Envisioning Information

Tufte says, “The world is complex, dynamic, multi-dimensional; the paper is static, flat.”

Envisioning Information focuses on showing complicated and often three-dimensional information into two-dimensional space, and escaping “flatland”.  Tufte presents numerous illustrations of both good examples and dreadful examples of information design.

The section entitled “Escaping Flatland” teaches the reader several ways to best convey three-dimensional information in “flatland.”  Tufte spends significant time in all his books urging designers to use small multiples (below).

Image Source: College of Engineering, Virginia Tech

He writes, “At the heart of quantitative reasoning is a single question: Compared to what?  Small multiple designs, multivariate and data bountiful, answer directly by visually enforcing comparisons of changes, of the differences among objects, of the scope of alternatives. For a wide range of problems in data presentation, small multiples are the best design solution.”  As the human eye moves from one image to the next, the consistency of design allows the viewer to focus on changes in information rather than changes in design.  Small multiples work as convincing summaries of data by making the same point repeatedly.  Tufte also encourages that comparisons be enforced within the scope of the eye span.  There should be no page-flipping in order to make comparisons.

Unlike speech, visual displays are perceiver-controlled and encourage a variety of distinctive viewer styles, editing, reasoning and understanding.  To that end, effective information design is critical in conveying a message.  Many presentations seek to attract and divert attention through cosmetic decoration, which often distorts the data.

Tufte feels that cosmetic decoration “will never salvage an underlying lack of content.”  If the numbers seem boring, “then you’ve got the wrong numbers.”  Credibility vanishes in chartjunk.  Tufte feels chartjunk shows contempt for the audience; resulting in disrespect leaking through and damaging the message’s intent.

In the section “Micro/Macro Readings,” Tufte teaches us that “simplicity of reading derives from the context of detailed and complex information, properly arranged.”  He feels that in order to clarify something, detail must be added.  Like in Constantine Anderson’s precise axonometric projection (a method in which an object is drawn with its horizontal and vertical axes to scale but with its curved lines and diagonals distorted) of midtown Manhattan in New York City (below).

Image Source: Google Images

The map includes such details as individual windows, subway stations, bus shelters, telephone booths, trees, and sidewalk planters.  The magnificent detail leads to personal micro-readings, as viewers can relate to the data—buildings visited, hotels stayed at, walks taken, etc.  This depiction solidifies Tufte’s theory that, “It is not how much empty space there is, but rather how it is used.  It is not how much information is there, but rather how effectively it is arranged.”



  • Tufte, Edward R. Envisioning Information. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, 1990.
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