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Graphics Press

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Subject: Correlation does not imply causation, Lecture, Chartjunk, John Snow (physician), Charles Joseph Minard
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Graphics Press

Edward Rolf Tufte
Tufte during his one-day course in San Diego, 7 February 2011
Born 14 March 1942
Kansas City, Missouri
Occupation Professor, statistician, writer, sculptor
Nationality American
Notable work(s) The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Edward Rolf Tufte (/ˈtʌfti/; born 1942) is an American statistician and professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale University.[1] He is noted for his writings on information design and as a pioneer in the field of data visualization.[2]


Edward Rolf Tufte was born in 1942 in Kansas City, Missouri, to Virginia Tufte and Edward E. Tufte. He grew up in Beverly Hills, California, and graduated from Beverly Hills High School.[3] He received a BS and MS in statistics from Stanford University and a PhD in political science from Yale.[4] His dissertation, completed in 1968, was entitled The Civil Rights Movement and Its Opposition. He was then hired by Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, where he taught courses in political economy and data analysis while publishing three quantitatively inclined political science books.

In 1975, while at Princeton, Tufte was asked to teach a statistics course to a group of journalists who were visiting the school to study economics. He developed a set of readings and lectures on statistical graphics, which he further developed in joint seminars he subsequently taught with renowned statistician John Tukey (a pioneer in the field of information design). These course materials became the foundation for his first book on information design, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.[5][6]

After difficult negotiations with mainline publishers failed, Tufte decided to self-publish Visual Display in 1982 where he worked closely with graphic designer Howard Gralla. He financed the work by taking out a second mortgage on his home. The book quickly became a commercial success and secured his transition from political scientist to information expert.[5]

On March 5, 2010, President Barack Obama appointed Tufte to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's Recovery Independent Advisory Panel "to provide transparency in the use of Recovery-related funds."[4]


Tufte is an expert in the presentation of informational graphics such as charts and diagrams, and is a fellow of the American Statistical Association. Tufte has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

His work habits are forward-looking and he is intensely critical in the self-editing process. Tufte pulls in and casts out ideas from books, journals, posters, auction catalogs, and other less common source genres. He invites others to critique his work in progress and may nurture dozens of ideas over months in various states of growth and fruition. He deletes almost every photograph he takes. Over time, he deletes most of what he writes on his own forum, ET Notebooks. Every printing of every book corrects numerous small blemishes, ranging from color registration to kerning and hinting.

This pattern of work is repeated in Tufte's sculpture, where he digs through sources ranging from other art, other genres (most notably Feynman diagrams), to flea markets, nuclear power plants, and fields of grass. He is in search of forms and ideas from which to build up into models, table pieces, and occasionally larger landscape pieces. Even some nominally finished, large scale works are reworked heavily. But at the same time, some random sculptural equivalents of brush strokes or artifacts of a piece's former life are retained, a degree of wabi-sabi, as may be seen in Rocket Science (circa 2006–9, Hogpen Hill, Connecticut).

Information design

Tufte's writing is important in such fields as information design and visual literacy, which deal with the visual communication of information. He coined the term "chartjunk" to refer to useless, non-informative, or information-obscuring elements of quantitative information displays. Other key concepts of Tufte are the lie factor, the data-ink ratio, and the data density of a graphic.[7]

He uses the term "data-ink ratio" to argue against using excessive decoration in visual displays of quantitative information.[8] In Visual Display, Tufte states:

Sometimes decorations can help editorialize about the substance of the graphic. But it's wrong to distort the data measures—the ink locating values of numbers—in order to make an editorial comment or fit a decorative scheme.

Tufte also encourages the use of data-rich illustrations with all the available data presented. When the data-rich illustrations are examined closely, every data point has a value, but when they are looked at more generally, only trends and patterns can be observed. Tufte suggests these macro/micro readings be presented in the space of an eye-span, in the high resolution format of the printed page, and at the unhurried pace of the viewer's leisure.

In addition to current developments in information design, Tufte is interested in classic and breakthrough examples of historic information graphics. He draws on examples from his own personal collection, as well as rare volumes available in libraries such as the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, and takes great pains to reproduce them at high resolution and in full color in his books.

Tufte uses several historical examples to make his case, including

Criticism of PowerPoint

Tufte has criticized the way Microsoft PowerPoint is typically used. In his essay "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint", Tufte criticizes many properties and uses of the software:

  • It is used to guide and to reassure a presenter, rather than to enlighten the audience;
  • It has unhelpfully simplistic tables and charts, resulting from the low resolution of early computer displays;
  • The outliner causes ideas to be arranged in an unnecessarily deep hierarchy, itself subverted by the need to restate the hierarchy on each slide;
  • Enforcement of the audience's lockstep linear progression through that hierarchy (whereas with handouts, readers could browse and relate items at their leisure);
  • Poor typography and chart layout, from presenters who are poor designers and who use poorly designed templates and default settings (in particular, difficulty in using scientific notation);
  • Simplistic thinking, from ideas being squashed into bulleted lists, and stories with beginning, middle, and end being turned into a collection of disparate, loosely disguised points. This may present a misleading facade of the objectivity and neutrality that people associate with science, technology, and "bullet points".

Tufte uses the way PowerPoint was used by NASA engineers in the events leading to the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster as an example of the many problems. The software style is designed to persuade rather than to inform people of technical details. Tufte's analysis of a NASA PowerPoint slide is included in the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s report—including an engineering detail buried in small type on a crowded slide with six bullet points, that if presented in a regular engineering white paper, might have been noticed and the disaster prevented.[10][11]

Instead, Tufte argues that the most effective way of presenting information in a technical setting, such as an academic seminar or a meeting of industry experts, is by distributing a brief written report that can be read by all participants in the first 5 to 10 minutes of the meeting. Tufte believes that this is the most efficient method of transferring knowledge from the presenter to the audience and then the rest of the meeting is devoted to discussion and debate.[12]

Small multiple

One method Tufte encourages to allow quick visual comparison of multiple series is the small multiple. This is a chart with many series shown on a single pair of axes and it can often be easier to read when displayed as several separate pairs of axes placed next to each other. This is particularly helpful when the series are measured on quite different vertical (y-axis) scales, but over the same range on the horizontal x-axis (usually time).


Tufte also invented small multiple with several lines used together. Tufte explains the sparkline as a kind of "word" that conveys rich information without breaking the flow of a sentence or paragraph made of other "words" both visual and conventional.


Beyond his academic endeavors over the years, Tufte has created sculptures, often large outdoor ones made of metal or stone,[3] which were first primarily exhibited on his own rural Connecticut property. In 2009–10, some of these artworks were exhibited at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, in the one-man show Edward Tufte: Seeing Around.[16]

In 2010, "the man known as 'ET'... opened a gallery, ET Modern, in New York City's Chelsea Art District"[17] at 11th Avenue and 20th Street.[18]


Works on political economy

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Works of analytic design

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External links

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Preceded by
John Chapline
Succeeded by
Jay Bolter

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