Jessica Helfand | Essays

Edward Tufte: The Dispassionate Statistician I

I went to college with a very sharp guy who once claimed that the problem with sociology was sociologists, who were, as far as he was concerned, merely self-proclaimed experts on the obvious. "All sociologists really do," he once observed, "is give names to stuff we already know." This same guy went on to become a wildly successful head writer for the NBC hit show, Frasier, and it later seemed to me that while veering away from sociological study per se, he nevertheless adopted one of that discipline's principal characteristics: he became a self-proclaimed expert. And a rich one.

And so it is with Edward Tufte, Yale statistician emeritus, publisher, millionaire -- and graphic designer. (With apologies to Bonnie Scranton, with whom he collaborated on an original art portfolio of "cognitive art prints" and to Artists Space in New York, supporters of his sculpture, Tufte-the-artist carries hubris to entirely new - and considerably worrisome - levels.) Such is the Tufte allure that the current issue of Wired features an excerpt from a forthcoming book (and DVD) by David Byrne entitled Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information, a title so obviously ripped from the Tufte canon as to appear a parody.

The only difference is, Byrne is as serious about his attraction to Powerpoint as Tufte is in his denigration of it.

Both Byrne and Tufte are self-proclaimed experts. Yet in spite of what they might have you believe, neither are artists -- in that formally attuned, conceptually rigorous way, for instance, that one might look at Jasper Johns or Andy Warhol: and here I am deliberately citing artists whose work embraces some aspect of popular culture yet manages, at the same time, to move beyond it in a meaningful, and indeed, memorable way.

Not so with Byrne and Tufte -- the former, whose Peter-Max-esque rainbow arrows and "recombinant phrenology" (there's sociology for you!) calls to mind a derivative John Maeda, as enamored of his newly minted expertise in Graphic Design as he is of the facility with which he hits the repeat function on his keyboard. Tufte, married to a graphic designer whose work is synonymous with the very rigors that typify Swiss Modernism, learned early on that size really DOES matter: line weights, that is, and juxtapositions of scale and proportion which lend much-needed visual impact (or can just as easily take it away) to a statistic, a chart, a display of information. That Tufte has capitalized on this realization ever since is the best evidence I have ever seen of the worthlessness of design education. Put another way: Tufte has invoked the principles of Evelyn Wood speed-reading in his reductivist ad absurdum take on the discipline of Graphic Design.

He is a statistician by training, a designer by marriage, and a sociologist by default -- giving names to stuff we already know, and getting paid handsomely for it along the way. Force of nature that he is, the man who once analyzed charts is now designing tshirts and producing sculpture installations. Where will it end, and why does it remind me of Academy Award recipients whose acceptance speeches deviate from mere gratitude to include political opinion, religious fanaticism, even private kisses to the loved ones at home -- all shamelessly delivered in the glaring spotlight of primetime TV? Tufte's appeal to the virtues of cognition is perhaps little more than a poorly veiled attempt at reshaping design parlance with himself as its single and uncontested author. Unlike Florence Nightingale, who was, it turns out, an early advocate of the power of visual information for health reform ( she was known as "The Passionate Statistician") Tufte's expertise is not only self-proclaimed -- it is also deeply and irrevocably self-serving.


Posted in: Technology, Theory + Criticism

Comments [37]

Or in other words, you are bitter that Tufte made some money preaching about how to draw graphs, and you feel that his success is undeserved; his books are worthless; and his whole career is void because he writes about the apparently obvious? Perhaps he shouldn't have written any books? Maybe he shouldn't have married a designer, coz maybe then he'd still be counting beans instead of money, and the world would be a better place for it?

I think Tufte has a first-rate mind. He's incredibly smart. And charismatic. But my admiration for his thinking aside, the self-aggrandizement seems unnecessary and, frankly, it devalues his real contribution(s) which reside in a kind of original thinking about the visual nature of "reading" data. And for me, the fact that he doesn't give Nightingale her due is highly suspect ... as is, um, his sculpture.

