Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative, By Edward R. Tufte

Illuminating Avenues for Data Presentation

Book Review by Emily Fisher

“Our thinking is filled with assessments of quantity, an approximate or exact sense of number, amount, size, scale. In scientific work, both order-of-magnitude reasoning and precise measurements are pervasive. How are such quantities represented in visual expressions of ideas, experience, evidence?… And what makes images quantitatively eloquent?”

With these questions posed by author, Edward Tufte, we begin the journey into one of his published books on information design. For anyone considering best ways to go about data presentation, this book is a helpful, but fun, tool to use when beginning to plan how to actually present various types of data visually. Tufte, in this book, covers presenting both numeric and narrative data and uses many beautiful illustrations to make his point. As one reviewer writes of this work, “It is a passionate, elegant revelation of how to render the 3 dimensions of experience into the 2 dimensions of paper and screen.” (Kevin Kelly, Whole Earth Review.)

Tufte’s narrative is straightforward and often sarcastic in tone: there are clearly many ways NOT to present data that people often unknowingly utilize. He pokes fun at poor presentations while illustrating improvements on what has been done in the past. His chapter entitled Parallelism: Repetition and change, comparison and surprise” brings to life the concepts around illustrating change through the use of a single illustration. Through his examples we can see what it is that allows a reader eyes to flow naturally across paper to pick up both main and underlying themes of an idea.

I must admit that I have only read “Visual Explanations,” but the rest of the series looks to be just as interesting and relevant to data presentation. If nothing else, you can lose yourself in his quirky writing and eye-catching images for a few hours!

Visit the website to learn more about Edward’s work and other publications:  http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/

Review published: April 2010

To read more about this book review’s author, visit her Bio.

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