Posted by: soniahs | November 15, 2010

Exam reading: “Visual explanations”

This second book by Tufte is probably more applicable to the narrative study of images (though now I’m wishing I’d put “Understanding Comics” on my reading list).

Edward Tufte. Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, 1997.

Summary: This book focuses on strategies for presenting information about change: motion, process, cause/effect. Quantities can be represented by labels, encodings (e.g., color-coding), and self-representing scales (e.g., penny in a photo); maps do this by location on grid & size of marker. Creators should place data in appropriate context to assess cause/effect, make quant. comparisons, consider alternative explanations, and assess potential errors in numbers. “Numbers become evidence by being in relation to” other numbers, objects, etc. change can be inferred from multiple, layered views (incorporates parallelism of space or time, lets viewer make comparisons). Discusses principle of “smallest effective difference”- make all distinctions as subtle as possible, but still visible. Also “disinformation design:” suppressing content and preventing reflective analysis by “visual masking” of important features with unimportant ones (e.g., cigarette warning labels). This is not necessarily intentional: can occur through faulty parallelism, trying to emphasize everything, or false clusters created by proximity. Ends by discussing complex narrative forms of data display, or “confections.” These juxtapose tangentially related visual elements in collage fashion; he emphasizes that a purposeful arrangement of these renders them meaningful (in contrast to just slapping them together because).

Comments: Tufte discuses magic diagrams as ways to show action sequences and time; comics do similar things. He briefly discusses the design of customizable computer interfaces as an example of visual narrative (one example used is dynamic museum guides). He applies his standard design ideas (high information-rich content, make clear & sufficient computer commands visible)- I wonder if that last suggestion will change as more people get used to usingapps on wireless devices with few controls?

Links to: Kostelnick & Hassett (discuss the social context of design, rather than design principles); Nersessian, Gilbert (cognition & visuals)



  1. […] to: Tufte 1, 2 (ideas about simplicity); Zhang & Norman (discussion of distributed […]

  2. […] Exam reading: “Visual explanations” « Terpsinoe on February 1, 2011 at 8:36 […]


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