Meet Edward Tufte, the graphics guru to the power elite who is revolutionizing how we see data.
In November 2009, Tufte’s old bête noire, Microsoft, attempted to patent sparklines for use within the spreadsheets that will appear in the latest version of Excel. The notion that the company could patent an innovation that Tufte has championed for several years struck him as “a great lark,” and a sign of “characteristic overreaching” on the part of Microsoft. But for a man who clearly takes no small satisfaction in seeing his ideas adopted, even by nefarious software conglomerates, it wasn’t an entirely awful development. “I’m happy,” Tufte told me. “Sparklines are everywhere else, so why not in Excel too?”
The underlying philosophy behind sparklines—and, really, all of Tufte’s work—is that data, when presented elegantly and with respect, is not confounding but clarifying. (Click here see an example). “There is no such thing as information overload,” Tufte says at the start of his courses. “Only bad design.” (In Portland, this last line received some applause, as well as a cry of “God, yes!”)
As Richard Grefe, the executive director of the American Institute of Graphic Artists, which awarded Tufte its highest medal in 2004, explained, Tufte has shifted how designers approach the job of turning information into understanding. “It’s not about making the complex simple,” Grefe told me. “It’s about making the complex clear.”
Tufte was born in 1942 in Kansas City, Missouri. His mother graduated high school at the age of thirteen, and four years later she became the first female reporter at the Omaha World-Herald. His father was an engineer, and Tufte remembers his parents’ marriage as the first sign that “words and numbers belong together.”
He studied statistics at Stanford and then went on to get a doctorate in political science at Yale. In 1967, he took a job teaching at Princeton. While there, Tufte was asked to give a course on statistics to a group of visiting journalists and, in looking for examples to include in the course packet, quickly became dissatisfied with the available primers on how to represent data. They were either too shallow and unserious or hopelessly arcane. He began to write up some ideas of his own.
A few years later, Tufte moved to Yale. He became friendly with Inge Druckrey, a German-born designer and teacher who had studied in the 1960s at the Basel School of Design in Switzerland, then an incubator for modernist style. The two would talk about design theory, and Tufte would visit Druckrey’s classes to critique student work. Before long, the two began dating.
Soon, Tufte’s notes on information design had grown into a book-length manuscript. He showed it around to publishers, who insisted on redesigning many pages in the book, and imagined it as a niche title, only worth printing a couple thousand copies. Frustrated, Tufte took out a second mortgage on his home at 18 percent interest to print the book himself. He spent most of the next summer with a book designer named Howard Gralla. The two of them sat side by side in Gralla’s apartment, eating bagels and rearranging text so words and images would be woven together on the page. “Self-publishing,” Tufte told me, “allowed for an incredible, bizarre fussiness.”
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information came out in April 1983. To save costs, Tufte told the printer to bind only half of the initial print run of 5,000 copies. The book is now in its twentieth printing, and is one of the most successful self-published books of all time.
As one of his close friends, the psychologist and author Paul Ekman, told me, Tufte is a “profoundly unconventional fellow.” During those years in New Haven, Tufte would leave daily memos for his staff in a shoe box. One day, when he had been dating Druckrey for some time, his office manager came in to work, opened the shoe box, and saw a piece of torn paper that said, “Find out how to get married.” Druckrey was taken with Tufte’s intensity. “He was endlessly curious,” she told me. “He has this special eye and judgment, and was beaming with ideas.” In 1985, they married.
If Tufte’s first book was a critique, his second was a manifesto. Envisioning Information, published in 1990, implored readers to think of information design as a discipline that encompassed far more than the charts, tables, and other purely quantitative forms that had traditionally dominated the field. Graphics aren’t just useful for displaying numbers, in other words, but for clarifying just about anything one person is trying to tell someone else. The book opens with a print of a visitor’s guide to the Ise shrine in Japan and ends around 120 pages later with Galileo Galilei’s drawing of the rings of Saturn from 1613.
Galileo is Tufte’s greatest inspiration as a designer. “He is the best visual thinker ever, the best graphic designer ever,” Tufte once told me. During his courses, he pulls out an original copy from 1613 of Galileo’s Istoria e Dimostrazioni Intorno Alle Macchie Solari from a duffel bag, and opens it to a page with a passage describing Saturn and its rings. In the book, Galileo uses words and drawings laid out next to one another to show how the planet appeared on different nights. (“The shape of Saturn is thus as shown by perfect vision and perfect instruments,” Galileo writes, “but appears thus where perfection is lacking.”) It is the same idea that showed up almost 400 years later in Tufte’s sparklines.
“Galileo faced the same display issues, and I want to see how he solved them,” Tufte said one day in his library at his home in Connecticut. In doing research and making prints for his books, Tufte has insisted on working only from original documents, which has made him a rather prolific collector. In one visit to his library, Tufte showed me a Victorian book diagramming popular dance steps of the time, a sketchbook made by Pablo Picasso during his Paris years, and a copy of the Hypnerotomachia, a dreamlike love story that was printed in Venice in 1499, which Tufte bought at auction for $385,000. On another shelf was a first edition of Starry Messenger, Galileo’s book from 1610 that was the first to rely on observations from a telescope (which Tufte has since sold). “It is a reminder to be better, to work harder,” Tufte said.
Tufte’s books feel unattached from any time or place. They are anachronistic in their images, styling, and soft-beige paper, as if dropped into the present from a vague and altogether more genteel past. A woman in the audience at his course in Seattle said that when she first saw Tufte’s books she thought they were college textbooks long out of print; another man told me his friends at work had assumed “that guy named Edward Tufte” was British and died years ago.
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