Did Tufte kill your father or something? No I exaggerate, but there does seem to be an underlying resentment that's not quite explained by the text.

I think a key point that needs to be made is that there are several types of obvious. Some stuff is obvious to all and selling it is merely a matter of reshuffling words around and giving it a slick pitch. The other obvious is only obvious once someone has actually pointed it out. And the pointer out tends to get called a genius. Tufte is far from perfect, but he's had his moments showing the world obvious things that few in any had realized. And he's rode that too success, more power to him. No need to player hate.

Does calling Tufte "dispassionate" qualify me as a vengeance-seeking psychopath? I would say that yes -- this is an exaggeration.

And I would prefer that you leave my father out of it, thank you.

My point about Tufte is really a deeper critique about information design as a genre whose criteria are (at least to me) often unclear. THIS is a thread we should continue to debate -- as I am sure there are many thoughtful design theorists and practitioners engaging in this sort of work who could enlighten me and others like me.

Perhaps you will be one of them.

How can the author of a design manifesto titled "Me, The Undersigned," criticize another's self-aggrandizement?

And if your point about Tufte was about the nature of critical thinking about information design, why is it all cluttered up with ad hominem attacks on sociology (a worthwhile field), poorly considered criticism of artistic ability (I can't speak to Tufte's work, but Byrne has produced a lot of beautiful, thought-provoking pieces, particularly his photography), and slams involving Tufte's wife? (Why are you allowed to bring Tufte's wife into it if Abe isn't allowed to mention your father? Now, I'm guessing you'll just back-pedal and say, "I was just kidding.")

I don't know about Tufte's self-proclaimed expertise -- but I do know many smart people claim he's an expert. You raise the notion of "What is expetise?" Are you an expert in graphic design? How so? Says who?

Your slings and arrows of persecution are dull and poorly aimed.

Jessica has a point. Tufte is not a designer he's actually a fan who has capitalized on the wits of some really good, if not great, visual thinkers (his wife Inge Druckery included). No, I can't fault him for being entrepreneurial. But like most good curators he should properly acknowledge all of the designers who've helped him achieve so much over the years. Unfortunately in the often inequitable collaborations between author and designer, the contributions of the designer are still transparent.

I still have his books in spite of his pompousity.

I tend to think that Byrne has something of a pedigree, as he was an (admittedly weird) art student at RISD.

Of course, he's made a career as both a musician and visual artist of doing completely bullshit stuff and calling it art, which other people gladly glom onto. Which is why I love the guy so much.

Tufte? You're right about a lot of your criticisms, but consider this: how much of what he talks about was really that obvious before he showed up?

On the whole, though, I think of Tufte much the same way I think of Jakob Nielsen -- that is, not at all, at least when I'm doing visual design.

Then again, I think David Carson is a genius, so what do I know? ;-)
Joshua Ellis

The manifesto was originally written -- tongue-in-cheek -- as a critique of the huge number of manifesti being published by new media people a few years ago. A comment on the Fatal Grandeur thread notes that the manifesto can be read here.

When I first told my Father that I was going to graduate school for graphic design I was a bit concerned. Being a graphic designer was one thing, but for grad school it seemed a little, well, lightweight.

The discussion turned out all right and it turned out to be largely about Edward Tufte's first book, 'The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.' The book had introduced my Father to information design and we discussed how this was similar to the work he had done writing his doctoral dissertation, which was titled something like, 'Maritime Occupational Prestige and the Effect of Seasonal Anomaly in the North Atlantic 1740-1759.'

Needless to say I have had a soft spot for Tufte ever since. But now that I am almost finished with grad school, I realize that what he did for my Father - what he probably does for friends and relatives of designers all over the world - was to mystify graphic design, giving it authority by making it appear academic, difficult, and most of all, dry.

Now, graphic design can be very challenging and even intellectual. But the point of all that hard work and book smarts is to make complicated things more clear. This is a point often made by Tufte about other people's work, but he doesn't always apply it in his own presentations. He takes the clear and makes it complicated. He takes the variety of human experience and dresses it all in the same tweed blazer and muted college sweatshirt. He even managed to make tee shirts look stuffy.

