[Arte Numérica]

Arte Numérica > Inspiration > Edward Tufte

Edward Rolf Tufte

Home page at Yale
Article at Salon Magazine (1997)
Article and interview at Amazon
CLB interview (1994/97)

We consider Tufte's works on information presentation recommended reading for all WWW developers, and, in fact, for anyone else more than casually involved in some form of data presentation. At the very least, in the last chapter of Visual Explanations, a small section devoted to computer interfaces. There you can find a superb example of a museum-guiding system where the interface is built with a wide "flat" overview of the information itself, neither reflecting the institution's bureaucratic structure nor forcing the user to follow a "computer practice"-inspired decision tree...

In an architecture of content, the information becomes the interface. [...] Information-sensitive designs are exacting and laborious, requiring a deep appreciation of the particular content at hand. [...] poor designs are sometimes defended on the grounds that they conform to computer industry standards (for example, in a typical arranging-the-deckchairs-on-the-Titanic dictum: "Drop shadows on binary-choice boxes shall have the [pretend] light coming from upper left"). Ding-a-ling design is thus sanctified and institutionalized.

Another weak approach is to make the interface itself a conspicuous visual statement, with a great deal of creative effort going into styling a billboard that masks a data dump. Believed to be boring and in need of decorative spice, the content becomes trivialized and incidental. Too many interfaces for information compilations have suffered from television-disease: thin substance, contempt for the audience and the content, short attention span, and over-produced styling.

-- Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative {>>Amazon.com}

From an Amazon interview:

Yes, computer administrative debris or operating-system imperialism. I go around making measurements, and you are lucky these days if 40 percent of the screen is devoted to content. The rest of it is devoted to 5000-pixel icons. And the icons need a name underneath them so you can tell what they mean! Alan Cooper said something very nice about interfaces, which is, "no matter how wonderful your user interface is, it would be better if there were less of it." Especially because we are on that low-resolution hardware, we can't afford to waste any real estate on flying logos and elaborately rendered "stop" buttons.[...]

Those designs largely reflect the distribution of political power on the interface. In other words, it's the programmer, the designer, the marketeer, and--oh yes, by the way, a little space for the content. It's not at all surprising that the operating system and the programmers in effect have allocated about 50 percent of the screen to themselves. And it's not surprising then, that the designer comes in and takes another 25 percent to render buttons that give you two or three commands. And then the marketeer says you have to have the flying logotype. That leaves this very narrow window for the actual content.

[...] The most common mistake is thin content. People don't have anything to say, or they don't have very much to say. In order to cover that up, the design becomes thick and decorative. They start fooling around. They show three phony dimensions to show one real dimension of information, and it gets "chartjunky". Most of what happens in an information presentation depends on the quality and the relevance and the integrity of the content. If the numbers are lying, it's too late. Information design can't help you. Or if the numbers are boring, or you've got the wrong numbers, the cartoonist can't help. It's too late. So I've been pushing very hard for the people who are displaying the information to come back to a richness of content and a very transparent, invisible type of design. A great deal of what we see today is the other way around. There's an elaborate, contraptionary quality to the design, and then there's a poverty of information. And that describes a great many Web pages.

And finally, from extremely clear discussions on strategies for data presentation, in the book Envisioning Information:

Lurking behind chartjunk is contempt both for the information and for the audience. Chartjunk promoters imagine that numbers and details are boring, dull, and tedious, requiring ornament to enliven. Cosmetic decoration, which frequently distorts the data, will never salvage an underlying lack of content. If the numbers are boring, then you've got the wrong numbers.[...]

Worse is contempt for audience, designing as if readers were obtuse and uncaring. In fact, consumers of graphics are often more intelligent about the information at hand than those who fabricate the data decoration. And, no matter what, the opening moral premise of information design should be that our readers are alert and caring; they may be busy, eager to get on with it, but they are not stupid. Clarity and simplicity are completely opposite simple-mindedness.

Visual displays rich with data are not only an appropriate and proper complement to human capabilities, but also such designs are frequently optimal. If the visual task is contrast, comparison, and choice---as so often it is---then the more relevant information within eyespan, the better.

[...] Now and then it is claimed that vacant space is ``friendly''(anthropomorphizing an inherently murky idea) but it is not how much empty space there is, but rather how it is used. It is not how much information there is, but rather how effectively it is arranged.

-- Envisioning Information: Narratives of Space and Time {>>Amazon.com}