Magazine article National Forum

Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities

Magazine article National Forum

Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities

Article excerpt

EDWARD R. TUFTE. Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, 1997.156 Pages. $45.00.

Visual Explanations is the third gospel of visual design according to Yale professor Edward Tufte. The Biblical allusion is only slight hyperbole; Tufte's previous award-winning books, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and Envisioning Information, have attracted an extraordinary following among a diverse crowd ranging from journalists to artists to scientists our modem-day Peters and Doubting Thomases. The power of these books lies in their ability to explicate the mysteries at the intersection of the human eye and the graphic. What are the Ten Commandments or Beatitudes of visual design? Tufte's books state them with authority, backed by beautiful and meticulously self-published figures that cogently communicate the underlying principles like wordless parables.

Tufte explains in the introduction that while his first two books dealt with pictures of numbers and nouns, respectively, Visual Explanations is about pictures of verbs - that is, the vexing task of representing the stories of action and motion pictorially. As such, this book is relentlessly multidisciplinary, and devotes considerable attention to visual representation in science and engineering.

Two of Tufte's scientific case studies make for the most compelling reading in the book. His description of John Snow's landmark discovery of the cause of an 1854 cholera outbreak in London explains more about visual design and the scientific method in eleven pages than you can find anywhere else.

Tufte then turns his keen eye and stern judgment to the role of graphics in the fateful decision to launch the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. His research into this complex case is simply remarkable; it reminds me of old Quincy, M.E., reruns in which the medical examiner beats the police to the murderer because his unique perspective reveals what is hidden to others. In the case of the Challenger, Tufte cuts through the blizzard of discussion of bureaucracies, rockets, and O-rings to a tragic flaw of visual miscommunication: "Had the correct scatterplot or data table been constructed, no one would have dared to risk the Challenger in such cold weather." Even if you disagree with this conclusion, Tufte's case, agonizingly constructed, is impossible to ignore.

After this thrilling beginning, Visual Explanations loses a bit of steam as it surveys other, less captivating (to me) subjects. …

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