Not the Textbook: Tufte’s Books

by Mike Gleicher on December 24, 2014


What if I told you that the most influential books in the field of Visualization were self-published books written by a guy with no formal training in Visualization, Perception, or Design. A political scientist was forced to teach statistics to journalists, and in the process decided to think about visualization from an art historian’s point of view. Supposedly, no one would publish his book at first, so he took out a mortgage on his house and self-published it. Yes, this is Edward Tufte. If you’re not familiar with him, there’s an interesting article here, although, it is clearly written by a Tufte believer.

There is no denying that Tufte is an important figure in Visualization. He has strong (extreme?) views, that are not necessarily based on evidence or empiricism. They are not always right. For example, his assertions about the importance of minimalism are a huge over-simplification (although, if you understand the historical context of them, you can see the point he was trying to make). He fails to acknowledge that there are many who do similar things to what he does, but in a more rigorous (and scientifically justified) way.

Tufte (and his books) are kind of like religious documents. To a believer, they are true facts. Suggesting otherwise is heresy. But to most people, they are best interpreted as historical fiction that is designed to make a worthwhile point. And no one can deny that it is influential.

Tufte’s books are wonderful. They are artistically beautiful: well designed, and full of nice examples. View them as an art history lesson, showing you historical examples of the art (of visualization) . View his writings as provocations: designed to challenge you to think, not to be taken literally.

If you are going to work in Visualization, you will probably want to have a set of Tufte books on your shelf. In fact, if you’re a student, you can take Tufte’s one day seminar at a discount and get a set of books. (note: I have not seen a Tufte one day seminar, but I have sent students to see them – I do own the books). (see update below)

For this class, it is valuable to read some Tufte. Thanks to the concept of academic fair use, we can provide you with a chapter or two from some of his books as part of the course reader. Sadly, looking at a scan of the book belies the beauty of the book design. So, hopefully, seeing the chapters will inspire you to look at the whole books.

 Update: It seems that Tufte is selling complete sets of books directly for a reasonable price ($100 for the 4 books in softcover).

Update: Chapter 3 of Alberto Cairo’s The Functional Art has a great discussion of the good and bad aspects of Tufte, and the “religious war” with designers like Holmes. Cairo is somehow fair and kind to both sides. Cairo’s books are awesome. I recommend them.

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