Edward Tufte — the information sage

Joshua Yaffa writes:

One day in the spring of 2009, Edward Tufte, the statistician and graphic design theorist, took the train from his home in Cheshire, Connecticut, to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with a few members of the Obama administration. A few weeks earlier, he had received a phone call from Earl Devaney, a former inspector general in the Department of the Interior, who is best known for leading that agency’s investigation of the lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Devaney had recently been appointed head of the Recovery Act Accountability and Transparency Board, the body created by the Obama administration to keep track of the $780 billion in federal stimulus money that has spread out across the country.

Whereas Devaney once led a team of professional investigators responsible for sniffing out waste, fraud, and abuse, he was now faced with a rather different, but related, task: designing a Web site. In the stimulus bill, Congress had called for the creation of “user-friendly visual presentations” of data that would allow the American public to watch over the disbursement of the giant funding package. This wasn’t exactly familiar territory for Devaney, a career lawman. Perhaps Tufte could offer some advice?

And so, that April, in an office building blocks from the White House, Tufte spent a few hours with Devaney looking at sketches of some of the displays the board was preparing. Devaney showed Tufte a prototype of Recovery.gov, the site that catalogs all the projects funded with federal stimulus money around the country. Thinking about it now, Devaney remembers that the proposed pages were full of “classic Web site gobbledygook, with lots of simple pie charts and bar graphs.” Tufte took one look at the Web site mockups that the board’s designer had prepared and pronounced them “intellectually impoverished.”

It was a classic Tufte moment: a spontaneous and undiplomatic assessment that immediately struck everyone in the room, even the designer himself, as undeniably true. The site would get a wholesale redesign. The model, as Tufte explained it, should be the Web site of a major newspaper, with Devaney and his staff as reporters and editors. “I told them that it isn’t an annual report,” Tufte told me later. “It shouldn’t look stylish or slick. It’s about facts.” As Tufte and Devaney talked, a number of staffers gathered in the hall, waiting for the meeting to finish. “The guys from the IT department had lined up outside my door to shake his hand and say they met the guy,” Devaney remembers.

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.

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