Visual Explanations

by Edward R. Tufte

Cover image

Publisher: Graphics Press
Copyright: 1997
Printing: January 2002
ISBN: 0-9613921-2-6
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 151

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This is the third book in Tufte's series on data presentation and analysis, although it's not necessary to read the others first. As Tufte explains in the introduction, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information covers the basics: how to present numbers in images and designs. Envisioning Information discusses design strategy and effective presentation of facts and objects, nouns. Visual Explanations covers verbs: explanation of cause and effect and demonstration of change and motion.

This series has shown a trend away from lots of practical advice and how-to information towards analysis of individual examples and discussion of different diagrams and presentations that feel disconnected. I think this book suffered from that disconnected feeling more than any of the previous ones, partly because the scope is so broad. Visual Explanations sometimes feels like more of an art book than a book on analysis and design, particularly when Tufte offers a tour of diagrams, drawings, and illustrations that he's fond of.

This book is full of case examples with a detailed analysis. Its normal presentation is to show an example of an illustration of some process or cause and then go into a detailed explanation of what parts of the design worked and what parts didn't. Tufte does draw some general conclusions, but the scope is so wide that Visual Explanations requires some study and re-reading for clear lessons. The basics, though, are similar to Tufte's previous books: remove useless excess that doesn't add to the clarity of the illustration, pack as much data as possible into as little ink as possible, be ruthlessly honest in presenting the data, and use as fine of distinctions as possible while still being clear. Some of this material is repeated from previous books, but Tufte has a clear, direct, and entertaining writing style, and I don't think readers of the previous books will mind hearing it again.

The highlight of the book is probably its detailed analysis of the presentation materials used to argue that the Challenger should not have been permitted to take off. This is, alas, only a portion of a chapter, but it's a great analysis of the graphs and tables provided by the manufacturer of the o-rings and used, unpersuasively, to stop the launch. These were spectacularly bad, which is where Tufte shines. I get less from the diagrams he admires than from the analysis of bad diagrams and Tufte's reworkings and redesigns for clarity. The difference in effectiveness between his before and after designs are usually startling.

There were fewer of these rewrites in this book than I would have liked, and more examples and praise of a huge variety of different illustrations, which left me a touch frustrated. Tufte also doesn't drive home some points as far as I'd prefer; for example, the chapter on magic and diagrams of magic was mildly interesting, but his powerful parallel between use of magic to distract and redirect and the abuse of diagrams to do the same wasn't carried through the rest of the book the way I was hoping it would be. It's a great analogy, and I would have liked to see a list of methods of indirection and deception, supported by specific examples of intentional and unintentional abuse of them and reworkings of the same diagrams to correct the problem. Many of the illustrations Tufte chooses to discuss are beautiful or intriguing, but I was less interested in the art tour aspect of this book.

As with all of Tufte's books, Visual Explanations is a work of art in its own right, including touches that are very rare in published books. He uses attached flaps in several places to show before and after or inside and outside, beautiful color on nearly every page, and thick and sturdy paper for every page. The book is large enough that he can present complex diagrams and detail large enough that the reader can see it all. And his scholarly presentation is similarly excellent: quotes and sources are noted in sidenotes (far more effective than endnotes or footnotes), there are small illustrations covering the book to demonstrate even minor points, and all credits are meticulously present.

I think this is Tufte's weakest book to date, at least for the topics I look for in Tufte's work, but it's still an excellent resource and a sheer pleasure to read. As with Tufte's other work, I expect to re-read it periodically. Despite the high price and low page count, there's enough richness and detail on each page that I think every book in this series is worth it (although start with The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, as it has the highest concentration of practical advice). Tufte is also concise and gets to the point, a pleasure in non-fiction books that sometimes feel padded. Recommended, although not as highly as its predecessors.

Followed by Beautiful Evidence.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-08-20

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21