Guide on the Side – Now I Get the Picture: A Visual Strunk & White

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. she is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries’ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various non-profit and civic activities. Always open to new ideas, Marie can be reached at: [email protected].

I am often asked to recommend books about presentations and speaking. There are many useful titles and some are referenced in earlier columns. However, if I had to zero in on “the source,” a work that causes you to exclaim “Now I Get the Picture,” it would be the trilogy by Edward R. Tufte. Tufte’s classic works satisfy the urge to see, a fundamental expectation of audiences, whether the presenter’s medium is text, voice or screen.

Many information professionals own or are familiar with Tufte’s first two titles: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 1983, “about pictures of numbers” and Envisioning Information, 1990, “about pictures of nouns”. The new one, Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative, 1997 is “about pictures of verbs” and continues the author’s crusade to bring excellence to graphical information designs. All three are self-published by Tufte’s Graphics Press and are beautiful exemplars of how good information design can escape the two-dimensional “flatland” of what we have grown accustomed to in the “awful information design” of books. A Boston Globe reviewer epitomizes Tufte as “a visual Strunk & White.”

I have frequently seen the first two Tufte’s books in private law library collections. They are heavily used by litigators to prepare courtroom exhibits that clearly portray complexity. Other reasons for law libraries to own Visual Explanations and other Tufte’s books are:

  • Enable staff to design and deliver presentations with more ideas in less time
  • Supplement wayfinding design of facilities
    • Follow example on p. 147 of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
  • Incorporate functional graphics in the design of web pages and other screens
  • Develop CLE and other training materials which support performance
  • Build architectures of content, so the information becomes the interface.

One of the many things that Tufte has done for information designers is to provide an information design vocabulary: chartjunk, flatland, time series, small multiples, data-ink ratio, layering and separation, micro/macro readings, direct labels, encodings, and self-representing scales. In Visual Explanations, the vocabulary is illustrated using a wide array of topics: storm clouds, music, magic, medical records, and a submersible field guide for snorkelers and divers to identify fish underwater to list just a few.

Tufte includes computer displays in Visual Explanations citing to one example in which less than a fifth of the material on the screen has any information value and contrasts this with his own effort for the National Gallery in which 90 percent of the image is substance. The data density of a computer screen is only about 1/10 of that on a page of text or a map. Low density computer displays result in spreading information out over many screens or dialog boxes, which causes users to get lost in an information maze. Tufte recommends placing information adjacent in space, not stacked in time, to avoid the “Where am I problem.”

Maps are at the high end of the data density spectrum. The eye and the brain work well together in the act of map reading. It almost seems that humans are physiologically disposed to extract information from maps more intuitively and more quickly than from a text or visual scene. Yet Tufte cautions that leaving out a legend to indicate direction, scale and perspective on a map will distort the information.

Tufte teaches statistics, graphic design and political economy at Yale University and supplements his teaching with local training seminars on presenting data and public speaking. He has prepared evidence for several jury trials and worked on statistical and design matters for The New York Times, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Lotus development Corporation, Newsweek, CBS, NBC, and the Bureau of the Census.

Charts are also high density tools but if they contain “chartjunk”–unnecessary and confusing decoration or colors–they will confuse and mislead. Visual Explanations reproduces many of the original Challenger O-ring charts. Tragically, the critical data was there but not presented so that the causal relationship between variables was apparent.

Although Tufte laments poor design, he tells us that there are lots of good graphical designs. It is just a matter of finding them. His books are a good place to start. Visual Explanations devotes a chapter to a design that is new to me–visual confections (an assembly of visual events). Since libraries are assemblies of information events, there are many potential applications of this design, such as avoiding the practice commonly found in kiosks where the “information architecture mimics the hierarchical structure of the bureaucracy producing the design” rather than complements the information on display. (Ouch! This touches home in more places than kiosks.)

Tufte says good graphical design requires a combination of text, numbers and images. “The idea is to make designs that enhance the richness, complexity, resolution, dimensionality, and clarity of the content.” A book’s index is a design structured to retrieve content and navigate the author’s mental map. Can the index design “replicate principles of thought” and “reflect an act of insight” into information retrieval behavior? It certainly adds dimensionality and perhaps it should be customary to add legends to indexes, like those on maps, to reveal the indexer and qualifications, how the thesaurus was generated (manually or software) and level of context sensitivity. While we wait for Tufte’s next title, a cumulative topical index to the trilogy would be welcome and not only add to the way the unique information is pictured to us but make the set an even more valuable reference tool.

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