Reading with Edward Tufte

Today, a group of thirteen Vertigo folks, including myself, attended Edware Tufte's one-day course on Presenting Data and Information in San Francisco. The course is $360 for the day, but that includes all four of Tufte's books, which are currently going for about $141 new on Amazon. We had a group of more than ten, so we received the 25% group discount. The net cost is about $130 for a day with Tufte.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

Chris Sells also attended the same one-day Tufte course in summer 2004 and posted his detailed thoughts here:

Speaking as someone who works with a bunch of visualization folks, that Viz-o-Matic video is absolutely priceless. I’ll have to show that one around the office.

Do you think that reading his books beforehand made your day more useful, and if so do you think that maybe the included-cost books should be distributed some time before the actual class is held? Or maybe a better question (avoiding monetary issues), would you recommend reading them before attending?

maybe the included-cost books should be distributed some time before the actual class is held

Technically, they are; the class starts at 10 am, but you can register starting at 8:45 am. The handout indicates that you’re supposed to do a bit of reading in the books before the class. Just a few introductory bits.

If you have a choice, I think it’s best to come into the class with no exposure at all to Tufte’s books. That way you maximize the impact of the material he covers.

I wrote this some months ago in Stephen Few’s discussion board:

(…) What I find interesting in Tufte is that he builds a theory of information visualization based (among some other things) on some very strong aesthetic principles from minimalism (Mies van der Rohe). The result is very coherent and it gives you a strict and normative way of looking at graphs (“maximize data/ink ratio”; “maximize data density”; “no chart junk”, etc.). But design is, by its very nature, a subjective answer. You can’t always back it with scientific evidence. You can’t anticipate all the logical consequences of your design theory and some of them will collide with scientific findings, sooner or later.(…)

I also see myself as a Tufte fan but are there any other options? Tufte gives us something unique: an holistic theory and metrics to evaluate the results (the full monty…). No one else does that, only some random guidelines. I suspect that Tufte’s theory is too positivist and works better inside a simplified reality. I am glad we have him around, but I think we need an alternative view (just in case…).

He is Marx, not Leonardo.

Personally, I find Tufte’s work to be beautiful and engaging, but it only scratches the surface of visualisation. I think that Lee Wilkinson’s book, The Grammar of Graphics, provides a much stronger theoretical framework, albeit without the emphasis on beauty.

I don’t think Tufte provides a holistic theory at all - more of a set of guidelines to follow. Do this, don’t do that, etc, but provide very little help for actually figuring out how to display your data to gain insight into the underlying phenomenon.

Hadley, Wilkinson’s book is, well… a Grammar. It is very useful, but doesn’t prevent you from designing bad charts (he says so somewhere in the book). Likewise, you can’t write a good novel just because you know all about the English grammar. For a “stronger theoretical framework” I would skip Wilkinson and go to the source, Jacques Bertin’s Semiology of Graphics. Needlessly cryptic, his theoretical framework may be boring from time to time, but you will never draw a futile chart again. For him there is no art in visualization, either.

If you google for visualization guidelines, you will find hundreds of random stuff. Tufte’s guidelines are metrics for his aesthetics theory. You will always understand where a guideline comes from because the foundations are very coherent.

I attended this same Tufte lecture back in October and was disappointed. My entire thoughts are here:

Tufte is like the Al Gore of the design world: he doesn’t debate, nor even answer questions. His courses are a rip-off, akin to buying a hard-cover book and book-on-tape of your favorite author, at the same time.

He doesn’t know computers at all, and he thinkgs that computer displays are low resolution. Compared to what? Paper, of course.

Wanna see his definition of good web design? Go to his forum:
…which has more text that a typical Slashdot thread. Is that Times New Roman? Yep, it is.

Avoid his pretentious lectures if at all possible. And for god sakes, please don’t ask any questions during his all-day lecture. That’s just rude.

viz-o-matic is now at

I went to that course in SF. After his 10th time railing against Microsoft and blaming the Space Shuttle Discovery disaster on PowerPoint, I was pretty much done with the guy. He comes off as an arrogant douchebag. Blaming PowerPoint for Disovery is moronic and akin to blaming the Holocaust on Charles Darwin.

I don’t recommend his lectures. Unless you’re a Mac fanboy. Then, I’m sure you’ll love them.

Went to the December session in San Francisco and came out of it with learning two things:

  1. A lot of great little tidbits about design
  2. Edward Tufte is a an arrogant, dogmatic man whose intolerance for any views other than his own compromises his intellecutal integrity.

I personally witnessed a poor woman get a tongue lashing during his office hours (in which he answers questions and autographs his books at the same time as he is brilliant enough to do both simultaneously) simply because she dared to question one of his particularly extreme views.

Even if the question was dumb as he said it was (and it wasn’t - she made a good point), she was a fan and a seminar participant and deserved to be treated with more respect and courtesy.

He has good things to say but I am very uncomfortable endorsing anyone who has such contempt for legitimate inquiry and criticism.

I attended Professor Tufte’s course and found it to be worthwhile and inspiring.

Even with the bit of rockstar aura surrounding him and his work, he is down to earth and friendly. He went out of his way to help me find a seat before the course started, and later patiently answered attendees’ questions while signing books during a break.

Overall he is passionate about his work but a kind man and a good teacher. His books are outstanding and wonderful; they are tremendous tools for seeing, thinking, and understanding.

As a lowly developer I’m wondering whether I should just donate the four books in my possession. I don’t want anyone thinking I like these books…