1. Tufte, the Father of Eye-Candy Charts

Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, published in 1983, is probably the most influential book in the history of data visualization, and it is likely to remain so for some more time.

In his book, Tufte outlines for the first time a consistent theory of how a chart object should look like and why it should look like that. His guidelines are easy to understand and very quotable, not buried under six feet of abstractions. Think of well-known concepts like “data-ink ratio”, “data-density” or “chartjunk”: they all come from The Visual Display

However, too often these principles are taken as self-evident, somehow “discovered”, not invented. A fundamental clarification must be made: these are aesthetic principles that Tufte transposes (brilliantly) from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s minimalism to the field of data visualization. These are not universal principles backed up by scientific evidence. Some studies find them helpful, some studies say they are irrelevant, but their effectiveness is hard to measure and they should not be taken as indisputable laws (I call this the “what-would-tufte-say syndrome“).

Unlike other authors (Jacques Bertin, Tukey, William Cleveland), Tufte recognizes that only an aesthetic framework can structure the image (color management, the role of non-data objects, how to emphasize/de-emphasize elements in a chart…). This is clearly the realm of graphic design.

Using aesthetics to improve function is probably the major contribution of Edward Tufte to the display of quantitative information. Unfortunately, this idea that a chart can be an aesthetically pleasing object (“Beautiful Evidence”, the title of his latest book, says it all) went astray and gave birth to a whole industry of eye-candy visualization tools.

From Tufte’s positivist point of view, a chart is defined by how well it makes a pattern stand out. It may be boring but, if that is the case, then “you’ve got the wrong numbers”. His faith in human rationality is both charming and frightening…

2. Patterns, patterns, patterns. And something else.

There are so many misconceptions  to discuss about data visualization that we often forget to emphasize this simple true: data visualization is about pattern discovery, finding useful, actionable visual patterns hidden in the data and make them stand out. Let me repeat: it’s all about visual patterns.

Tufte would agree, but here is the fun part: there is nothing wrong with using 3D effects, textures, and all the decoration in the world. Use them! It is your good taste against Tufte’s. You don’t have to like minimalism. Add color, clipart, anything that you think can engage your audience.

I am not kidding. It’s you, not Tufte, who defines your aesthetic program. Almost anything goes. But, whatever you do:

  • Don’t design technically incorrect charts: do not distort a circle, do not use more than one series in a pie chart, do not make an object variate in two dimensions when you are using a single series, etc. Just common sense, really. And, of course, if you want to break the rules, know them first.
  • Don’t hide the patterns: find the patterns and make them visible. Remove everything except the series themselves. Now start embellishing your chart. But remember: every little thing you add multiplies the clutter and makes the patterns harder to see. You’ll have to find that point where the impact of eye-catching decoration on pattern visualization goes beyond an acceptable threshold.

Please note that minimalism was not randomly chosen. Not only it makes pattern discovery much simpler but also creates a framework to evaluate what belongs to the chart and what doesn’t belong. You can reject it, but if you don’t have a different framework you must decide on an ad hoc basis. Unless you are an accomplished graphic designer (and even then), a minimalist approach is a good start and it should help you to find your own style.

3. Emotions, Emotions, Emotions

Let’s face it: you don’t have much choice. If you do not want to sacrifice patterns, the amount of of decoration that you can actually use is very limited.

So, what do you do with that limited amount of decoration? Essentially you’ll try to create the right emotional response. This is not what you would expect from a over-positivist chart that you end up with by choosing the minimalist path.

Refusing to acknowledge the role of emotions in data visualization is a bizarre thing, considering that you can’t remove aesthetics from the equation, and we all have an emotional sense of Beauty. What many hardcore Tufte fans may consider chartjunk can actually keep the audience from turning the page.

4. Edward Tufte and Excel

Throughout his books, Tufte often refers to the higher resolution of paper, and how it outperforms the current screen resolutions. His sparklines are meant to be printed, because only then the fine details can be observed.

In Edward Tufte’s vision, each chart is unique, and deserves the attention of a work of art. He despises PowerPoint and hardly mentions Excel. His charting tool is Adobe Illustrator, where he is in full control of each small detail. He admonishes against patronizing the readers, but he never really discusses the audience as something that should be taken into account when designing a chart.

5. Knowledge Is Built by the User

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Much as changed in the last 27 years and you may think that Tufte’s The Visual Display… emphasizes the use of paper just because the extraordinary changes in information technology were still in their infancy back in 1983.

Thing is, that’s not the reason. The real reason is that Tufte always thought of a chart as a final product to be printed and handed to the audience, not something that could be manipulated by the audience.

There is a striking difference between Edward Tufte and Jacques Bertin. Bertin’s “reorderable matrix” is dynamic by definition, and and one of my preferred quotes summarizes perfectly his views:

“It is the internal mobility of the image which characterizes modern graphics. A graphic is no longer ‘drawn’ once and for all; it is ‘constructed’ and reconstructed (manipulated) until all the relationships which lie within it have been perceived.”

This was written in 1967, long before the PC was even imagined. Edward Tufte wants to design an efficient but elegant chart, Bertin wants to solve a business problem. There is no contradiction, one is not better than the other. They just serve different masters. (The image above is from Bertin’s Graphic Semiology and shows how a “dynamic chart” looked in 1967…)

Forty years have passed, but a vast majority of data users have no access to dynamic charts, either because they don’t have access to the right charting tools or they are unable to create those charts using their current tools (it is not that easy for a beginner to create a dynamic chart in Excel).

6. The Life Span of a Business Chart

In his essay “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint” Edward Tufte argues that the tool itself is intrinsically flawed. I agree with him. Tools are not neutral. They can be forced to do things against their will, but that’s never easy. You can create a dynamic chart in Excel, but it is difficult. You can even force Excel to work like Tableau, but that’s like reinventing the wheel. You can create good chart in Crystal Xcelsius, but that’s against its nature.

The point is, you can apply Edward Tufte’s principles by the book, but that means spending hours perfecting a chart in Illustrator and then printing it. I’d love to. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly how things work in a business environment. The life span of a business chart is short and the time to create it, even shorter. We cannot use Illustrator to create business charts.

7. Take-Away Points

Break away from Edward Tufte, but make sure you know why. Add emotion to your charts (rationally). Decide if the level of eye-candy your audience needs goes beyond what you are willing to add. Other things been equal, an interactive chart should need less eye-candy than a static one. Above all, show the patterns (but make sure your audience wants to see them).