Book Report: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

I’ve been interested lately in the idea of using infographic pages to display critical stats about the services my teams build. In typical fashion, I decided to start by reading a book, and this one seems to be the book to read in the field of informative graphics.
It was definitely a bit of a mismatch — I didn’t get what I was hoping to out of the book. Perhaps partly because of my disappointment in that, I also didn’t find the book to be very helpful. For one thing, most of the rules Tufte lays out are negative rules. “Don’t use gridlines” (he calls it chartjunk) is typical. Even some of his “Do” rules are really about things that should be erased. Some of the ideas seemed obvious to me and others felt like an opinion stated as absolute fact.
And that’s definitely a thing in this book: Tufte rarely sounds like he’s voicing an opinion, instead the book is filled with statements like “Beautiful graphics do not traffic with the trivial.” As I was reading the book, my inner voice would often fall into a Hollywood “Voice of God” tone. Here’s another typical example (although in this one, at least Tufte starts out with the qualifier “should”):

Data graphics should often be based on large rather than small data matrices and have a high rather than low data density. More information is better than less information, especially when the marginal costs of handling and interpreting additional information are low, as they are for most graphics.

Perhaps this book, written in 1982, has just become a bit dated? I found some of Tufte’s “improvements” on data display more confusing than the originals; apparently those visual metaphors did not catch on. I did get some value out of the book; I suppose it served as an introduction to some of the vocabulary and concepts, but overall I’d say this book is more useful to someone who’s building graphics in a statistical context than someone looking to do so in a business context.

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