Bloggers and particularly web and print designers consider Edward Tufte a guru. He's a professor emeritus at Yale, a sculptor, and perhaps the world's foremost authority on how to be clear and accurate when presenting complex information visually. Beautiful Evidence is his latest book. It is a lovely book, a manifesto, a screed, very personal, and also, in its own elegant way, a bit of a mess.
The book is full of brilliant ideas and strategically repeated concepts. He has two overarching messages:
1. That human beings are very good at understanding and interpreting remarkably dense and complicated representations of information, from large statistical tables to vast and precise visual maps, so we deserve to see that kind of detailed data analysis rather than the facile and trivial "chartjunk" so often generated by PowerPoint and other low-resolution tools.
2. That visual representations work best when treated as an integral part of every piece of work, so that diagrams, photos, charts, tables, and graphs should appear within the text they're part of, rather than abstracted away because of the false limitations of printing or display technology.
The book is also a lovely piece of design that takes its own advice, ensuring that the many example photos, charts, tables, and diagrams sit right where they should, near the text that discusses them--sometimes even being repeated in several locations so you never have to flip back and forth to find what Tufte is talking about. I learned a ton.
On the other hand, Beautiful Evidence is surprisingly slapdash.Read more ›
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Full disclosure: I am a Tufte fanboy. I want everyone to read Tufte. Of all my book collection, I think they might be the ones I'd save first from a raging fire.
If you're familiar with Tufte's previous books, which have something of a 'handbook' feel to them, this one is a more erudite, extra-disciplinary, philosophical extension. The ground is less familiar, less quantitative, ranging more freely into other fields, especially the visual arts.
If you're not familiar with Tufte, this might or might not be the book to start with. If you're interested in his work on information design and the presentation of data, I would suggest perhaps not starting here. Buy Envisioning Information or Visual Explanations first. But if you're interested in his work as a sculptor or his views as an art critic, this is the one for you. If you're interested in book design and typography, or just want to read something original and thought-provoking, any of Tufte's books will fit the bill equally well.
Second thoughts, whoever you are, just buy this book and lose yourself in Tufte's beautiful world.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
790 of 820 people found the following review helpful
A disappointmentJuly 18 2006
- Published on Amazon.com
I finished tufte last night... what a disaster, or perhaps sunk with high expectations.
I'm a huge fan of dr. tufte's very influential writing on information visualization - as far as I know he's done the best work in the field. But this book - while simply physically and visually stunning - is a real disappointment.
In this work I read about 20% insight, 40% recycled material and preaching to what is probably the choir (this includes an overly repetitious chapter-long discussion of minard's lovely march to moscow graphic & his previously available power point piece), and 40% filler & drek. I don't find his comments on art, writing styles, baseball, and the like to be terribly compelling, and are certainly done better in many other works - and indeed, his thoughts on these ended up as being pretty grating and condescending, if not just wrong.
And that the book ends with several pages of photos (a few of really poor quality, I might add) his own outdoor artwork (which are of passable quality, but what the *bleep* does this have to do with evidence as defined at the front of the book?) only throws salt on the wounds.
This thing is maddeningly inconsistent. I wish I could simply dismiss the work, but it's full of beauty and joy as well as the bad. Sparklines are fun, but could be improved on. Words + images combined inline, some great stuff there. But while some of the really lovely things, like the translations of galileo, are wonderful and exciting to any science-loving person, they really are pretty pointless to the conversation at hand. He has gone straight down since his first major book - a 5+ star effort, the 2nd, 4.5-5 stars, 3rd, 3 stars, and this is about a 2 star one (2.5+ if you haven't read the others.)
If he'd stop believing his sycophants and stop taking himself so seriously in his quest to convince the reader that he's a high priest on a moral crusade it'd be wonderful. He really does try to convince the reader that this topic is of high moral concern - not just sometimes, but in general. I don't buy it.
And you shouldn't buy this if you haven't read his other works (although if you haven't I'll admit you'll probably like this, you just don't know any better ;-)). Read the staggeringly good "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information" or the wonderful "Envisioning Information". And if you must read this, soak up the good points, and try not to grind your teeth with the rest.
