Edward Tufte: The Galileo of InfoGraphics

This month our blog is exploring visual communications. We are looking at everything from cave art to signage to infographics and beyond. Understanding visual communications such as infographics will help you identify ways you can communicate better and will help your audience have a better grasp on the information you are presenting.

When a designer hears “infographics” there is one name that comes to mind – Edward R. Tufte. So much so, he is even referred to as the “Galileo of Graphics.” Tufte recently explained in an interview with NPR that he is secretly working to make people smarter. Citing the strong connection between fine art and the sciences, his writings assert that the best data visualizations will pique audience’s interest and encourage reasoning.

A self-described generalist, Tufte holds a bachelors and masters degree in statistics from Stanford and a PhD in political science from Yale. His philosophy is that data visualization – the process of presenting information visually – is a necessary endeavor relevant to all disciplines.

Tufte’s most acclaimed book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, is accepted as a classic reference tool on the design of data visualization. Shown below, the second edition of this book includes the fundamentals of infographic design and an evaluation of 250 full color graphs, charts, and tables.



Tufte’s acclaim in the subject of infographics largely stems from his bold – and sometimes disputed – assertions on how best to present data. In his multiple writings on data visualization, Tufte has explored the concept of “chartjunk.” This is additional information on a graph, chart, or table that is not necessary to process the data being presented. He cited the  graph shown below as an example of chartjunk. Chartjunk goes hand-in-hand with his “data-ink ratio,” or the amount of ink used to represent data divided by the amount of ink used to print the graphic as a whole. Tufte explains that this ratio ought to be 1, as further ink beyond what’s needed to display the most information detracts from the data itself. Tufte-Chartjunk

Instead, Tufte proposes methods for presenting data that showcase the full breadth of information in a way that is concise and non-disruptive to the reader. In his book Beautiful Evidence, Tufte coins the term “sparkline,” calling these miniature visual cues “Intense, simple, word-sized graphics.” In the following example from Beautiful Evidence, the sparklines demonstrate glucose levels at text height and without pulling the readers attention. In addition to medical data, sparklines are frequently used to convey current stock market conditions, and in today’s digital age can be produced in real-time.

"Sparklines: Intense, simple, word-sized graphics" - Edward Tufte in his book Beautiful Evidence


Another takeaway from Tufte is the success of presenting small multiples. He explains that simplistic side-by-side comparisons of data on the same axis or chart are generally well understood. An example from Edward Tufte’s Envisioning Information shown below shows the idea of color coordination through small multiples.



How can Tufte’s teachings apply to your line of work?

Consider this: as a fervent opponent of PowerPoint, he has blamed the program for becoming a crutch on which presenters rely on for the outline of their speaking topics. Rather than depicting clear data that evokes reasoning, he asserts that PowerPoint provides an easy means to oversimplify data in favor of concluding a presentation.

Instead, he recommends briefing your audience with a fact-sheet distributed at the beginning of a presentation before delving into the material. To see Tufte present on his work, take a look at the video below that shows highlights from his lecture at Intelligence Squared in London in 2010.

Data visualization is an integral part of nearly all fields. Where have you seen blaring examples of chartjunk or the successful presentation of small multiples? Better yet, how can Tufte’s teachings improve the presentation and visualization of data you interact with in your line of work?

Julia Smith, Project Assistant
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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One thought on “Edward Tufte: The Galileo of InfoGraphics

  1. […] many professionals who are making a difference with visual communications that matter including: Edward Tufte and Ralph Keeling, as well as the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.We’ll start a new […]

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