Makes me wonder how that same conversation would have gone if my Father and I had ended up talking about Nigel Holmes instead.

Tell your father that if the film rights haven't yet been sold for "Maritime Occupational Prestige and the Effect of Seasonal Anomaly in the North Atlantic 1740-1759" I might be interested in talking to him further.

Seriously, though: your comment about the clarity with which we discuss our work with our parents is an interesting one to me, (Michael Bierut has often cited his Mom in discussions of graphic design and how we communicate it outside the tribe -- perhaps he will weigh in here on this.) But your other point intrigues me also: can too much clarity be numbing to the intellect? Can streamlined form diminish the complexity which is, in fact, a more honest expression of (certain types of) content? Nigel Holmes would have interesting comments to make about this -- as would, no doubt, Richard Saul Wurman. And what happens when Holmes and Wurman and Tufte dominate the publications and debate on this subject? A bias against richness; a propensity for a singular kind of data expression; and a skewed perspective that, I would argue, largely underscores my original post.

I'm definitely in Jessica's camp (and Mr. H. Jones') as far as Tufte and Byrne are concerned--and I was a HUGE Talking Heads fan! Here's a backwards heresy-cum- compliment: I've always felt the first 3 Heads-designed LPs were brilliant and the M&Co ones kind of dull.
Kenneth FG

Jessica wrote:
"But your other point intrigues me also: can too much clarity be numbing to the intellect? Can streamlined form diminish the complexity which is, in fact, a more honest expression of (certain types of) content?"

In this case, I would respond that to simplify is to abstract. The richness of detail is... lost in translation.

In dialogues like this, I love bringing out this old warhorse:
All propaganda or popularization involves a putting of the complex into the simple, but such a move is instantly deconstructive. For if the complex can be put into the simple, then it cannot be as complex as it seemed in the first place; and if the simple can be an adequate medium of such complexity, then it cannot after all be as simple as all that.
-Terry Eagleton
M Kingsley

I was careful in my previous post not to use the word 'simple.' I think it is a great word (despite Ikea's best efforts to co-opt it) but not in the same league as 'clear.' Information design often has to be both complex and clear. Again, Tufte is very insightful about this in other people's work.

The issue for me is Tufte's role as an ambassador for our profession. After all, he has barely dipped his little toe into the actual practice of graphic design. He is, as Jessica's original post points out, a curator, a critic, a professor, and a showman and he should be evaluated on those terms.

His collection of antique graphs and finely ruled charts works great for explaining information design to academics and engineers. His books go well with corduroy elbow patches and they sit nicely on the shelves of the faculty lounge but they are not authoritative or comprehensive despite the pronouncements on their dust jackets.

The danger for me is that his version of information design (or Richard Saul Wurman's or Nigel Holmes') becomes too simple when applied universally. In fact by the third book it becomes a style.

David Byrne is just as useful an ambassador for design as Tufte precisely because of his embarrasing forays into graphic design art. For people who love his music (even those who read Wired), seeing him messing about with a computer may do more to get them interested in graphic design than feeling intimidated by a Tufte book.

M Kingsley wrote:
"All propaganda or popularization involves a putting of the complex into the simple, but such a move is instantly deconstructive. For if the complex can be put into the simple, then it cannot be as complex as it seemed in the first place..."

This wonderful quote nicely summarizes a particular kind of disdain that arises against working in-house graphic artists after the honeymoon is over, and that perhaps here has arisen against Mr. Tufte now that we have all been enlightened by him:

"If you're so great, why are you still here?"

I'm glad to have learned more here about Tufte's background, particularly as it seems to reinforce the comments I'll be making in my essay. "Information design" is likely thought to be the area of design impervious to untrained (in graphic design) interloping but Tufte seems to weaken an assertion of that sort.

