Variation is the message: some gems from Tufte

by phil on Tuesday Aug 3, 2004 10:47 PM
Tufte, Edward

Edward Tufte (pronounced TUFF-tee) is the kind of guy I want to be like. He has crafted his own niche that he is the master of, that of visual explanations. Check out 5 of his books.

Him and Clay Shirky have generally become idols for me. They fit into a pattern of guys who saw what others did not, and then simultaneously became the master in it. When will I find my unique mastery? (just kidding in some regards, my sense of self-contentment shouldn't rest on such lofty goals)


I like the emphasis Tufte makes in Envisioning Information on "variation."

A few choice quotes.

(R. A. Fisher, the founder of modern statistics, the founder of modern statistics, wrote in 1925:)

The populations which are the object of statistical study always display variation in one or more respects. To speak of statistics as the study of variation also serves to emphasize the contrast between the aims of modern statisticians and those of their predecessors. For until comparatively recent times, the vast majority of workers in this field appear to have had no other aim than to ascertain aggregate, or average, values. The variation itself was not an object of study, but was recognized rather as a troublesome circumstance which detracted from the value of the average. the error curve of the mean of a normal sample has been familiar for a century, but that of the standard deviation was the object of researches up to 1915. Yet, from the modern point of view, the study of the causes of variation of any variable phenomenon, from the yield of wheat to the intellect of [people], should be begun by the examination and measurement of the variation which presents itself.

(p. 21-23)

This air pollution display is a small multiple, with the same design structure repeated for all the images. An economy of perception results; once viewers decode and comprehend the design for one slice of data, they have familiar access to data in all the other slices. As our eye moves from one image to the next, this constancy of design allows viewers to focus on changes in information rather than changes in graphical composition.

(p. 29)

This reminds me of the Gould article The Median is NOT the message which emphasized the importance of interpreting doctors' advice, and how it gave him the optimism necessary to live well past his predicted date of death for cancer.


Other bits from the same book.....

"If the numbers are boring, then you've got the wrong numbers." (p. 34)

and the idea that overviews are great because the allow for quick "local comparisons"

// Separate note about writing: "What E. B. White said of writing is equally true for information design: 'No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader's intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing.'" (p. 34-35)

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