Why I love...

...Edward Tufte

Paul May
Monday November 8, 2004

The Guardian

Yale professor Edward Tufte takes dull data and turns it into magical and meaningful pictures. Forget those clunky bars and pizza slices you were taught in school, Tufte produces such inventive and even decorative graphs it's enough to have you weeping over your squared paper. And each one helps us understand the world a bit better, or alerts us to the crimes that can be committed when the people with the numbers seek to confuse the have-nots.

Tufte exposes the hidden dangers of misrepresented numbers: how graphs can kill. In his book Visual Explanations he shows how inept graphing of data about the space shuttle paved the way for the Challenger disaster. Throw out the engineer's pretty slides and substitute Tufte's simple curve, and mental warning lights flash. It's not rocket science, after all.

As well as being a provocative writer and teacher, Tufte is an accomplished sculptor. The New York Times has called him "the Leonardo da Vinci of data", and they don't mean the airport. An academic concerned to influence how the real world works, he's happy to confront graphic evil wherever he finds it. His short monograph The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint lays bare the mind-rotting influence of slideware and what it's doing for the quality of communication in business, and increasingly in schools.

Tufte's own illustrations are works of art in themselves, and the discussions in the "Ask E.T." section of his website (www.edwardtufte.com) contain some of the liveliest and most thought-provoking material around. Visual information design has an impact everywhere, from road signs to the US's famously confusing "butterfly" ballot papers. Seen through Tufte's eyes, the information blizzard we live in resolves into coherent messages, granting those of us who are number-blind an extra sense and the courage to question the experts.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

Original article [external link]


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