I'd agree that his approach is more about being stylish of a kind rather than objectively clarity. And he's also disturbingly blind to the complications of culture. I think of his redesign of the Challenger O-Ring damage data, which suggests that good design might have saved the shuttle. But as the latest accident investigation showed, even a recognized situation of danger can be redefined as normal. Sort of like all the objectively design-perfect STOP signs that people blow right through (maybe putting them in a 'bad' typeface would slow folks down?). Rather than increasing an appreciation of information graphics, I wonder if Tufte's false expertise only increases our societal risk.

I'm also curious about the idea of Tufte and Byne being "ambassadors" for design. That design needs ambassadors sounds like a damning indictment of the field. If design can't speak directly to society on its own, how can it ambassador anyone else?

I suppose, though, that Byrne's work could serve as good an entree as anyone else's. All I can say for sure is if it's anything like his books, I won't personally care for it. I expect it will be more distinctly unprofound Artproduct (I have both Strange Ritual and Your Actual World, mostly because I picked them up remaindered.) As artifacts, I like Tufte's books more.
Kenneth FG

Clarification for Dmitri and leMel:
The quote came from Terry Eagleton and was attributed as such.

I only wish to have half his ability.
M Kingsley

This seems to be just another instance of the classic split between graphic design and information design. As well as the even older schism between artists and critics. Does this ever turn out well?
Daniel Harvey

If Da Vinci's statement, "simplicity is the highest form of complexity," is true for information design, is it not also true for writing ?

Tufte looks through a different lens at visual ideas familiar to designers. These ideas journey through his knowledge set and are recreated in his image. The work is interesting because he isn't a designer, yet has a highly evolved alternate view.

The clarity and directness of the writing in this forum makes it easy to follow and enjoy. Simple language is good. Complex language sounds impressive, but is actually less effective for communicating anything other than pride.

The Rotovision book, "Mapping: An Illustrated guide to Graphic Navigational Systems" (by Roger Fawcett-Tang and William Owen) is readable, relevant, inspiring.

The writing in Mapping is top quality because it is informed by design experience. Perhaps more designers should follow the maxim, "write what you know."

Ben Weeks

Can we agree at least, as an editor that his books are a quality collection of examples? I know he certainly got me thinking everytime I see an info-graphic "Could this be done more clearly?" Of course, I did discover Ed T while in design school, so I may have come out thinking the same thing anyhow, or maybe I always had, but he certainly drew my attention to it more greatly. Who cares what he thinks of himself, if he helps call attention to a good cause? The comment that drew comparison between Ed T and Jakob N hit it right on the head: ignoring methods, these people have brought our attention to something important, and why do we care who the heck *they* are?

I've attended two of Tufte's one-day seminars and have read his books (the three he gives you at the seminars, at least), and I completely agree with Ms.Helfand. Tufte may be an extremely intelligent and well-spoken person, but his style and reasoning for most things leaves much to be desired.

Tufte himself may be "dispassionate" but at the end of the one-day seminar I attended I was not. He reinvigorated my desire to do good work. I can't say that of many other "guru" types.
daniel harvey

I'm glad someone is finally being critical of Tufte's work. Thank you!

I don't know why people have a problem with criticism (as some people above obviously do). We need to be most critical of the big names in the field...for they set the course. Even if one doesn't agree with Ms. Helfand's remarks, at least appreciate the argument.

The levels of Tufte acclaim are akin to the superstardom of Justin Timberlake. Please. Stop the madness.

That's just it, it's not critical of Tufte's work. It's critical of Tufte. I think Peter Merholz was right about that in his post.
Daniel Harvey

""All sociologists really do," he once observed, "is give names to stuff we already know." "

As do mathematicians. What's wrong with that? Numbers don't exist. They are abstractions which we use to model nature, just as are the rules with which we compute. Naming, or creating abstractions is important because we can manipulate a model and predict the future. Mathematicians can conduct as many experiments on numbers as they wish. Sociologists are rightly restricted by ethics. However, they can still use their abstractions to make valuable predictions about societies.

