Envisioning Information

Edward Tufte, 2006
(Re)read September 2010

Tufte has written several masterpieces on information design. Envisioning Information gives many examples of information design where the information is complex and detailed, yet the designs are clear, beautiful, and thoughtful. Along with many images, Tufte gives principles for the organization and design of complex information dealing with time, physical characteristics, and other elements that can be difficult to describe visually. While I do not expect to be creating infographics at the level of complexity or detail of those found in this book, I found 3 chapters in particular provide helpful principles to keep in mind.

For example, in “Micro/Macro Readings,” Tufte addresses the issue of information overload, and the misconception (in his view) that data must be boiled down and simplified. His response to these concerns is that “Clutter and confusion are failures of design, not attributes of information” (51). In “Layering and Separation,” Tufte explains Josef Albers’ principle “1 + 1 = 3 or more,” meaning that two visual elements can combine to create unintentional distracting by-products. And in “Color and Information,” he shows examples of both good and bad uses of color in graphs and maps. Color can be extremely effective when “small spots of intense, saturated color” contain important information (63) particularly against a muted field (83). Overall, Tufte stresses the importance of the data, not the design, standing out. He writes that designs should be “so good that they are invisible” (33). While I agree largely with Tufte, I do think that this last idea is sometimes a matter of taste. Overall, this is an extremely readable book with beautiful examples and thoughtful principles that will no doubt come back to me well beyond the next year.

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