205 of 225 people found the following review helpful
A great guide for what to do with high-resolution display devicesJune 28 2006
- Published on Amazon.com
Out of all of the great ideas that are in this book, I am going to concentrate on the ones that relate to "what can be done with high-resolution display devices," such as 1200 dpi printers. An increasing amount of contemporary design is done for low-resolution displays, such as television and computer monitors. If we get a 1200 dpi version of one of these designs, as is easily possible with an inexpensive laser printer, we are not getting much benefit from that increased resolution. A lot of the ideas in Beautiful Evidence can be used today with Web scripts that generate PDF files to be printed. The rest of the ideas will be waiting for designers 20 years from now when computer monitors finally catch up to paper.
dea 1: Sparklines (there are examples on the author's Web site). Tufte points out that nothing stops the modern printer from including small graphs right in-line with text or tables and that these graphs make comparisons much easier. Baseball fans will enjoy Tufte's depiction of a baseball season, first for one team and then for all teams. Tufte argues convincingly that showing history in a "sparkline" reduces "recency bias, the persistent and widespread over-weighting of recent events in making decisions."
Idea 2: Forcing people to write English sentences instead of PowerPoint bullets results in a lot more clarity, especially with respect to causality.
Idea 3: If you're running a business, figure out how to pack a huge amount of information, including sparklines, onto a single 11×17″ sheet of paper and print it out on a laserprinter, then give it to decision makers. With that one sheet of paper, they will have as much information as 15 computer screenfuls or 300 PowerPoint slides.
A thought-provoking book that will reward repeat scrutiny.
125 of 137 people found the following review helpful
Perhaps the best of a superb seriesJuly 3 2006
- Published on Amazon.com
This is the fourth of Edward Tufte's books on the graphical display of information, and one might fear that he might be stretching the point too far and running out of ideas. One would be wrong, however, because this is a wonderful book, and is possibly the best of the four. It is a must-have, must-read, must-understand, must-apply sort of book. No one who is seriously interested in preparing illustrations for conveying information can afford to be unfamiliar with Tufte's ideas.
Inevitably there is some overlap with the earlier books, but this is deliberate policy, not carelessness. As Tufte makes clear, it is better to repeat information than to expect readers to hunt for it somewhere else. Many potentially useful books have been rendered much more difficult to use than they ought to be, at worst by gathering together the artwork in one place, far away from the text that it relates to, or, slightly less bad, by failing to ensure that it appears on the same double-page spread as its accompanying text. Tufte doesn't even believe in referring to tables and figures by numbers, because he considers that any illustration can just be introduced with "here" or "in this example", etc., if it is properly placed. This is what he practises himself, but the technical demands of commercial publishers will make it difficult advice to follow, unfortunately. However, with modern computer-based publishing it ought to become easy in the future if enough pressure is put on publishers. If Galileo could integrate all of his diagrams into his text, why can we not do that now, with far more technical aids at our disposal than were available to him?
The main new idea that appears in Beautiful Evidence is the description of sparklines: small, data-intense, word-like graphics -- word-like in the sense that a sparkline can appear right in the middle of a sentence, but can contain the equivalent of hundreds of numbers. Sparklines are ideal for conveying time series, such as a series of blood-glucose measurements for a diabetes patient. With suitable shading they can indicately instantly whether the measurements fall within the normal ranges.
Tufte's short pamphlet about the presentation software PowerPoint, previously available as a separate publication, now appears as a chapter in Beautiful Evidence. His main points are that PowerPoint slides are typically so low in information-content that they insult the audiences they are directed towards, and that bulleted lists of slogans are just a pretence at supplying real arguments.
Charles Joseph Minard's map of Napoleon's invasion of Russia already played a prominent role in the first book in the series, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, and it reappears here, with a whole chapter devoted to analysing it. This is space well used, because to emulate Minard it is essential to go beyond a casual appreciation of his work as excellent; it demands a careful analysis of what it is that makes it excellent.
77 of 84 people found the following review helpful
Is there something new? Absolutely.July 18 2006
- Published on Amazon.com
Edward Tufte's three previous books -- The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, and Visual Explantions -- were good purchases. They're the sort of book that I go back to again and again, sometimes just browsing through just to get a little inspiration.
Consequently, I looked forward to receiving Tufte's fourth major book on information design, Beautiful Evidence. There was something different about reading this book compared to the others, though. Tufte has posted several sections on his discussion board well in advance to get feedback on the ideas. I was one of the many "Kindly Contributors," as Tufte calls them, on those chapters, particularly one on phylogenetic trees. Further, one chapter had already been printed as a little booklet on PowerPoint. It so successful that it went to two editions.
