Monday, February 7, 2011

About Jaanga: Tufte is so Old School, Tufte is so New Cool

We can say that Edward Tufte is the world's chief curator on the visual display of quantitative information. As says. Tufte wants you to "show people as much data as possible with as little ornamentation as possible". Tufte has been doing this sunce 1975 and there's probably no one better at doing this than Tufte.

But what is the "this" that Tufte does?

With his books, Tufte provides example of some of the greatest charts ever produced.

With his seminars, Tufte show you how to make nice charts.

With both of these along with his web site, Tufte establishes some really solid principles regarding what typically comprises an attractive chart.

So what is there not too like about Tufte?

Unlike his mentor (John Tukey - of whom we will have a lot to say about in future posts), Tufte offers little in the way of a technical guidance as to how to manipulate and massage the numbers. Tufte is much more of a graphics designer than a number crunching statistician.

Tufte is very much informed and captivated by print media. With Tufte you can smell the fine paper and leather binding, but you can't click on a link. What's missing is the hubble-bubble of the Internet - the interactive, in-your-face animated barrage of  content, style and behaviors.

This last point is tendentious: Tufte is engulfed by the primacy of the word. Look at his web site - as shown just above - the only graphic (until you scroll) is a rendering of his initials, which in turn are a word play on the resemblance to a character in a famous science fiction movie. When you look at the cover to his first book - see the image at the top of this post - what strikes you first are the words much more than the thin image of the chart.

Perhaps his greatest (and only?) invention is the sparkline. What is a sparkline? It is a technique of embedding a very tiny chart inside a line of - guess what? - text. Case closed.

There is much to learn and admire in the work of Tufte. But with the deluge of data on the Internet we need to to explore and consider other avenues of presenting quantitative data that go beyond what we could do with paper.

We need tools that can handle process massive amounts of real-time data.
We need interaction, animation, and 3D.
We need a visual vocabulary as opposed to a vocabulary of word.

Future posts will look at the work John Tukey and other information architects. And, of course, these will be posts (unlike Tufte's books) where there's plenty you can actually double-click.