil disturbance in countries around the world based on a disequilibrium between the nation's economic versus its civic development. His scrawled comment on the 100 page paper, which began with an explanation of the methodology "It's page 36 and nothing has happened yet." I still have that paper, and I treasure it.

  • Doug Stickler on May 12, 2011 2:58 PM:

    I had the pleasure of attending one of Tufte's workshops several years ago in silicon valley. He presented very well the universal nature of design across all information domains. I found it to be refreshing and valuable as are his books which I have utilized extensively as well as his website. But the most remarkable thing for me was discovering how engaged and bright he is when I met him during 'office hours'. He immediately started asking me questions. He wanted to know what I did briefly described(healthcare analytics) and then proceeded to jump to the heart of some complex problems I hadn't even considered much less articulated. Then he literally pointed me to specific sections in his books. It was a very information rich three minutes! I'm not much of a groupie but I do treasure his comments and notes in my books. This article captures much what makes Tufte special.

  • John Ashton on May 13, 2011 4:57 AM:

    First saw all this stuff a few years ago and it was "gee wow! great! must do this with my data" and so on.

    But...after a while you realise that it is just pretty. It isn't informative, it doesn't help understanding. It's just pretty and useless.

  • Leanne Tobias on May 13, 2011 6:32 AM:

    I was lucky to be a student of Professor Tufte's at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, shortly before he began teaching at Yale. Professor Tufte taught a data analysis course that blended statistics, linear regression analysis and data presentation techniques. Decades later, I still remember Professor Tufte's maxims and try to follow his advice when using and presenting data. His advice ranged from the simple (clearly label the axes of charts and graphs; never distort data through graphical manipulation) to the more complex (regression coefficients are not meaningful unless they are expressed in units clearly related to the performance of the variables used in the analysis).

    When I was his student, Professor Tufte blended wit, intellectual acuity and a passion for clarity. I'm glad to read that he's better than ever. Kudos to Professor Tufte and to Washington Monthly for a great article.

    Leanne Tobias
    Malachite LLC
    Bethesda, MD

  • inchoate but earnest on May 13, 2011 8:14 AM:

    Fine piece overall.

    We find a couple of inexplicable bits.

    The first is Mr Ashton's comment. Mr. A, you're not clear what the "it" is you're whining about, but if "it" is graphical depiction of information generally, or Tufte's perspective on such depiction specifically, your comment is the useless article.

    Second,tufte's comment re: the significance of geography in the depiction of project data: The guy's a marvel, but like other humans missteps occasionally, as here, with respect to Recovery.gov:

    But what's it matter where the project is? We already know where Texas and California are, Tufte said. Geographic space helps little in this context.

    Always order things substantively, Tufte explained. "

    What it matters is that all politics are local. What it matters is that those "substantive" projects show up in places for a reason - mostly as the results of distributions of political power across the landscape.

    So how do you show that important aspect? In a list? Does Texas appearing above North Carolina above Connecticut above Utah tell me something useful about the politics of their position - as much as their geography might?

    Disagree with geographic map depictions, but ignoring the "locality" of decisionmaking leaves an important aspect of the data literally out of the picture. Tell us - better, show us - how you'd do it differently.

  • bob white on May 13, 2011 9:28 AM:

    In addition to everything else, Edward Tufte is an extremely nice man. About twenty years ago my German Shepherd Chance managed to eat the dust cover of The Visual Display of Information. Knowing that it was self-published,I wrote to him, explained the situation, and asked if I could buy a new cover.
    Well, not only did he send me the cover without charge, he also included a rawhide bone with a note "for your puppy".
    Some years later, there was an article about him in the New York Times Magazine. In the picture were his two Goldens...all became clear to me.
    If he happens to read this, I thank him again. Probably, he will not notice that I am not using my real name.

  • Steve Macdonald on May 13, 2011 10:14 AM:

    Fascinating article. Tufte is evidently a genius, about whom I'd known little heretofore. The repeated mentions of graphics depicting the effects of the stimulus do however call to mind the old refrain, "lies, damned lies, and statistics". I do not wish to take any position on the wisdom of the stimulus, but rather to point out that such economic actions are highly debatable and by no means "proven" except in the minds of true believers, for whom no diagrams are needed in any event. It sounded like the graphics in question were to some extent accepting stimulus spending as "gospel" (even though for example similar policy measures were roundly rejected throughout Europe). This does not communicate truth, but rather partisan political propaganda.

    Otherwise I believe Tufte is a genius as stated. I am simply wary of anyone claiming to have a handle on truth or even transparency when it comes to something of near infinite complexity such as the US economy.

  • Don Nadeau on May 13, 2011 5:49 PM:

    @Steve Macdonald: Gee I dunno, Steve, the bridges around my city were falling apart until a stimulus package set a bunch of design and construction folks (white and blue collar for you visual types) to work fixing them, so the capitalists would feel better routing their truckers (um gold collar and gray collar?) trucks full of product over them, rather than the time-consuming, more expensive, and more energy-guzzling alternative long way around. The oldest bridge in the nation is even getting fixed, huzzah!

