Edward Tufte

If William Playfair is the original godfather of charts, Edward Tufte has a good claim to being his modern day successor. The American statistician and graphic design theorist is regarded, within the field of data visualisation at least, as something of a living god.

In part this is because Tufte has become the modern-day incarnation of Playfair. A man on a crusade to improve the way we communicate with data, he has sold millions of books on the topic, most of them self-published because, it turned out, most of the mainstream publishers couldn’t meet his exacting standards for the printing process. His first work on data, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, which came out in April 1983, is one of the most successful self-published books of all time.


Born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1942, Tufte studied statistics at Stanford and then got a doctorate in political science at Yale. Teaching at Princeton, he was asked to give a course on statistics to visiting journalists and found he had to come up with his own rules and guidance on how best to use numbers to tell a story. Thus began a lifelong obsession.

Before Tufte began his mission, much of what passed for data visualisation and graphics in newspapers and publications was either dry or over-designed and over-complicated. Graphic designers were expected to embellish and prettify charts rather than allowing them to speak for themselves. William Playfair‘s maxim - that what mattered most of all was finding the simplest way to communicate complicated reams of information - had been lost in the mists of time.

Tufte’s primary message was that designers didn’t have to sacrifice mathematical accuracy in the quest for elegance. Through his books, his lectures and his work itself (he has advised the White House and NASA, alongside countless publications and companies) he has preached this gospel for decades. At its core is a kind of credo, a set of rules about the dos and don’ts of information design.

Many of these rules are dedicated towards stripping out all redundant information from a chart. For a period in the ‘70s (and indeed in many infographics today) there was a fashion for using drawing relevant illustrations around the lines and bars of a given chart. That jutting line showing you house prices rising and falling could form the top edge of a picture of a house, for instance. Why do a simple column chart of oil prices over the years when you could make those columns look like barrels?

Tufte’s answer was that doing so usually distracted from the data itself. All too often it make the actual datapoints less legible. He coined the term “data-ink ratio” to measure the proportion of a given graphic which was simply illustration rather than a representation of data. He questioned the “data density” of graphics. And for those graphics which most disgusted him, he coined a new portmanteau word: “chartjunk”.

In some senses, Tufte, who still lectures and writes today, has established himself as the George Orwell of data and charts. In much the same way as many writers look for guidance towards Orwell’s six rules for writing, in his essay “Politics and the English Language”, today’s graphics and data experts look to Tufte.

by Ed Conway