(Reprinted with permission from Dr. Dobb's Electronic Review of Computer Books, written by Ray Duncan.)

All of us technical writers, at one time or another, have had our explanations of some complex topic mangled into unrecognizability by a well-meaning but technically clueless editor, or found our work embellished with a callout or cover blurb that bore no sensible relation to (or even directly contradicted!) the content. On such occasions, we mutter dark threats and entertain pleasant fantasies of an alternate universe where we could personally shepherd our brilliant prose all the way from manuscript to newsstand or bookstore. Realistically, of course, hardly any of us have the design, editing, publishing, and marketing talents to pull off such a stunt at all, let alone end up with a product that could bear comparison against the mainstream.

On the other hand, there’s Edward R. Tufte and his increasingly famous series of books about the graphical representation of data. Tufte, an artist, scholar, and entrepreneur of the first rank, assumes responsibility for his books at every level from beginning to end, even unto the direct-mail advertising campaigns. I wouldn’t be too surprised to find out he personally hand-picks and chops down the trees that are used to make the paper. The books are elegantly written and crisply executed on highest quality stock with gorgeous four-color figures throughout, some quite elaborate (foldouts, overlays, popups, etc.). And, perhaps due to the elimination of much of the traditional overhead of publishing and distribution, they are delivered to us at a remarkably low price.

About his three books on information design, which have appeared over a thirteen-year period, Tufte says:

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is about pictures of numbers, how to depict data and enforce statistical honesty.

Envisioning Information is about pictures of nouns (maps and aerial photographs, for example, consist of a great many nouns lying on the ground). Envisioning also deals with visual strategies for design: color, layering, and interaction effects.

Visual Explanations is about pictures of verbs, the representation of mechanism and motion, of process and dynamics, of causes and effects, of explanation and narrative. Since such displays are often used to reach conclusions and make decisions, there is a special concern with the integrity of the content and the design.

From a reader’s perspective, the topical distinctions between the books are not so clear-cut. Visual Display (Graphics Press, $40 postpaid) was startling in its originality, eclecticism, and cost-is-no-object presentation. It stood in the same relation to its predecessors as did Star Wars to earlier science-fiction movies.Envisioning Information (Graphics Press, $48 postpaid), while visually handsome, seemed relatively shallow. Visual Explanations is clearly the best.

Tufte continues to evolve his own unique style, which tightly integrates a direct but spare narrative with stunning illustrations drawn from hundreds of years of manuscripts. The graphics are so closely interwoven with the text, in fact, that they sometimes substitute for traditional chapter subheads, signaling a change of topic and providing a context for the following discussion.

Every part of Visual Explanations is engrossing. The heart of the book, a chapter entitled “Visual and Statistical Thinking,” is based on analyses of the London cholera epidemic of 1854 and the Challenger disaster of 1986.

The latter includes reproductions of defective graphs and charts used before the launch (by the Thiokol managers and engineers) and after (by the investigators). One can’t help but be shocked by the carelessness with which the lives of the astronauts were thrown away by the NASA bureaucracy and how effectively the true roots of the disaster were subsequently swept under the carpet.

Above, a scatterplot shows the experience of all 24 launches prior to the Challenger [on January 28, 1986]. Like the table, the graph reveals the serious risks of a launch at 29 degrees. Over the years, the O-rings had persistent problems at cooler temperatures: indeed, every launch below 66 degrees resulted in damaged O-rings; on warmer days, only a few flights had erosion. In this graph, the temperature scale extends down to 29 degrees, visually expressing the stupendous extrapolation beyond all previous experience that must be made in order to launch at 29 degrees. The coolest flight without any O-ring damage was at 66 degrees, some 37 degrees warmer than predicted for the Challenger, the forecast of 29 degrees is 5.7 standard deviations distant from the average temperature for previous launches. This launch was completely outside the engineering database accumulated in 24 previous flights.

The detection of visual misinformation, whether intentional (as in cigarette package and billboard health warnings) or unintentional, is an important underlying theme throughout the book. A lengthy chapter on “Explaining Magic” demonstrates how tricks deceive the eye of the layman, how they are passed down from one generation of magicians to the next by means of closely guarded texts and diagrams, and, by counter-example, how data can be presented without misdirection. Additional chapters on “Smallest Effective Difference,” “Parallelism,” “Multiples in Space and Time,” and “Visual Confections” draw from sources as diverse as Jean de Brunhoff and Galileo to convey their lessons. At the end, the reader closes this book with a sigh of satisfaction and deep admiration.

(This book is available directly from Graphics Press, Box 430, Cheshire, CT 06410; 203/272-9187.)

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