  • Don Nadeau on May 13, 2011 6:45 PM:

    BTW, the antiquated Reaumur degrees quoted in the article are centered (zeroed) on the freezing point of water. But:

    1* Reaumur = 1.25* Celsius = 2.25* Fahrenheit.

    (The * is my symbol for "degree". Equation source: our friendly neighborhood Wikipedia)

    So the temperatures that the Napoleonic troops endured were, respectively (help me graph this, Professor Tufte!):

    - 9 and -21* R
    -11 and -26* C
    +12 and -15* F

  • Sandio on May 13, 2011 11:16 PM:

    Let's hear about the cohort fixing trick that made the HIV/AIDS regression. Mathew Edlund on HuffPo Healthy Living points out that you can find a marker for any desired effect, and that's not a fair predictor. This ruse can be reversed: AIDS is not a well-defined condition, and now means only the effect of HIV! Meanwhile the outcome depends on the underlying health of the group chosen...
    These are questions of real contemporary interest: much of the social networking buzz is about tagging along (!) with success. So is Obama spending along with recovery or investing in a real future?

  • Jon H on May 14, 2011 9:31 PM:

    I *wish* I could catch the train in Cheshire! You have to go south to New Haven first, because it only runs along the coast.

  • Christopher Dillon on May 16, 2011 2:21 AM:

    "Self-publishing," Tufte told me, "allowed for an incredible, bizarre fussiness."

    Self-publishing also allowed Tufte to produce books that are beautiful as well as useful, something that is very difficult with commercial publishers.

  • Scott Ryburn on May 16, 2011 2:07 PM:

    I, too, was privileged to attend a Tufte seminar. While his message is so sensible that it is easy to grasp, it is much tougher to execute. I still struggle to apply and refine what I've learned to my profession, financial analysis. It is also not always an easy sell in the business world, where everyone expects "a few slides" to tell the story.

    As a side note to Steve Macdonald regarding the stimulus approach being "roundly rejected throughout Europe," I think it's fair to say that much of what we called "stimulus" was already present in European social safety nets. That damnable old-world socialism!

  • curtis on May 17, 2011 8:09 PM:

    Those that appreciate what Mr. Tufte is doing might want to read "The Alphabet Versus The Godess" for a perspective on the bigger picture of how information presentation methods might affect human behaviors.

  • Hamish Blair on May 17, 2011 8:40 PM:

    As an accountant and "frustrated graphic designer" this is perhaps one of the best articles I have ever read. Off to order his book now.

  • El Bosco on May 18, 2011 1:00 AM:

    Tufte is interesting... if a little (alot) dogmatic. But he should skip the art pretensions. Being good in one field doesn't necessarily mean you're good in another. He's a profoundly average artist, and his last book is the weakest of the four he has produced.

  • FugFuu on May 18, 2011 9:34 AM:

    Dude jsut looks corrupt as the day is long.


  • Perry Alexander on May 18, 2011 12:08 PM:

    My learning from a day-long Tufte seminar in the late '90s was an epiphany; a clarification of my passion. I had mistakenly felt what drove me was marketing design. Having worked in that field for 25 years, after that day I knew I was fundamentally in the business of information presentation. Honest marketing design makes use of that skill. Now, graphic design for marketing is one of my avenues to indulge in information presentation, as I aspire to apply the principals of Edward Tufte. I am indebted for the insight, and delighted for the clarity. Great article!

  • Jorge Camoes on May 20, 2011 6:27 AM:

    Well, I'm a Tufte fan, like almost everyone else in the data visualization community but writing that he is the "...king who reigns over his field largely because he invented it"? That's a bold statement, and far from the truth. In 1967, the French cartographer Jacques Bertin published his "Semiology of graphics" and that's the real data visualization bible. The book was translated into English almost 20 year later and still remains the only consistent theory available.

  • R Path on May 20, 2011 10:53 AM:

    Nice article; however, one element in the web layout of this story could be improved. You display an image, inline with the text, of 3 graphs showing cancer survival rates, and then have a link to a PDF of a sparkline example. Is the sparkline document supposed to demonstrate an improved display of the same data on the 3 graphs? It's unclear, since the image of 3 graphs cannot be easily enlarged, and there is no reference to that figure in the story itself (or no caption). I find this to be an odd contradiction given that this is an article about Tufte and good design principles...

  • smartalek on May 21, 2011 4:52 PM:

    Glad I'm not the only one (but disappointed that I appear to be only the second) to note the irony of an article lauding the revolutionary contributions of a visual-data-presentation genius who goes out of his way to stress the importance of comparative data -- an article that has only two graphic examples attached to it, neither of which demonstrates any comparisons of the ostensibly inferior standard techniques against the superior Tufte methods.

