I have a confession to make: my past is paved with chart-making sins, including some capital ones (yes, 3D pie charts, too). But years ago I saw the light in Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and since then I’ve been avoiding eye-candy temptations. Now I do my best to pursuit the path of data visualization virtue.
Every God Has His Moses: Edward Tufte and Stephen Few
Some time after that first revelation, I stumbled on Stephen Few’s Show Me the Numbers and I though: “wow, Tufte for business!”. As a father of twins, I know that good things come in pairs, and now I had two great role models to help my recent conversion.
Or should I say one and a half?
Edward Tufte and Stephen Few are often cited together, as if they were a single entity. For many of us, simple mortals, Stephen Few is some kind of translator of God’s voice. Given Few’s background, that wouldn’t be completely inappropriate…
For some time that’s how I looked at Few’s work on charts and data visualization. But I was wrong. They do share similar views about basic data visualization principles. And they seem to share the same level of stubbornness, too. But there is a major difference.
Tufte, the Artist vs. Few, the Engineer
Tufte is an artist. His data visualization principles derive from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s minimalism, and in that sense, he approaches charts from an aesthetic point of view. His charts are as beautiful as a chart can be, if you happen to like the aesthetic minimalism.
I don’t know how and when Few became aware of the need for better data visualization. But he embraced Tufte’s principles not because he is an aesthete like Tufte, but because he values efficiency and those principles happen to improve it.
Stephen Few would never title a book “Beautiful Evidence”. He doesn’t mind to use Excel to create his chart examples, while Tufte needs full control of details like kerning (and he uses a designer’s tool, Adobe’s Illustrator).
On the other hand, Tufte would never write a book about dashboards (Beautiful Dashboards? brrrr…). From an actionable, business visualization point of view, Tufte is The Visual Display… Almost everything else is beautiful, yes, and perfect for the coffee table.
And while Tufte escaped Flatland for good, Few still keeps both feet firmly on the ground, discussing BI tools, pie charts or irregular time series (and I don’t think his new book changes that).
The Need for a New Business Visualization Model: the Emotional Link
What I am not comfortable with is their positivist attitude, specially in Few. Because Tufte’s charts are aesthetically pleasing, we can derive some emotion from that. In Few’s case, his charts are purely functional.
I still don’t know where to draw the line between purely rational/functional visualizations and the eye-candy. Let’s see this pattern:
Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.
Do you feel emotionally overwhelmed? No? Do you even care about the story? Do you even care about the boy and the girl? Let’s try again:
John fell in love with Anna the moment she spilled coffee on his shirt.
This sounds much more interesting. Add three more sentences and you’ll complete the boy-meets-girl pattern. Both versions share the same pattern, but the second one adds some (perhaps irrelevant) detail and creates an emotional link between the audience and the characters.
You need that in data visualization, too. You don’t have to cry because you chart shows a market share drop in Alaska, but you must connect with the reality behind the chart and the data.
The Need for a New Business Visualization Model: Interaction
Jacques Bertin says that knowledge is built by the user when interacting with the chart. Why interaction (and animation) is absent from Tufte’s and Few’s books is something I don’t really understand.
Although I respect Tufte and Few, I feel that there are pieces missing in their theories. We can borrow some pieces from Bertin’s work (and Tukey’s?) and that will surely help, but the real issue here is to find the balance between the need to correctly (bureaucratically?) display the data and the emotional response that helps to keep the audience interested.
Back to you, a very simple question: what are Tufte and/or few missing? What pieces do we need for a XXI century visualization?