The Best Charts and Graphs. And Software Development

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.”

and

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.

and

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.

and

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.

and

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.

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3 thoughts on “The Best Charts and Graphs. And Software Development

  1. Alan,

    I love Tufte. I think one of the best books on information design/charting is Stephen Few’s Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data.

    It’s phenomenal and goes through all the charting and graphing design elements with of specificity that I found very helpful.

    Stephen also has a blog at http://perceptualedge.com/blog/.

    Tony

  2. Mike O.

    I’m a fan of Tufte as well. I had the opportunity to attend one of his courses http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/courses in December 2008. I give it a high recommendation. I think it had much more to do with critical thinking than presenting information but, valuable none-the-less. The course is a bargain too, as you will receive 4 of his books as well as the day of instruction.

    Your thoughts about the application of this information to software development make sense because E.T. is as much about critical thinking as he is about good graphics \ visualization of information.

    I would agree that PowerPoint gets over used and abused (as well as Excel) but, E.T. holds a particular disdain for slideware http://www.edwardtufte.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=0001yB&topic_id=1
    It is really a challenge to not use PowerPoint. E.T recommends a handout on 11 X 17 paper, front and back printing, folded in half, with the content designed to make the audience think. This is exactly what he used for the course.

    The link to Perceptual Edge looks interesting. I will add it to my RSS reader. Here is another similar site with interesting thoughts related to graphical presentation that I enjoy http://infosthetics.com/

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