    And @ Mr Steve Macdonald (5/13/11 10:14AM):
    Can't speak knowledgeably about the rest of Europe. However, I can point out the instructive -- and directly comparable -- experience of the UK, which famously took the direct opposite of the "stimulus" approach adopted by Pres Obama and the Democratic Congressional majority of the time -- and did what American conservatives in general, and Republicans in particular (with whom it seems Mr Macdonald would stand), were urging for us then (as they are now): they adopted austerity measures, significantly slashing governmental spending.
    Since doing so, their economy has suffered contraction at, IIRC, a rate of about 3-4%. In the same time-frame, and starting at about 6 months after the passage of the stimulus he derides (exactly when one would expect to see the impact), the US has enjoyed growth in the 1-3% range.
    The internet apparently really loves irony. Mr Macdonald is absolutely correct in concluding, "[t]his does not communicate truth, but rather partisan political propaganda."
    But of course it's his side of the politico-economic debates that is engaging in what he excoriates.

  • Chad Whitacre on May 22, 2011 10:12 PM:

    I attended Tufte's course last Monday, and have since been preoccupied with a nagging sense that something about him is off. My unfortunate conclusion: after decades building up a powerful brand, he's now using that brand to play the art market for his own personal gain. This is ironic, because one of his main points is that commercial actors are inherently less credible than scientists and others who act in the public interest. What if he invested his capital and clout in a non-profit that truly acted in the public interest? I'd have a lot more respect for him. As it is, his design principles are wonderful content buried in the chartjunk of his brand.

  • Chad Whitacre on May 24, 2011 1:42 PM:

    We need to shift the conversation around Tufte from his genius brand to the non-profit he should be starting.

  • Cameron on May 27, 2011 9:49 PM:

    I went to one of his presentations in the mid-90s.

    Minute for minute is was the most intense intellectual afternoon of my life and it changed the way I think about "data" and "information" for ever. Well worth the money.

    And you didn't even mention the visual display of music.

  • MikeH on June 02, 2011 11:31 AM:

    He lost me when talking about the space shuttle presentation. The 1986 disaster could have been averted if the detailed scientists did not find the need to explain all of the formulas, calculations, and theories to the final decision makers and could have just said, "Space shuttle go boom!"
    Sure, you should not do full analysis or handing out detailed orders on powerpoint or similar tools, but simplicity and imagery are extremely important when it comes time to make a point.
    I am going to look up one or two of Mr. Tufte's books and think it would be interesting to attend one of his classes, but from the article, he does sound overly academic. To reject the simplified weather symbols is absurd. The average person does not need to know the barometric pressure. A presentation allowing people to glance down and know it is going to be 78 and sunny instantaneously is perfect.
    Furthermore, if I had an employee a project, I do not want them to to show up at my desk and explain all the little details. I hired them because I think they are capable of doing the analysis and making a recommendation. Feed me the recommendation and if I have any questions, I will ask them. If I needed all of the data, I would have taken on the project myself. Maybe it is just the way the article is written, but I do not understand the need to present such a high level of detail at all times.
    I also agree with the question raised by Mr. Norman. Part of visualization is marketing. How do you reach or entice those who do not inherently share a deep interest in a subject? There is no one size fits all model, and there is no one purpose in producing visual depictions. Unfortunately, we live in a time (I'm not sure, it is just this time) when fiction with a simple, catchy message/image can easily trump facts, unless the facts can also be boiled down to a simple, catchy message or image. In many instances, it would be irresponsible to simply dismiss people who buy into the simple, catchy message.

  • Jerome on June 08, 2011 2:22 PM:

    I am a data analyst by both profession and passion. I purchased a copy of Tufte's version of the Minard map direct from Mr. T's website, only to find out that the map does not fit properly in any standard size frame.

    Um, do as I say, not as I do, Mr. T?

  • Avallecdollak on July 08, 2011 2:28 AM:

    hi there great topic you have going here. Utell2011

  • Tom Emmons on July 11, 2011 11:02 AM:

    I'm all about limiting powerpoint to what it is good at, but what are some viable alternatives? If I am walking a room through of people through ideas (sales pitch, new product,idea, etc) what am I supposed to use?

    I think finding a suitable replacement is much easier said than done.

  • tryecrot on August 28, 2011 8:06 AM:

    Yes there should realize the opportunity to RSS commentary, quite simply, CMS is another on the blog.

  • Ted Wrentham on October 07, 2011 10:24 PM:

    Tufte is interesting, indeed, but highly overrated. His cult-like following can be attributed to the "Steve Jobs" effect where one creates something that is arbitrarily beautiful and the mass of sheep fawn over you so as to appear to be more important to their colleagues and associates. Yet year after year corporations shell out thousands and thousands of dollars to send their employees to his dreadful presentations where they are treated to not much more than an in-person book-on-tape.

    He egotism is no more prominently displayed when he talks about that which he knows absolutely nothing about: computers and digital media. I just about died when I saw him in 1999 and he mentioned that computer displays are horrible because they can't display black properly.

    What's more, just take a look at his YouTube video critiquing the iPhone. Egads. Or better yet check out his horrid website which is nothing but a mashup of awful text splattered across the page with no regard for borders, spacing, coloring or usability:


    I've gotta hand it to you, Edward. You sure did master the art of being able to include a glued piece of paper in one of your books. And boy, it's beautiful. But Tufte, "Your Website Sucks."

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