I remember reading one of Tufte's books a while back. It was amusing and an easy read, but really...light.

I would disagree slightly with the characterization of sociology. There's a bit more to sociology than that (but only a bit :). I think a better analogy is to those self-help books that just tell you stuff you already know. I think of Tufte as the Dr. Phil of statistical graphics. Apparently, people are willing to pay both of them for their insights!


As Dmitri wrote, “simple” and “clear” are not the same. Tufte spends considerable space in his later books (and in The cognitive style of PowerPoint) despairing at the useless simplicity of many modern graphics. On p. 37 of Envisioning information he even says “To clarify, add detail”.

(On preview: This comment system allows <i>, but not <cite>? How anti-semantic.)

Say what you will about Tufte -- but stay the hell away from David Bryne, who is one of the great creative minds of our time. His deadpan humor may be lost on you, but I assure you that while you sit here typing away on your cute little blog, he's out there making ART that embraces pop culture and yet moves beyond it in a way that is both memorable and meaningful to many, many people -- me included.

What irony! The very first thing I did on arriving at this page was to hit the button on my Mozilla browser that zaps the colors so that they show up as black text on white background rendering the page infinitely more legible. I couldn't help but chuckle as I then read a criticism of Tufte.

The merit of his own work aside, Tufte provides a tremendous service simply by promoting, passionately, the value of thoughtful information design, and standing his intellectual high-ground.

He confronts designers with a moral intensity and charges us to fight cheap, distracting decoration and muddy, reductive thinking. This is a good thing, whatever your opinion of the commercial trappings of the E.T. roadshow.

Designers working in a corporate environment need someone in their corner inciting them to argue for something better, more clear, and more honest...because it can be so much safer and easier to color the powerpoint you're handed.

And, regarding "giv[ing] names to stuff," there are few social acts of the intellect more significant than giving a name to what would otherwise go unarticulated, or bringing about a change in popular nomenclature. Names create the shared reality.

Reference: George Orwell, Oscar Wilde, political correctness, "partial birth abortion", and the recent recasting of "prunes" as "dried plums."

Edward Tufte: Justin Timberlake, Dr. Phil or James Bond ?
Ben Weeks

1. The Dispassionate Statistician - Part I, I can't wait for Part II. Good stuff.

2. Please re-design the site to a light background and dark text: a good example would be http://www.style.org/ or maybe, http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/index.

Well I will include myself in this discussion spelling errors and all. I have read some of the comments and hope I am not repeating anything. I am new to Sir Tufte but not people like him. The field of graphic design is riddled with guys (yes mostly men) who switched from science in college to graphics because it's NEAT. Well it is neat and it's mine.. an artist since well since they asked me what do you want to be when you grow up? I always knew, artist. All I can say I please leave my kingdom as your soul does not reveal itself here. Respectfully, Tam

Well, this one blew my hair back. And yes, has given me cause to reconsider Tufte, without even a mention of "Information Architecture".

the trouble with many of the posts above, and i admit i have not read them all, is that they are relatively flat as critique. good critique requires establishing evidence, either in your own work or in others, of how it can be done better. many of the posts above call tufte's work shallow and light but make no other references to information design theory or method that demonstrate improved levels of effectiveness. too often design critique is simply a designer's personal opinion. sigh.
chris conley

Chris, I am so glad to have you have joined in this conversation.

I agree with you that simply calling Tufte "shallow" is a flat critique that does not expand the conversation much, nor does it offer alternatives.

In my post of 11/06/03, I attempted to challenge the Tufte monolith by establishing that his 32-page Powerpoint opus was not wholly original (this is not to say copied), but had been made much more articularly as a cultural critique by Ian Parker almost two years before. My larger critique was not of Tufte, but of the press (design magazines, Wired, The New York Times) that treated his Powerpoint argument as if it was news. It was not original and it was not news.