Furthermore, a cursory glance reveals many examples that Tufte has already talked about at some length in his earlier three books. There's the works of Galileo. There is a whole chapter about Minard's chart of Napolean's march towards Moscow, which Tufte pretty much single-handedly made famous in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, in which he said it might be the best statistical graph ever. High praise from a demanding taskmaster!
Given that a good chunk of the book was already familiar to me, was there anything new to be learned? Absolutely.
The first chapter concerns annotating pictures, which Tufte calls "mapped images." Right away, two of the books themes emerge. First, the importance of integration of different types of data. Here, pictures are the focus with the words providing supplemental information. Second, a concern is raised about dubious evidence, with the work of Ernst Mössel. Mössel tried to create a universal description of art, but ended up with a system that was so all encompassing that it could not be shown to be wrong.
The second chapter continues on the theme of integrating information in Tufte's concept of sparklines. Sparklines are little mini graphs that are meant to be fully incorporated into text. A few people are experimenting with these, and there are a few sparkline plug-ins for word processors that can be found on the web. It will be interesting to see if any high end technical journal will consider using these routinely.
The next chapter concerns using lines to link together. Tufte argues that most lines are underutilized, and could contain much more information and be much more useful than they usually are.
The fourth chapter is, to my mind, the heart of the book: "Words, numbers, images -- together." That statement is simple, but the many excellent examples make this a deep exploration of the idea. A chapter section on Galileo's work is wonderful. Every scientist knows Galileo's contributions, but seeing them through Tufte's words and pictures gave me a much deeper appreciation of the impact Galileo had. Tufte credits Galileo with a "forever idea," which, in a word, might be "empiricism." More to the theme of the book, however, Tufte uses Galileo's work to show how his arguments were enhanced by an integration of word and image. Again, this is an idea that Tufte has talked about before, that good displays put many comparisons in "eyespan," but the point is pushed farther in this book than before.
Similarly, the fifth chapter on Minard's chart is worth Tufte's revisit, as he uses it to exemplify powerful general principles we can learn about how to make "intense" displays that generate credible, powerful evidence. One simple example lesson from this chapter: sign your work. Credibility is enhanced by accountability.
Bad evidence, which had been introduced in the beginning, returns in force in the next two chapters, the second of which contains Tufte's already famous indictment of PowerPoint. Making a graph, Tufte argues, is an ethical act. Again, this is not a new idea for Tufte, since he introduced the "lie factor" in his first book. What is new is his argument that consuming such information is also an ethical act. Too often, we are lazy and don't hold liars accountable. These are powerful and important messages in an age of spin and truthiness. As I've said before, a lie left unchallenged gains the perception of truth.
The book's last chapter, on pedastals for sculptures, is the weakest and could have been omitted. It is disconnected from the rest of the book. The book, after all, is supposed to be about evidence. Nobody that I know of has ever claimed that scultural pedastals were ever intended or perceived to be evidence. Instead, the chapter showcases one of Tufte's other interests, outdoor abstract scultures. Still, Tufte's passion and thoughtfulness still shines, so much so that this deviant chapter is almost forgivable. Almost.
Similarly, I am puzzled by the choice of dust cover, which shows a series of pictures of one of Tufte's dogs leaping into a lake. Beautiful they may be, but are they evidence? If so, of what?
And I'll put out just one more thing that annoyed me in the text. In a few points, Tufte suggests that we ask ourselves, "What would Richard Feynman think?" I find this just as annoying as, "What would Jesus do?" I have no way of knowing how bright (Feynman) and profound (Jesus) people will respond to new and novel situations. Isn't this one of the reasons we find these people to be bright or profound? It's more useful to invoke their principles than trying to use imprecise empathy to figure out what to do. Particularly when I ask, "What have I done?" and see that I've approached the same problems in several different ways, often with equal success. In other words, when I see a bad graph, I think it's more useful to think of one of the many simple but deep ideas presented in Beautiful Evidence ("Show comparisons, contrasts, differences") instead of asking, "How would Tufte redesign this graph?" I could only really answer the latter question if I have buckets of money to try to hire Tufte as a consultant.
