Meet Edward Tufte, the graphics guru to the power elite who is revolutionizing how we see data.
After the publication of Envisioning Information, Tufte decided, he told me, “to be indifferent to culture or history or time.” He became increasingly consumed with what he calls “forever knowledge,” or the idea that design is meant to guide fundamental cognitive tasks and therefore is rooted in principles that apply regardless of the material being displayed and the technology used to produce it. As Tufte explains it, basic human cognitive questions are universal, which means that design questions should be universal too. “I purposely don’t write books with names like How to Design a Web Site or How to Make a Presentation,” he told me.
This attitude puts him in opposition, at least in his own mind, to much of the contemporary design world. As Tufte sees it, graphic design has become a tragic field, a rich and storied craft knowledge that has been taken out of the realm of “nonfiction,” as he calls it, and into that of “fiction,” or marketing and propaganda. He told me several times of his contempt for “commercial art,” the graphic design that is “part of a fashion and a style and will be different someday.” Most designers, he said, want to do something new each time. “But I’m interested in the solved problem,” he said. “I’m interested in high art and real science.”
Some designers have questioned whether Tufte’s reverence for elegance and accuracy can verge on dogmatism, with too little consideration of context or audience. “The world is not filled with professional statisticians,” said Donald Norman, the codirector of the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University and the author of The Design of Everyday Things. “Many of us would like a quick glance just to get a good idea of something. If a graph is made easier to understand by such irrelevancies as a pile of oil cans or cars, then I say all the better.” (Tufte deflects this criticism by pointing out that Norman has been a paid consultant to Microsoft; Norman says his consulting work has nothing to do with his own thinking and writing.)
But when Tufte feels sure of something—which is to say, quite often—he can have little interest in entertaining criticism. “There are some people who have reached a certain position in life and will be amused and interested in a contrary opinion, and have a scholarly banter about it,” said Christopher Pullman, who taught in the design program at Yale on and off since the 1960s. “But that’s not Tufte.”
After decades of battling over the proper use of two dimensional space, Tufte has turned much of his attention in recent years to a new undertaking: outdoor sculpture. It is perhaps no coincidence that he called his first piece, made in 1997, Escaping Flatland—a name that not only describes the work’s bending waves of stainless steel that jut out from the ground, but also evokes a sort of personal emancipation. “So much of what I did before was a war against stupidity,” he told me not long ago. “With sculpture it’s just about private pleasure.”
A couple of years ago, the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, not far from Tufte’s house in Connecticut, invited him to put on a solo exhibition of his work, which mainly consists of abstract pieces built at extremely large scale. “On to the fourth career,” Tufte joked with friends. The exhibition ran until the spring of 2010; then, in April, Tufte signed a lease for an empty gallery space on West Twentieth Street in New York’s Chelsea arts district to continue showing his work. One day over the summer, Tufte was in the gallery making some final adjustments. One long, crane-necked metal sculpture wasn’t quite catching the light, and a piece that looks like a cartoonish lunar module had to be shifted so it was more visible through the gallery’s picture windows.
Tufte had just returned from Washington. Pro bono consulting for government has meant a rather noticeable lifestyle change—in the past, when Tufte traveled to Washington to teach his courses, he stayed at the Hay-Adams, a stately hotel on Lafayette Square, just across from the White House. Now the government puts him up at the Crowne Plaza across the river in Arlington, Virginia, which, as Tufte described it, seems to be “largely populated by fifteen-year-olds from North Dakota.” He showed me his GSA Smart Pay Travel Card, the government-issued credit card that federal employees and contractors use to pay for expenses. “Soldiers have them, too,” he said, his voice buoyant and proud. He laughed. “But it comes with stern prohibitions about the minibar.”
So far, Tufte’s most visible contribution to Recovery.gov is a map that he designed, which shows the rollout of 101,236 stimulus projects between February 2009 and December 2010 as a proliferating series of white lights overlaid on top of a nighttime map of the United States. Tufte has been pushing Devaney and the board to do more with the data it collects and faster. But acquainting Tufte with the slow, procedural pace of bureaucracy has been the greatest challenge, Devaney told me. “Tufte drives race cars,” Devaney said, “and most people in Washington drive tanks.”
We took a walk around the gallery, stepping past a large, bemused-looking fish cast in divoted shiny metal. Tufte started telling me about the official appointment letter that he was issued by the White House. It is an ornate and formal document, with the president’s signature in the lower left corner. Soon after receiving it, Tufte took it to a frame shop near his house in Connecticut. The framer came back with a proposal. It’s too square, he told Tufte, not at all the sort of “golden rectangle” that artists and designers tend to favor. Perhaps he could cut a few inches here and there to make it look more presentable in the frame? Tufte politely declined. “That’s the very reason I’m here!” he told me, laughing. “To fight against decoration replacing precious substance.”
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