I have a more complicated, and in my own mind conflicted, argument with Tufte taking credit for "understanding" why the Columbia went down. Tufte's fame was established by his "analysis" of the Challenger crash. In this case, complex data was communicated on an overnight basis, and the charts may have led to the wrong conclusions. Tufte, more than anyone, revealed in this instance that bad graphic design can actually kill people.

In the case of the Columbia, I have the awkward feeling that Tufte was brought into the post-disaster analysis precisely because of his previous fame. I do not believe that all of NASA's resources were fooled, over a number of days, by a bunch of slides. Suggesting that Powerpoint is not the best way of communicating data is one thing; "discovering" that Powerpoint is evil and blaming it for the deaths of astronuts is another. In any event, I have no doubt that Tufte, the same man who wants to make thousands of dollars doing public speaking gigs, is prospering from his NASA associations. (Why does this scenario sound so much like Washington politics. Have we reached the point where statistics professors need to sign conflict-of-interest documents?)

[We do not believe in personal attacks on Design Observer, and I am not making this argument to attack Mr. Tufte personally. I am challenging the linkage between his role as a public figure in a disaster commission and his marketing himself as a speaker and publisher.]

The larger challenge for Design Observer, from my personal standpoint, is to break the monopoly on "information design" held by folks by Edward Tufte and Richard Saul Wurman. Their contributions are enormous, but they are not gods. We will learn more, and certainly our students will be wiser, if we acknowledge that they are mere mortals.
William Drenttel

The great irony of Jessica Helfand's post is that she is exhibiting the very same qualities of "self-proclaimed expert" that she appears to loathe in others.

She's seems, as a start, to be an expert on what an "artist" is:

"...neither [Tufte or Byrne] are artists - in that formally attuned, conceptually rigorous way, for instance, that one might look at Jasper Johns or Andy Warhol..."

Oh, really? Gosh, I wonder how I can get hold of this all-empowering "formally attuned, conceptual[ism]"? I'll even take a quart of that "rigorous way" of perception please?

I have to say that I agree with Erika's statements.

So, Tufte has a name! Richard Feynmann had/has one too! Maybe we should send Chomsky back to his linguistics? They are/were all called upon to speak because of their ability to make ideas clearer to folks through the methods of critique. When people such as these are able to light a fire within someone's creative, and inquisitive being, then what is wrong with that?

Yes, unfortunately, we live in a world where many folks are unable or unwilling to contrast these differences of approach, but I don't see that as a problem created by these "superstars."

As for Byrne, again, it's a situation where a popular guy with curious interests about life gets slagged because he should know his place (hmmm, where is that - back in art school...or as a singer...or...?) OH! I forgot - he's *popular* and it appears, according to the nature of the post of Ms. Helfand's that we just can't have that - whether you're a Byrne, Maeda, Tufte, or (fill-in-the-blank).

I'm reminded of a friend that I used to work with who hated Byrne because, "he said that he discovered world music." After I explained to him that he wasn't saying that he was the first and sole discoverer, but rather he discovered it...*for himself* (bringing much joy, etc...), it appeares that it was just a case of semantics that came between his arrogance and gentle understanding.

I'm wondering what it is that comes between you, Ms. Helfand and gentle understanding.

Rod Stasick
Rod Stasick

I think it is — or should — be possible to discuss something critically without offense being taken. As offense has been taken, I apologize, though I stand by my original comment. I applaud Mr. Tufte for his ability to bridge the gap between the visual and the statistical worlds he inhabits, but having researched this world a bit more I think there are plenty of smart statisticians out there who have as much to say about this, if not more.

I'm not claiming to be an expert on this, only offering an opinion on what I, personally, believe is a level of public influence (Tufte's, that is) that is disproportionate to something of real value: and that is original thinking — and making. And maybe a little humilty, here and there, wouldn't hurt. (The leap to Tufte the public artist I just don't get.)

Finally, I'm a designer and a critic. I'm also an educator and a wife and mother and it is for these parts of my life that I prefer to reserve my supply of gentle understanding — why else would they call it criticism?

I hear you though, and I'll try to ease up next time. But just a little.
Jessica Helfand

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