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The blank page, the empty space, the paradox of choice

Probably the most difficult challenge for a writer is a blank page, and for a sculptor an empty space. Way too many options.

In starting a work, I have always found it helpful to begin work with a small visual element such as an unprepossessing diagram, or, for a sculpture, a couple of pieces of bent metal. The theory soon emerges, a theory probably already implicitly lurking in the practical choice of the beginning element itself. I have no interest in premature grand theories, which tendentiously limit the scope of inquiry.

That initial element contains an enormous number of built-in decisions that limit the scope of the intellectual or visual problem at hand, thankfully preventing the paralysis that results from the overwhelming unlimited scope of decision contained in a blank page or empty space. The initial element provides a leverage point for expression. Also that starting element helps to find a problem that one can actually make progress on; there are no rewards, rightly so, for choosing an important problem but one on which no intellectual progress can be made. (This is the point of Peter Medawar's insightful essay on "The Art of the Soluble". Or part of the point of Steve Jobs' remark that "real artists ship".)

I remember these particular instances: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information began with a long letter (back when I was a political economist) to the editor of a political science journal critiquing a complexly silly statistical graphic in the journal, a letter that I had no particular reason to write other than to start talking about statistical graphics and their credibility. And Visual Explanations began with a little diagram of a glass of water in a book on magic. Both were clear and decisive moments in starting something new.

Two conclusions: (1) to be enormously thoughtful about the choice of the initial element and look at many possibilities before deciding which initial element and (2) to recognize the power of the initial element in solving or limiting certain issues and thus make the work manageable. One of the most important qualities of good thinking is a deep sense of the relevant, the wise specification of the relevant domain.

The starting element should not be found by the accident of what comes across one's desk. It is should be found by active extensive search, by experiencing a vast number of possible starting elements.

These comments merely describe my work strategies and are not meant as recommendations for others (although sometimes I have made these points to graduate students pursuing their dissertations). Your mileage may differ.

It turns out that behavioral economists have already described the importance of limiting the domain of decision. Here's an account by Jacob Weisberg, applied to the new prescription drug program.

-- Edward Tufte

I believe that one should be careful not to confuse the creativity of an artist, which is caused by a spark that ignites an image to be tranferred into material form, and the role of the design engineer or designer per se. The latter has to carefully and purposefully consider the phases of the design system in order to manage the complexities arising in the final production and use of the product so designed. The artist's impact is for the soul.

-- Roger Daventry (email)

On the other hand, Roger, perhaps there's not so much difference. Arthur Koestler described "The Act of Creation" as the point where planes of thought intersect, leading to Ha-Ha! (entertainment), Aah! (art), or Ah-Ha! (design).

Surely your "design system" frames the journey, which involves a succession of such moments, solving each little problem, to keep the design moving forward. I agree that mostly the page is far from blank, but there are always those few really sticky problems for which the system offers no solution. Then it's time to get a clean sheet and... Go Create!

In my view, most artists (including writers and sculptors) work with no less "care and purpose" than engineers. Conversely, engineering ideas are often beautiful (to engineers anyway), and sometimes we even have a bit of fun.

-- Chris Horton (email)

There must be examples of creative engineers who not only "propped up" artists and architects but also created significant "artistic" works themselves.

This dualism of artist and engineer may hold for the majority but it is difficult to subscribe to the idea that they are mutually exclusive.

-- Ray Johnson (email)

My contribution was simply aligned to the spontanaeity required of an artist compared to the the process of engineering where, for example, OHE&S is a major factor. (Not that artists ignore safe practice) There are many engineering feats that have artistic qualities, some may even be called 'beautiful' dependant on the beholder. Artist and engineer may indeed work together or be the same as history demonstrates. I believe that true art is 'inspired' rather than engineered from 'purpose'. How that comes about is one of life's beautiful mysteries.

-- Roger Daventry (email)

... which brings us back around to ET's original point; that given an absence of a specific design goal or "purpose" (except perhaps to put something, anything, in that blank, empty space), there are way too many options.

ET describes how his own chance encounters with ideas grew into the major works of which he can be proud, but then suggests that the starting element "should" be found by extensive search.

I think not. Life would be too dull. One "should" soldier on with life as it comes, but be awake and ever prepared to give intriguing ideas a bit of mileage.

-- Chris Horton (email)

Where has the knowledge gone? Has it become smothered by industry and desire to standardise? I believe so.

The late Peter Rice may fit the model of artist/engineer.

From Brian Carter's essay "Peter Rice: Building to a Human Scale"

On receiving the Royal Gold Medal, Peter Rice drew attention to
W. H. Auden's essay, "Joker in the Pack." Auden had analyzed the
role of Iago in Shakespeare's Othello, suggesting that he had
destroyed the love of Othello and Desdemona by rational argument;
Peter went on to observe that many people tended to attribute that
same role to the engineer in the process of architecture and design.


As an engineer, he prompted change through his collaborations and
the tenacious exploration of materials. His fundamental
re- examination of the characteristics of the familiar -- stone,
glass, and timber -- as well as careful studies of the potential of
the new lightweight structures, such as polycarbonate and fabric,
led to the discovery of new ways of designing and constructing
buildings. In commenting on the way present day society lives and
builds, Peter argued:

We must use industrial techniques. Components become industrial elements which are used and re-used to create giant facades. Similar buildings multiply over the landscape and the building components dominate the architecture and the growth and power of technology is given the blame. To counteract this architects and designers have returned to the forms and images of old. But to do this misses the point and the problem. What is needed is something which returns the human scale and human involvement to buildings. It is the feeling that people are unimportant when compared to the industrial process which is so damaging. The Victorians succeeded where we do not.

Industry and its power and capacity were new to them. Designers enjoyed the freedom to experiment, to enjoy themselves, to innovate, to explore the possibilities of this new power to manufacture and create. It can be seen in the best of those buildings which survive. Go to the Grand Palais in Paris and one marvels that it is so fine and that we have failed to do as well since. And that is or should be surprising. We have learned so much about steel and glass and how structures work since then. Where has the knowledge gone? Has it become smothered by industry and desire to standardise?
I believe so.

-- Mark Thompson (email)

Blank pages and full pages.

The construction documents for a building consist of drawings and specifications. Of course, there is also the legal stuff, insurance, contracts, and bonds.

A drawing starts blank and is filled in.

A specification starts with a masterspec, and then the unnecessary parts are edited out.

Opposite approaches toward the same goal.

-- David Cerruti (email)

Reminds me of some ideas from Twyla Tharp's book _The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life_. In particular, she talks about "scratching" to find a new idea.

-- Ted Kostek (email)

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