Edward R. Tufte’s Visual Explanations: In Truth, Beauty

We must communicate with one another in order to live. How we do so shapes our lives. Being aware of how we present and process data is our best hope of staying in front of our stories, as opposed to catching up and trying to explain. There are, of course, entire professions and swathes of life that offer advice and opportunities to learn or sharpen our communication skills. You can fill libraries with the books. In those libraries, you will find four books by Edward R. Tufte; The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative, and Beautiful Evidence. They will be the most beautiful books you will see – perhaps ever. Part and parcel with all that beauty, expect to find the sort of truths you can use on daily basis.

“You have to stay close to the empirical, observed world, and it has to have some credibility, some truth value…” Edward R.Tufte

Tufte’s strength is perfectly summarized in the title of his first book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. To say that the book is well-written is to miss much of the point, because the book is not so much written as composed, which is to say that every element on every page, every illustration, space, word, graphic, or chart is perfectly integrated, placed and printed so as to convey the most meaning with the most pleasure and the least effort. Four books, some seven-hundredish pages, and every single page is a frameable work of art, even when the pages themselves are discussing framed works of art.

In these four volumes, Tufte tells you everything you need to know to communicate effectively using all the tools now at your disposal, thanks to Moore’s Law and the ever-increasing specifications of displays, software and hardware. That said, Tufte is not about technology. For Edward Tufte, the equation that matters is, “In truth, beauty.” Crafting the proper framework for gathering the information, organizing the input and careful analysis of the data are requirements for presenting it in a manner that is both beautiful and effective.

tufte-visual_explnationsMake no mistake about it, these are books that you will refer to early and often. They please the eye with every page and make you think with every paragraph and every mind-boggling juxtaposition that Tufte creates. In Visual Explanations, Tufte devotes a chapter to magic as a means of conveying disinformation. If you understand how to do something backwards, doing it forwards stands a better chance at becoming intuitive behavior.

Thankfully, Tufte, an accomplished sculptor and artist, does not simply send down a message from his mountain every seven years or so. He spends that much time printing the books himself so he can achieve levels of clarity that are simply stunning. When he’s not composing a book, Tufte teaches a one-day course that includes all four books and a tight performance that drops the essentials into your brain. It’s the kind of class you never forget, because you will use what you’ve learned pretty much any time you have to communicate. It’s happily sticky stuff. His take on a graphic associated with the Napoleonic wars will definitely turn your head around.

For those who want to find out more – and it is well worth your valuable reading time – look at Tufte’s website where you can order the books and spend way too much money on prints. You can also find out where and when he’s teaching. It is more than worth the money and time; Tufte is teaching the skills we will need when our computers catch up with paper, which as he told me in our interview – is not yet – but perhaps closer rather than farther away.


Tutfe and I talked about the durability of books as a technology, and using graphics as characters, his sculpture, and some of the details in his books and seminar. I have to thank Jeffrey Freymann, who introduced me to Tufte’s work many years ago, and Moira Gunn, who introduced me to Edward Tufte while I was waiting at KQED. And of course, I have to thank Edward Tufte, not just for his great work, books I can look at for the rest of my life, an amazing course that has already helped my presentations – but also for the great conversation you can download by following this link, or listen to below.


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