Mappa.Mundi Magazine
Marty Marty Lucas was the Founding Editor of Mappa.Mundi. He began writing and producing media for the Internet in 1992 with the Internet Multicasting Service, based in Washington D.C., where he helped pioneer audio on the Internet. Presently, he is a partner at Becknell and Lucas Media.

In This Edition

A discussion of Edward Tufte’s traveling one-day course in the philosophy and practice of information design.

» Previous Issues
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Spacer Image Tufte Links
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Interviews, and more:

» The Data Artist, Salon Magazine, March 1997.

» Computer Literacy Interview with Edward Tufte

» Edward Tufte’s homepage at Yale

Background Links
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» The John Snow Pub.

» NASA brass silent in wake of critical House panel report, Houston Chronicle, November 23, 1986 [Challenger disaster].

» Legal implications of web linking on

» The danger of sharing · how to disable cookies on’s techsite argues that cookies are an invasion of privacy and tells you how to disable them.
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By Marty Lucas, Trip-M Archives »

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The Tufte Trilogy
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Internet Messaging
Visual Explanations
Images and Quantities,
Evidence and Narrative

Pictures of Verbs

Internet Messaging
Envisioning Information
Pictures of Nouns

Internet Messaging
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
Pictures of Numbers

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Khaki Right Bottom Corner
Getting Tufte

      “This is not a course about the difference between version 3.0 and 3.1”, says Edward R. Tufte to a near capacity crowd in the International Ballroom in Chicago’s Fairmont Hotel. Indeed, the one day session is all about distilling centuries of information display efforts - both good and bad - into a series of practical rules of thumb that can be applied to any kind of data and on any graphical medium of expression.

      Tufte, a professor of statistics at Yale, has become an info-celebrity on the basis of a series of self-published books on his own Graphics Press. The series began in 1983 with The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Pictures of Numbers), followed seven years later by Envisioning Information (Pictures of Nouns). In 1997, he published Visual Explanations, Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative (Pictures of Verbs). It won’t be a trilogy forever though. Tufte is now working on another book, this time focusing on the aesthetics of information (Pictures of Adverbs and Adjectives). If the seven year pattern holds true, we can expect to see it published about 2004. His decision to self-publish “from his garage” was based on necessity; he simply couldn’t convince any publishing company to produce his books according to his insanely high standards.

      At $320.00 a head, for a single day class (and no lunch!) it’s a pricey affair, and this is reflected in the predominantly 35-55 age profile in the ballroom. I couldn’t help but think about the many design and statistics students around Chicagoland who were priced out of the room. Attendees get all three books, in keeping with Tufte’s belief that written materials should accompany all presentations. Given that his three day stop in Chicago alone must have generated at least $300,000 in gross revenues for Tufte and his Graphics Press, it’s clear he’s getting us, but are we getting Tufte?

      He believes that the task of information design is to make it easier for the information consumer to compare data relevant to a cause and effect process. Tufte teaches (and he is, most of all, a teacher) that we must “enforce visual comparisons” and “show causality”. The best information displays allow people to understand large and complex data sets, not just in terms of what the data is, but also in terms of the process it represents.

      Getting it right can be a matter of life and death. When an outbreak of cholera suddenly gripped the Broad Street area of London in 1854, microbes were unknown. But John Snow suspected that contaminated water supplies were associated with cholera outbreaks. Snow and his associates quickly collected information about people who had died from cholera, and compared their stories with nearby people who had not been afflicted. He mapped the data, and using the patterns of fatalities Snow was able to convince community authorities to close the tainted well.

      By contrast, Tufte gives a detailed and chilling case study of the events leading up to the space shuttle Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986. A “no-launch” recommendation from engineers at Morton Thiokol, the rocket manufacturer, was overruled when the engineers failed to make a convincing case supporting their recommendation. Tufte shows how the same data should have been presented, to focus on the causal relationship between o-ring problems experienced on prior cool weather launches and the reduced resiliency of the o-rings in low temperature conditions. With a causation oriented presentation it would have been obvious that the engineers’ concerns were justified and it is likely that NASA’s worst disaster would have been averted.

