Book Review: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte

Since the self-publication of this first, now classic book by Edward R. Tufte in 1983, he has produced three more indispensable critiques/guides to using graphics to better explain data, ideas, narratives, and other sorts of information. His new book, Beautiful Evidence, was just released and is his first book since 1997's Visual Explanations (Envisioning Information is the other book). With the publication of his new book it seems fitting to look at where it all began.
For Tufte, the bane of his existence are statistical representations that pander to the supposedly dim-witted audiences of newspapers and magazines, representations that feel the need to "jazz up" their graphs with pictures and other superfluous information that is layered over the data, rather than being a part of it. The most obvious examples can be found on the cover of USA Today, whose graphs tend to obscure and distract from the actual data being presented. In place of this sort of practice, Tufte pushes graphical excellence and integrity. To explain these rather broad and vague ideas, he uses examples of good and bad graphic design to define rather specific traits of the former, in which he evolves almost a new language via terms like "data-ink" and "chartjunk."
For those outside the narrow field of graphically representing data in books, newspapers and magazines, it might come as a surprise that anything was wrong with graphs like those in USA Today. But after reading this first of Tufte's now four books, it's clear that poor graphs and other representations not only undermine the intelligence of readers but ultimately lie to them by skewing exactly what it is being presented in the first place.