Interview: Edward Tufte’s vision for infographics

Where is data visualization heading? SwissInfographics met with Edward Tufte, who talked about 3D graphics and data collection.

Every year, Edward Tufte tours the US from New York to Los Angeles via Austin, Phoenix or Atlanta. In all, he’s performed in front of more than 250’000 people, but he’s not a rock star; he runs one-day courses in how to present data more effectively. The man nicknamed the “Leonardo da Vinci of data” by The New York Times has become an infographics guru preaching a gospel of clear, precise and functional information design. His four books, including the highly acclaimed “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information”, have sold more than two million copies worldwide.

Tufte’s work has had a significant impact: in 2010, Barack Obama appointed him to a special advisory panel with the mission “to provide transparency in the use of Recovery-related funds.” Since then, he has created data visualizations showing how the government’s economic stimulus package is being spent around the country. Prior to that, his analysis of communication shortcomings at NASA had revealed how a bad PowerPoint presentation may have influenced the Columbia space shuttle disaster of 2003.

What are the most import developments in the graphical display of data in recent years?

Until recently, we could either print graphics on paper at a very high resolution but with little opportunity to interact with the data, or use computers which displayed the data at a lower resolution. And while computers offered interactive access to the information, the graphical interface usually came between the user and the data: scroll bars, for example, can take up to 10% of the available space.

However, the situation has changed drastically with the use of tactile interfaces combined with a new generation of screens such as the retina display found on the iPad: we now have an interface that shows the data in high resolution and allows the user to interact with it directly, without intrusion from computer artefacts. This opens up the opportunity for making advances in data visualization.

What kind of visualizations can we expect?

An important development will be three-dimensional data visualizations plus the time dimension. There are many more things that can be visualized in this space, but they’re more difficult to grasp. We already know how to handle and represent two-dimensional spreadsheets. Now we need more strategies and tools for seeing in three dimensions and “escaping flatland”.

What else will change in the process of making infographics?

We need to understand better where the data comes from and the methods used to collect it. Representing data is one thing, but doing it in a valid and unbiased way is quite another. Often, the measurement techniques have a huge influence on the quantitative outcome. For example, a scientist measuring pollution in a river may, paradoxically, look for a clear patch of water in which to dip his sampler, just because he likes to see his device while working. This will have a direct impact on the measurements. Knowing it will tell us a lot about the data and how to represent it.

Your wife, Inge Druckery is known for having promoted the Swiss style in the US. How relevant is this style for today’s information design?

It’s much better than post-modernism! The Swiss style is based on good design principles. However, while some of those principles are fully valid, the idea of a “style” itself is not. Styles are part of art. They’re like fashion: they come and go. Unlike art, scientific data visualizations are trying to show a truth. Their design should be timeless.

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