I love good graphs. Ones that take a whole morass of messy data and elegantly communicate something significant from that data. So I loved reading Edward Tufte’s “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information“.
He talks about some delightful concepts: “data-ink” (the ink that communicates the urderlying data); “chartjunk” (the crap on charts that distracts from the communication of the data); “lie factor” (the degree to which a chart distorts the underlying data). And there are some fun snippets: Plotting time on the x-axis didn’t start happening until the 1700s; China had accurate maps of its territory plotted on grids in about 1100 while Europe didn’t catch up for hundreds of years.
But the point of blogging it here is its twofold relevance to business technology:
1. Some of the trickiest questions in software design are around how to communicate information clearly without over-complicating or trivialising. (cf The Doctor’s comments on dysfunctional dashboards).
2. A lot of his advice applies equally to software development generally.
Here are some choice quotes:
Occasionally designers seem to seek credit merely for possessing a new technology, rather than using it to make better designs. Computers and their affiliated apparatus can do powerful things graphically, in part by turning out the hundreds of plots necessary for good data analysis. But at least a few computer graphics only evoke the response “Isn’t it remarkable that the computer can be programmed to draw like that?” instead of “My, what interesting data.”
The best designs are intriguing and curiosity-provoking, drawing the viewer into the wonder of the data, sometimes by narrative power, sometimes by immense detail, and sometimes by elegant presentation of simple but interesting data.
Graphical excellence is that which gives the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.
Design is choice… The principles should not be applied rigidly or in a peevish spirit; they are not logically or mathematically certain; and it is better to violate any principle than to place graceless or inelegant marks on paper. Most principles of design should be treated with some scepticism, for word authority can dominate our vision, and we may come to see only through the lenses of word authority rather than with our own eyes.
What is to be sought in designs for the display of information is the clear portrayal of complexity. Not the complication of the simple; rather the task of the designer is to give visual access to the subtle and the difficult – that is, the revelation of the complex.