      This is Tufte at his best. These case studies, found in Chapter 2 of Visual Explanations are required reading for anybody who is ever called upon to make a mission critical decision. Most importantly, Tufte emphasizes that a decision maker faced with a muddled argument must go the extra mile and ask, “what do I really need to be convinced?” Then, they must go directly to the data and make their own chart, their own comparisons. As a decision maker, you have the last chance to make the correct decision. Incidentally, Chapter 2 of Visual Explanations is available from as a paperback reprint under the name Visual & Statistical Thinking: Displays of Evidence for Decision Making for $5.00 U.S.

      Tufte has made his reputation on a series of books in which he made no compromise in the pursuit of excellence. In doing so, he’s etched for us a set of ideals chiseled boldly in Roman monumental letters across a span of gleaming white marble. A source of inspiration, but can we put his ideals into practice in the pervasively non-ideal realm of Internet communication? Tufte himself acknowledges some of the difficulty when he points out that the relatively low resolution monitors most of us are using today require that information comparison be set out on progressive screens. “It’s one damn thing after another”, says Tufte and it leaves the user wondering, “where am I?”

      I’ve selected a handful of the many quotable quotes Edward Tufte uttered during the class that illustrate the issues of practicality authors and designers face when trying to put Tufte’s ideals into practice on the web.

“Get your audience out of the puzzle solving business”

      Tufte says that interface design should be intuitively obvious, though not necessarily simple or uncluttered (see below, "Put as much up front as possible"). He questions the use of metaphors and cryptic icons, contrary to the “third generation web site” concept espoused by David Siegel in his popular book, “Creating Killer Web Sites”. Author David Siegel’s home page uses a blueprint/construction metaphor, for example. Web site metaphors can be annoying, no doubt, but they can also make web browsing more fun when implemented in an appropriate context. Personally, I doubt that many visitors to Siegel’s home page are confused by his construction metaphor. On the other hand I don’t find the metaphor particularly entertaining either. Nevertheless, the web could become a dreary place if all the whimsy were to be systematically excoriated. And while the web is often an informational medium, it is just as often used for entertainment. When it comes to entertainment Tufte’s information design concepts may not apply. Myst was lots of fun, because it was a puzzle. So you have to decide whether your main goal is to convey information efficiently, or to entertain with brain teasing trickery.

      Beyond that, Tufte’s criticisms about excessive use of metaphor sometimes sounded a bit passé to me. This and the other web-trash that Tufte complained of in his lecture - “rainbow bars” and animated mailboxes - are fast becoming the Burma Shave signs of the info-highway; fading relics of a simpler, sillier time. Someday (soon, hopefully) we’ll go to a web museum to see them. It may be that we’re getting Tufte better than he realizes.

“Get a big monitor”

      A recurring theme in Tufte’s philosophy of information design is the desirability of finding ways to increase data resolution. A major impediment to this in cyberspace is that today’s monitors are low resolution devices. Tufte’s answer is that we should all get a bigger one. Monitor, that is. A bigger monitor is like more bandwidth. Want more? Sure you do.

      But even if you get your wish it may only make your design problem worse because now you’ll be tempted to forget about all the unfortunate folks who didn’t get (and maybe didn't wish for) your wish. A unique and often beneficial characteristic of new media is that a significant amount of control is handed over to the user. People who need bigger text for comfortable reading can set their text bigger. People who need to carry their computer with them can have a smaller screen, but still get the information they need. Much of the language of advanced web design - liquid, ice and jello, for example - describe strategies for maintaining a tolerable level of design control while ensuring enough flexibility to maintain functionality on a wide range of monitor sizes and color settings.

      Like many highly respected designers who started in the print world, Tufte seems hesitant to jump into the web because to do so entails some loss of control. Traditional print designers seek to control the user's experience to the Nth degree, and Tufte's books are a tour de force of mastery of the details. Working on the web means surrendering some of that control to the other end of the communications transaction. I'd like to see him give it a try, we'd all benefit from studying his example.

