Envisioning Information

Pie chart of populations of English native spe...Image via Wikipedia

I was hoping to get my hands on a copy of The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, Second Edition because I wanted to read his perspective on presentations before designing a lesson on teaching with presentations.  When I discovered that the copy at my local library was in the reference section and not available for checkout, I decided to return another day to read it and selected Tufte’s Envisioning Information in the meantime.

Envisioning Information examines the effectiveness of various solutions to the problem of displaying multivariate data in 2 dimensions.  Tufte suggests that some of the more successful solutions involve one or more of the following

  • small, multiple images
  • layering and separation of data
  • micro/macro displays

Tufte also sprinkles advice and warnings throughout the book.  For example, in a vertical list in a tabular display, you should put high impact information at the top and bottom.  He lectures against “chartjunk” and the posterization of data, which he describes as data-thin graphs hiding behind cute concepts.

Envisioning Information is a quick read filled, as you might expect, with numerous images.  Still, I found the book thought-provoking, especially in the early chapters.  On page 34, Tufte asks rhetorically, “Who would trust a chart that looks like a video game?”  He raises this question in relation to a discussion of chartjunk and data posterization, and I expect he meant readers to think “No one!” when they came to the question.  However, I found myself thinking, “I might . . . depending on which video game you’re talking about.”

On page 31 Tufte states, “Unlike speech, visual displays are simultaneously a wideband and a perceiver-controllable channel.”  In contrast, Tufte describes speech as linear, nonreversible and one dimensional.  Would Tufte argue that written or recorded speech is still linear, nonreversible and one dimensional?  I’m not sure that I would.  Perceivers can rewind recorded speech, or leaf back through a book.  Hypertext and hypermedia do not necessitate a linear flow of information.

On page 32, Tufte praises an example of a compact display of 1,826 days of weather history and then states  “Emaciated data-thin designs, in contrast, provoke suspicions and rightfully so about the quality of measurement and analysis.”  Do “emaciated data-thin designs” really “provoke suspicion”.  I think perhaps they should, but I believe that the majority of the data displays that most people experience are data-thin.  Additionally, many data-thin displays are housed in familiar display templates such as pie charts, tables, and bar graphs.  At first glance, I found some of the data-rich designs that Tufte presented to be unsettling because of their unfamiliar format.  On further inspection, I was able to unlock the keys to the information contained, but I found myself wondering; how many people have a greater suspicion of an unfamiliar data-rich format than of a familiar but data-thin format?

I also noticed that many of the designs that earned Tufte’s harshest critiques bore a marked similarity to my memory of the charts, tables, and bus schedules on the standardized exams for basic literacy and numeracy that I took in ninth grade.  According to Tufte, these information displays were difficult to interpret because of poor design.  Is it fair to test children on their ability to interpret poorly designed information displays?  I’m not sure, but I fear that the ability to interpret poorly designed information displays may be a vital skill in the “real world”.


It may seem like hubris to mindmap a book entitled Envisioning Information , but I attempted it anyway.  My scribblings violate some, perhaps even many, of the principles that Tufte was trying to communicate in his book.  However, the purpose of my mindmap differs from the purpose of the information displays that Tufte critiques in his book.  The primary purpose of my mindmap is to help me organize my thoughts and impressions, while the primary purpose of the information displays discussed in Envisioning Information was to communicate data.  I post this here mostly for my own future reference.

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About Kimberly McCollum

I'm a former middle and high school science teacher and current stay at home mom.
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3 Responses to Envisioning Information

  1. Steve Hulme says:

    Have you seen the new add-on to powerpoint 2007? It’s called PPTplex. I can really see it being used in certain applications, and it can really enhance/change the way we do presentations.

  2. No, I hadn’t seen it before. Thanks for the heads up. I’m looking it up right now.

  3. Alex Railean says:

    Thanks for the mindmap, now I know I’m not the only one who does that. I used to do the same with my lecture notes, though a bit more verbose, and less colourful😉

    I am planning to get my hands on this book. Thank you for the overview.

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