Content is all

Last week, I attended to Edward Tufte’s lecture at the Royal Geographical Society. As he has mentioned in one of his books, there was a set of visual material related to the presentation for everyone in the audience, the lecture began on time, and he finished one minute before.

19.05.2010 Edward Tufte. Lecture at the Royal Geographical Society, Ondaatje Theatre.

To explain the analytical design principles, there was a poster-size image of Minard’s data-map, about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia (created on 1869).

In general, Tufte presented a historical overview of the relationship between images and text in visual representations. He showed a series of ancient images where information (visual and written) was not segregated. Tufte presented Galileo’s image as one of the clearest example where text and images were integrated.

Images of Saturn embedded in a piece of text, showing a complete integration between visual and written information (Tufte, 2006:49)

After this he summarised his six design principles of analytical design that should be considered to obtain effective information design results:

1- Show contrasts and differences: The most important point when diagramming is to make comparisons between the data displayed.
2- Documentation: This indicates the relevance of including credibility information; to inform users/readers where the information displayed in a diagrammatic representation comes from.
3- Complete integration of evidence: Both visual and textual elements should be displayed as a whole unit, where visual segregation should not be perceived. This means that the mode of production of a diagrammatic image should not be identified.
4- Multivariate information: There should be considered and represented at least three or more elements to avoid flat diagrams and emulate the 3D world levels of information and viewing depths.
5- Causality-effect: A diagrammatic representation should display causality, mechanism, explanations, systematic structures.
6- Content: Tufte emphasised content as the core component of a diagrammatic representation (and for visually presenting information). He made a distinction between two important and opposite concepts, that at the same time can be seen as different stages of the design process:

Process-driven: A process-driven design is based on the modes of production (how), instead of what to display. In this case, content moves to a second place, and the techniques and tools to represent it are the core elements.
Related to this, Tufte explained that designers tend to consider most relevant the process of visualisation than the selection, interpretation and organisation of content.
Explanation-driven: While, on the other hand, an explanation-driven process begins with good content analysis, and really understanding of what is going to be displayed. Tufte pinpointed that it should be done ‘what ever it takes to make content understandable’. In a similar vein, Wurman (2001) asserts that organisation is as important as content and that understanding; regrouping, classifying and organising information take priority over creating it.
Moreover, Tufte added that effective information design outcomes should display relevance, quality and integration of content.

To show the importance and applicably of explanation-driven diagrammatic representations, Tufte concluded his lecture introducing the concept of Sparklines, fully described in his book Beautiful Evidence.

Sparklines are small, high-resolution graphics usually embedded in a full context of words, numbers and images. Sparklines are datawords: data-intense, data-simple, word-sized graphics. (Tufte, 2006:47)

Unquestionably, it was a unique opportunity to listen to one of the key information designers ever. Hopefully, he will return soon and present some of the work he is doing for Obama, and the application of his theories into the website world.

– Tufte, E. (2006). Beautiful Evidence. Cheshire, Connecticut, USA: Graphic Press.
– Tufte, E. (1998) Visual Explanations. Cheshire, Connecticut, USA: Graphic Press.
– Wurman, R.S. (2001) Information anxiety 2. Expanded & updated ed. Indianapolis, Ind. : Que


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