Edward Tufte

Edward Tufte

Among architects, and just about anyone else with a visual sensibility, Edward Tufte is a legendary figure thanks in part to his self-published books, particularly The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983), Envisioning Information (1990), Visual Explanations (1997), and Beautiful Evidence (2006), books studded with eye- and mind-opening graphics and discussions about what Tufte calls “forever knowledge.”

The political scientist, statistician, and retired Yale professor is also a sculptor, and he recently opened a gallery in Chelsea, ET Modern, to show his work with a plan in mind to someday expand the gallery to a Storm King-style sculpture park in Litchfield County.

To that end, Tufte put up his prized collection of science, art, illustrated and design books—among them volumes by Galileo, Repton, William Playfair, John Henry Nash, and on statistical graphics, perspective, aviation, magic, epidemiology, and fish (to name a few of his very wide-ranging interests)—for auction at Christie’s in December. AN dropped by the Chelsea gallery to talk to Tufte about his books, his graphics, his intellectual inspirations and to ask him to explain what catches his eye and gets him thinking. Here are a few excerpts:

On creative process:

The central thing in making good things is to be able to reason about what you are seeing and then produce. That’s the whole process of visual creation in any kind of design.

On books, information, and value:

Authoritative books are universalizing; they are forever knowledge. They open up the experience space enormously beyond what’s happened in last three years, one year, or one minute.

We’re so overwhelmed with recent-cy bias; my view is that a day with Galileo is worth a visit to 10,000 websites. If the information is universal, why should what was done this week be better than something well chosen that was done way back? I am trying to rescue design and seeing from fashion and from Microsoft. And that means getting out into the rest of the world.

My access was by rare books—their design, the beauty of their thinking—and I thought of them as a museum of cognitive art where I looked for ideas exemplified, thinking exemplified, showing exemplified. It’s general theory extended from books written over the past 1200 years. And in writing I am interested in conveying that forever knowledge; I would never write a book about web design, as it, too, shall pass.

On powerful graphics:

One of the early kinds of images that impressed me was dance notation. Here, you are trying to depict complex sound—because there’s music—and motion in three-dimensional space and over time. What better display problem is there? I wrote a lot about it in Envisioning Information, and then I found an incredible graphic that I used in Beautiful Evidence that brought everything together.

This graphic shows square dancing notation with eight movements, three-dimensional drawing with some floor tracks, plus serious floor tracks, and then we have the music, the words, and it’s extended over time. Dance notation goes a long way back. It’s not actually very successful but it is beautiful and it has enormous complexity. It’s a universal problem of information but also of the architecture of information: How do you communicate to someone who isn’t there. In short, it’s a little miracle—and a very sweet topic.

In fact, most of my displays are very powerful emotionally. The examples are about very rich, clear information architectures but the content is usually very powerful—Napoleon’s march, dance notation, Galileo, slave ships.

The slave ship is unbelievable. Talk about fierce micro-economic optimization! That’s supposed to be the glory of market micro-economics, but it comes down to the packing of human beings. The image makes the point about the sterility—the cruelty—of microeconomics and its consequences. It’s showing how something that is usually favored—efficient markets—can also be ghastly in terms of human cost.

On research, relevance, and reasoning:

I look at enormous amounts of images—and buildings and sculptures—and it may create the appearance that my work is inductive, that by looking at all the examples I find general principles. But I find the right examples because I have a theory, so in fact, it’s deductive.

I have principles that tell me something is going to be relevant: that it makes comparisons, that it talks about causality, that it has credibility, that it’s indifferent to the mode of information (words, numbers, etc); that it has a spirit of “whatever it takes”; and that it has more than two dimensions.

Since my interests are universal, I rely on forever experience not just today’s experience. Everyone is immersed in the experience of ‘now’ but for my world, the experience of a century ago is just as relevant, maybe even more relevant because it is fresher. Most people have never seen these graphics before. They are really off the wall, wonderful, and telling.