Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"So much of what I did before was a war against stupidity"

If I'm drawing up a list of human virtues, of the characteristics I'd most like to evince to friend and acquaintance, then humility and forbearance would be near the top. I aspire to (and consistently fail to achieve) the sort of general attitude that David Wallace described as a Democratic Spirit: "one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus sedulous respect for the convictions of others."

When it comes to my experts, though, what I'm really looking for is a fanatically over-informed, supremely self-assured sonofabitch. And on the subject of information design -- that is, the elegant and effective visualization of data -- Edward Tufte seems to be exactly that. (I hope this compliment would be received in the manner it's intended.)

I knew a little about Tufte before today, mostly for his criticisms of PowerPoint, but also for the way his name consistently pops up in the sources I've skimmed while indulging my episodic and amateurish fascination with typography and design. I know a lot more about him now, thanks to Joshua Yaffa's profile in the current issue of Washington Monthly.
Edward Tufte occupies a revered and solitary place in the world of graphic design. Over the last three decades, he has become a kind of oracle in the growing field of data visualization—the practice of taking the sprawling, messy universe of information that makes up the quantitative backbone of everyday life and turning it into an understandable story. His four books on the subject have sold almost two million copies, and in his crusade against euphemism and gloss, he casts a shadow over the world of graphs and charts similar to the specter of George Orwell over essay and argument.
Tufte is a philosopher king who reigns over his field largely because he invented it. For years, graphic designers were regarded as decorators, whose primary job was to dress up facts with pretty pictures. Tufte introduced a reverence for math and science to the discipline and, in turn, codified the rules that would create a new one, which has come to be called, alternatively, information design or analytical design.
The litany of ideologically and functionally diverse Tufte fanboys quoted in the piece is a testament to the man's influence: here's Karl Rove, there Peter Orszag, then Nate Silver and even T.X. Hammes. But why does this guy matter to me, or to the readers of the blog? Well, you may remember that T.X. is our community's very own evangelist for intellection and complexity, enemy of oversimplification, and vocal critic of the Pentagon's "cult of the PowerPoint presentation." He told Yaffa that (in the journo's words) "the rise of PowerPoint in the military has made the decision-making process less intellectually active" and noted that Tufte "is the master on this whole thing." So maybe if we pay a little bit of attention, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information can help to lead us out of this dark place.

I'd bet Tufte thinks so. Remember the thing about self-assuredness?
Some designers have questioned whether Tufte’s reverence for elegance and accuracy can verge on dogmatism, with too little consideration of context or audience. “The world is not filled with professional statisticians,” said Donald Norman, the codirector of the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University and the author of The Design of Everyday Things. “Many of us would like a quick glance just to get a good idea of something. If a graph is made easier to understand by such irrelevancies as a pile of oil cans or cars, then I say all the better.” (Tufte deflects this criticism by pointing out that Norman has been a paid consultant to Microsoft; Norman says his consulting work has nothing to do with his own thinking and writing.)
But when Tufte feels sure of something—which is to say, quite often—he can have little interest in entertaining criticism. “There are some people who have reached a certain position in life and will be amused and interested in a contrary opinion, and have a scholarly banter about it,” said Christopher Pullman, who taught in the design program at Yale on and off since the 1960s. “But that’s not Tufte.” [...] “So much of what I did before was a war against stupidity,” [Tufte] told me not long ago.
Just for kicks, I want to reproduce the figure that Tufte once wrote was "the best statistical graphic ever drawn" [click the link for a big, high-res version] as well as Yaffa's summary of the way Tufte explains it.
“This,” he said, “is War and Peace as told by a visual Tolstoy.” The map is about the size of a car window, and follows the French invasion of Russia in 1812. It was drawn in 1869 by a French engineer named Charles Joseph Minard. On the left of the map, on the banks of the Niemen River, near Kovno in modern-day Lithuania, a horizontal tan stripe represents the initial invasion force of 420,000 French soldiers. As they march east, toward Moscow—to the right, on the map—they begin to die, and the stripe narrows.

The map itself is elegant and restrained, but it tells the story of a sprawling, bloody horror: cold and hunger begin to finish off whatever French soldiers the Russians haven’t killed in battle. As the French army retreats, the tan line turns black and doubles back on itself to the left, or to the west, away from Moscow. A series of thin gray lines intersect the path of the army, showing the winter’s cruel temperatures. On November 9 it is 9 degrees below freezing. On November 14, it is 21 degrees below.
Then, on the 28th of November, a catastrophe: in a rush to cross the Berezina River, half of the retreating army, 22,000 men, drowns in the river’s icy waters. The black line, already thinned to a fraction of its initial size, abruptly reduces by half. Finally, in late December, six months after they set off, the surviving French soldiers cross back over the Niemen River. The map shows their number: 10,000 men. Ultimately, only one in forty-two soldiers survives the doomed campaign.
Tufte pointed to the far left of the map, where the tan and black lines intersect. “And it is there,” he said, “at the beginning and at the end of the campaign, where we have a small but poignant example of the first grand principle of analytical design”: above all else, always show comparisons.
Apart from the fact that this is just really freakin' awesome, there's a lesson here: if we strip out the superfluous, focus on what matters to the story we're trying to tell, and come up with an elegant way to graphically render that meaningful imformation, we can communicate simple, direct messages about complicated subjects. We need to try harder, and try smarter.

1 comment:

  1. I saw a presentation last night of global water issues using a souped-up version of Google Earth.

    To say it was better than a slide presentation with some .jpg maps is an understatement; my jaw isn't off the floor yet.