      Will technology rescue us? Someday pixels will be much smaller than they are now, and it will become feasible for common monitors to have resolutions rivaling print. Presently though, the little-big monitor disconnect is only getting worse as more wireless internetworked devices with very limited displays come online.

“Design reproduces bureaucracy”

      Tufte decries the tendency of computer interface design (kiosks as well as web sites) to reproduce the structure of the bureaucracy that spawned them. Allocation of scarce and precious space on your too-small monitor is more a function of institutional clout than an objective response to the needs of users. Programmers and graphic designers in particular use too much space with administrative objects and overly elaborate navigational icons. The “parade of honchos”, an interface that make users sit through dull and mostly irrelevant introductions to senior organization officials, is a similar faux pas.

“They have come to learn something in particular”

      People who visit your web site “have come to learn something in particular” says Tufte. I’ve commented earlier that I sometimes felt that Tufte’s remarks about the web were dated: more valid in 1996 than 1999. Not in this case. As web user patterns have matured, they’ve become ever more goal oriented. We go to the web to shop, get the news, or download an MP3. We read Martin Dodge’s latest article. We leave the surfing to the surfers.

      The goal of getting people to the information they’re seeking faster and more reliably shouldn’t be impeded by platform inconsistencies. Here, it seems to be economics (real or imagined) that impede progress; search engines are out of date and many sites persist in their narrow minded policy of discouraging links out. Some, like Ticketmaster, even object to links into them, unless it’s through the front door. Do they have a metal detector there?

      Fortunately, web logs have been springing up to help fill this void. May they proliferate and become profitable to operate as well. As they do so they can help create an environment where web users can find something in particular, before it’s six weeks old.

“Put as much up front as possible”

      Tufte likes elegance in information design, but he also likes to see lots and lots of content. High resolution information, he calls it. A telephone book is a high resolution information design, and he likes it. Similarly, he likes web site home page designs that offer many, even a multitude, of options to the user. Yahoo! and Wired are good examples. He suggests that the “doctrine of seven” - the theory that users shouldn’t be presented with more than seven choices at any one time, is pretty much a hoax. That makes sense, otherwise Wal-Mart, or for that matter, would have overwhelmed the public with choices. On the contrary, people like variety.

      Limiting the selections to seven (or nine, or whatever) is arbitrary and can’t be applied to every situation. Certainly Internet behemoths like the top five search engines can justify a multitude of selections. But it seems that Tufte’s position goes beyond that. Based in part on usage studies showing that each layer of a site filters out about 90% of the users he seems to deduce that more choices at each layer will generate more traffic. This proposition may have viability for sites where most traffic enters through “the front door”. If you’re content oriented though, hopefully many people are coming directly to your content from search engine queries and links on other sites. In this situation a multitude of links is more likely to be distracting than helpful.

“Consider disabling cookies”

      Tufte advocates disabling cookies on your browser. Now, I’ll admit I was a bit alarmed when I first realized what was happening when a server started handing out treats to my not-very-streetwise PC. Cookies may pose some risk of loss of anonymity; however, it’s been my experience that maintaining obscurity if not complete anonymity is remarkably easy on the Internet. Frankly, I thought this was bad advice because it will only reduce your browser performance.

“Audiences are precious”

      Tufte counsels that one must treat their audience with the utmost respect, and it’s obvious that he means it too. Throughout the lecture I was impressed by the genuine warmth with which he greeted almost every person that attended his class. He signed hundreds of books and answered all questions thoughtfully and patiently. It’s obvious that, along with his excellent books, he has maintained his reputation by making an exceptional effort to maintain accessibility.

Parting thoughts -

      Tufte’s series of books are modern design classics, and everyone who tries to communicate data and information owes it to themselves and their usership to be intimately familiar with the concepts he sets forth. But internetwork publishing presents a host of special challenges to meeting the high standards he’s achieved in his books. Given the relatively low cost and fast distribution possible with Internet communications, there can be little doubt that more and more data and information will primarily be communicated through computer monitors. Wouldn’t it be great if Edward Tufte’s next book included a CD-ROM and supporting web site?

 Copyright © 1999, 2000

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