Edward Tufte

March 11, 2010

Edward Tufte

My friend, information design maestro Edward Tufte, is in the news:

How Master Information Designer Edward Tufte Can Help Obama Govern

Edward tells me that “The internet stories greatly over-estimate the possible results of my work,” but I know the nature of Edward’s patient and powerful commitment to principle and ideas, and I suspect – and hope – he may have more impact that he anticipates. It would only be for the better.

I was introduced to Edward’s landmark 1982 book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, by my friend Chip Denman, a statistician at the University of Maryland, one of my co-founders of the National Capital Area Skeptics, and an information design junkie. The book literally changed the way I see the world. It opened my eyes to a much broader vantage of what even constituted information design in the world around me, and to how bad most of it was, and how to make it better.

A few years later, Chip arranged for Edward to speak at the university, and the two had lunch. By then, Edward’s second book, Envisioning Information (1990) was out, and he mentioned that he was beginning to think about his third book – and that one of the ideas he was considering was something about magic.

Chip reported this passing mention to me, and I thought about it for a while. It took another six months for me to get around to doing anything about it, and eventually I found a spare evening to sit down and compose an eight- or nine-page letter about the history of graphic illustration in the literature of conjuring. I also dropped a little bait about a little-known illustration of a six-fingered hand in a magic text – actually, two such illustrations.

I sent the letter off, thinking it was a long shot, but it might be nifty to get a mention in a Tufte sidenote.

It was early 1992, and I was living in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, preparing a return to New York City after a six-year absence. I was sleeping on a couch in Penn & Teller’s Manhattan office, across the street from Radio City Music Hall, and I called my answering machine in Maryland to pick up messages. “This is Edward Tufte. This is one of the best letters I’ve ever received. Please call me.”  So, I dialed the number.

“This is Jamy Ian Swiss.” He thanked me for the letter. “I think you and I need to write something together,” he said. “Really? What do you have in mind? An article? Perhaps a monograph?” I asked.  “No,” he said. “A chapter in my next book.”

I seem to recall a moment in which I took the phone away from my ear and blinked at it. “I do card tricks,” I thought to myself. “This can’t be right.”

But I got back on the phone and the conversation continued. Eventually Edward and I met for a sociable evening at the home of my friends Chip and Grace Denman in Silver Springs, Maryland, and we traded show-and-tell prizes. Among other items, Edward handed me an original edition of Galileo’s On Sun Spots (1613), and a first edition of Euclid’s Geometry (1482). In turn I presented a number of classic conjuring texts (of slightly later vintage!).  We agreed we had plenty of ideas to work with, and a mutual appreciation of one another’s work.

And so it was that I would subsequently make two pilgrimages to Edward’s home in Connecticut – also the home of Graphics Press, his publishing company, and a number of happy and boisterous Golden Retrievers.

We spent a full week together, writing days and evenings, taking time off for meals, and late cocktails and music. I recall a night of late beers as Edward put Patti Smith’s “Horses” on and cranked up the volume – vinyl, of course. On a subsequent visit we took another night off and went to see a Tom Paxton concert. Some nights I’d do a few card tricks in the kitchen as dinner was being prepared. We enjoyed our time together. And we spent most of that enjoyable time working.

We spent the first couple of days poring through stacks and stacks of books, many of which rare and antiquarian volumes drawn from Yale’s library. One of Edward’s distinct strengths is his eclecticism. He draws from many sources, then synthesizes new connections in the creation of his ideas and principles of design. To me, this discovery of new connections is the essence of creativity.

After about two days of soaking in this deep well of inspiration, we set about writing. Edward would decide on an idea to address in a two-page spread, and we would choose some illustrations. I would take to the computer for an hour or so and write descriptions and analysis of the magic graphics and their meaning, offering context and perspective beyond what would ever be included in the book, but allowing Edward a solid foundation from which to draw. He would then take my resource material and write on his own for several hours, and much of our daytimes were spent working separately in this fashion.

Typically in the evening, we would set to work, poring over the synthesis of our independent efforts, and simultaneously constructing the layout.  If you are unfamiliar with the publishing expression, “writing to the rag,” it means making adjustments in word choice and perhaps even sentence structure so that the unjustified right margin of the final page will not be unduly “ragged” and thereby unpleasant to the eye. Edward takes this process a step further. Rather than sending readers hunting for footnotes at the bottom of the page, the end of the chapter, or the back of the book, he only provides such notations as sidenotes – in a wide margin, in line with the pertinent material, so that the notes can be referred to immediately without unduly interrupting the reader’s focus. Well, Edward writes to the rag of the sidenote. And so the floor would be littered with two-page mechanical paste-ups, and each time we’d make a tiny alteration, Edward would print out the illustration or paragraph or sidenote, and stick it on the paste-up.

If you are a fan of Tufte’s work, then you know that his writing is dense with ideas but transparent in style – exactly like the principles of information design he promotes.  Such clarity and apparent simplicity is only achieved with a great deal of painstaking effort. In general we averaged a single two-page spread per day. It was fabulously challenging and immensely enjoyable. I had a blast – even when we were  passionately arguing our respective opinions.

Some months later I made a return visit for another five days, at which point we had mapped out most of the chapter. The rest of the work continued to be tweaked via the mails for the next couple of years, until at last, Visual Explanations appeared in 1997. Tufte’s third book on information design, it includes a chapter entitled “Explaining Magic,” for which I am credited as co-author. It is the only collaborative chapter in any of his now four volumes on information design, the most recent of which is Beautiful Evidence (2006).

Edward likes to say that he thinks of Visual Display of Quantitative Information as a book about pictures of numbers; Envisioning Information as a book about pictures of nouns; Visual Explanations as a book about pictures of verbs; and Beautiful Evidence, at the risk of stretching the metaphor, as a book about pictures of adjectives.  What’s interesting about the challenge of describing conjuring in flatland (two dimensions) is that you can never see the actual illusion being depicted, because it requires not just three dimensions, but the fourth as well: time. Thus you cannot see the illusion because you cannot see the motion. “Explaining Magic” suited Visual Explanations because the book, being about verbs, is about depicting and understanding  motion. We found similarities, for example, between illustrations in magic texts and illustrations in textbooks about how to perform surgery. If you can explain open heart surgery, you can explain just about anything.  Including, as it turns out, magic.

Edward spends a great deal of his time these days traveling the country and presenting one-day workshops about information design, discussing highlights of the four books and presenting an overview of his design principles. For a couple of years following the publication of Visual Explanations, I would drop in on these workshops and present a brief talk and demonstration of some of the magic principles we discuss in the chapter.

These days I speak professionally to a lot of software designers and user-experience specialists – for firms including Adobe, Intuit, Electronic Arts, and at conferences including Flash Forward in San Francisco, Good Experience Live in New York City, the EG in Monterey, and the Serious Play conference at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena – and I often incorporate ideas from Tufte’s work and from our chapter, “Explaining Magic.”  I learned a lot from our association, and I continue to teach his principles when the opportunity presents itself. I was delighted to see that he’s been tapped by the Obama Administration to help bring transparency to governance and to assist in explaining the expenditures of the Recovery Act to the American people. In Edward’s vision, information design is not an abstraction; it is real-world practice that affects and changes and even saves, or costs, lives – be it in the design of an illegible health warning on the side of a pack of cigarettes, or of an unintentionally misleading chart that led engineers to launch the shuttle Discovery on a deadly ride to tragedy.

FOR FURTHER READING:

Take $787 Billion. Now Show Where It’s Going.

Ivy League Rock and Roll – A day with Edward Tufte

The Minister of Information [New York Magazine]

And see:edwardtufte.com

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