Finally, I am left wondering about cases where the evidence may be highly credible -- but is not beautiful. While working on this review, I was reading a scientific paper (Pellmyr, Olle & Leebens-Mack, James. 1999. Forty million years of mutualism: Evidence for Eocene origin of the yucca-yucca moth association. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 96: 9178-9183). The evidence is highly credible and believable, but I daresay that it is not beautiful. The argumentation is precise, but deadening. Tufte talks about ways that flawed evidence may be concealed (second hand repackaging: e.g., textbooks presenting summaries of technical papers that very few have read). But papers like this raise another way that flawed evidence might hide that Tufte does not discuss: "If it's incomprehensible, it must be brilliant." People have become accustomed to research using techniques that are so new, few people understand them. Unintelligibility itself becomes an indication of credibility. That's bad. I think there's more to be said here, but perhaps that will be Tufte's book five, since the introduction promises he has more to say on the subject.
This book is, of course, going to be widely read and highly praised. But I don't think it will it be read enough. It is frustrating to read something like this advocating ethical scholarship and standards for evidence when there are new books that flat out lie about science. And when you can lie about science -- that part of human endeavor that Galileo transformed with his forever idea that it was all about evidence -- you can lie about anything.
To do your bit to kill truthiness, you could do much worse than following the principles in Beautiful Evidence.
35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
More masterful examples of the same solid principlesAug. 28 2006
Todd I. Stark
- Published on Amazon.com
There are some really excellent and detailed reviews already posted here, and I will try not to duplicate their efforts. However for the benefit of those considering whether to purchase this book I will make some brief observations.
First, this book demonstrates why Tufte continues to be more or less unique in the field of technical graphical communications. His broad sweep and his high equal concern with aesthetics, cognitive decision science, principles of handling evidence, and intellectual integrity all combine to produce uniquely valuable examples for how to help facts tell their otherwise often hidden story.
Each of Tufte's books, including this one, clearly is a labor of love on his part, even to the point of sometimes being annoyingly painstaking. I almost don't want to sully his books with my scrawled margin notes and diagrams (but I do anyway, there's just too much there to think about to resist it!).
Second, I think Tufte can be rightly accused of keeping the same basic presentation with relatively minor variation ever since his first remarkable and brilliant book in the series. If you just want to know the principles he espouses, you could probably just buy the first book and not bother with the rest. It is in leading by example and illustrating the core principles by example after detailed example of exceptional visual displays of information that the subsequent books, including Beautiful Evidence, add value to the corpus.
There are some idiosyncrasies here that don't really pertain to evidence, such as photos of Tufte's own sculptures, but these arguably add a certain charm to the presentation and sometimes help to illustrate the unusual breadth of the author's application of principles. I don't find them particularly useful, but I've spoken with others with different interests who found them a fascinating addition.
Third, Tufte's work, for all of its inspiration and care, is not detailed enough to stand on its own as a course in technical graphical communication. You need to supplement it with an education in graphing techniques, statistics, decision making, evidence handling, and so on, in order to apply the principles to real and novel cases. His main value is in culling the universal principles from all of these fields to help guide their application to real world unique circumstances. Beautiful Evidence, like Tufte's previous books in the series, illustrates masterpieces of technical communications and why they are masterpieces, it doesn't offer step by step instructions for recreating them.
At his best, Tufte inspires your own genius, bridging art and science, he doesn't offer an algorithm for creating graphs. I think the worst you could say about Beautiful Evidence is the same as about Tufte's work in general, that he can become rather repetitive in his explanations, and may often tantalize you with brilliances that you may never be able to learn from or apply. The best I can often do is try to remember from the examples in Tufte's books that there may be a better way to communicate information, and that there may often be value or at least inspiration in perusing what really clever people have done with similar information in the past, rather than just applying a boilerplate graph to the problem.
The most useful specific things I have gotten from Beautiful Evidence so far have been the concept of sparklines to embed quantitatve context elegantly into text, the particularly cogent description of Tufte's general principles, and his detailed analysis of the "cognitive style" of bullet list presentations found so widely in presentations.
For those who, like me, never tire of seeing masterful examples of communicating technical information, are inspired by them to improve their own communications, and even find these examples beautiful as well as elegant, this book will be another very welcome and rewarding addition.