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The Minister of Information

If this messy world is becoming easier to understand, thank Edward Tufte.


Edward Tufte is most likely the world’s only graphic designer with roadies. “We own two of everything—amplifiers, digital projectors,” other A/V gear, he says. “One set moves up and down the West Coast, and one stays in the East, to keep the FedEx charges down.” He plays 35 or so dates a year, at $380 per ticket. Today’s is in a raddled old auditorium on 34th Street, over the Hammerstein Ballroom.

Like a musician’s tour to promote an album, this one—which will hit New York again in the fall—exists partly to sell Tufte’s four design books, the newest of which is titled Beautiful Evidence. But Tufte, through his own Graphics Press, is the book’s publisher, and he doesn’t do the usual quick month of hard promotion before heading back to his desk. He keeps going on the road, selling steadily, a few gigs a month, year after year. That may be why there are 1.4 million copies of his titles in print—a staggering figure for self-publishing. (The top seller, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, has been a reliable mover since 1983.) And at these six-and-a-half-hour presentations, the audience starts cheering when he hits the floor, clamors for their books to be signed, buys posters at the table out front. As soon as the applause stops, Tufte bolts backstage, enthusiastically draining a Corona. “There are usually about 500 people who want to talk afterwards, and I’ve exhausted myself,” he says sheepishly. “I have to go hide out. Otherwise it takes hours.” This is all a good deal more lucrative than many author tours. “Thirty-five, forty dollars a book, 1.4 million copies?” he says, with a quizzical smile, when I ask about money. “You can multiply.”

And who are these fans who won’t leave? The majority are male, and wearing expensive rimless eyeglasses. Many are Web designers, creative directors, art directors, editors, architects. They come in knowing Tufte’s obsessions and coinages: Content-light splashy graphics, or “chartjunk,” are bad. Little repeated graphics displaying variations, or “small multiples,” are good. Microsoft’s PowerPoint software is an all-conquering monster of crumminess, a threat to life as we know it. Most of all, if you are making a presentation, you can probably say everything you need to on a single folded sheet of eleven-by-seventeen copy paper, and you ought to. Pretty much anyone who writes or presents can learn from Tufte, and those who have studied his work often speak of him as a kind of prophet. The iPhone is going to be the most talked-about object in America later this month, and the endless praise of Apple’s pared-down aesthetic is, in a way, his triumph.

A moment ago, I described Edward Tufte as a graphic designer, but that’s not exactly right. His field is almost sui generis, containing bits and pieces of art direction, data-crunching, economics, historical research, and plain old expository writing. It’s often labeled “information architecture,” or “analytic design.” Tufte himself describes it many ways, but one is drawn from a classic piece of science writing: “escaping Flatland,” or using paper’s two dimensions to convey several more. Another, more acidic description: “getting design out of fashion and out of the hands of Microsoft.”

His four books have collectively been called a Strunk and White for design. Tufte works by showing both outstanding and horrid graphics he’s found, improving upon the latter, and his principles take on the meditative quality of Zen koans: To clarify, add detail. And: Clutter is a failure of design, not an attribute of information.

Like its predecessors, Beautiful Evidence is a triumph of the book designer’s art, with exceedingly handsome, deeply instructive pages that are at once spare and dense. Tufte, as you may have guessed, is also that book designer, and says he couldn’t maintain his exacting standards any other way. And I believe him: A visit to reveals, in a discussion thread from last year, a cage match between Tufte and his paper supplier over some little black specks in the book’s recycled stock. The fight goes on far too long, building into inadvertent comedy, and Tufte, who admits to a prickly side and a decent ego, gets his way in the end.

How exactly does one create a discipline from scratch? Born in Kansas City, Tufte graduated from, of all places, Beverly Hills High School. His father was an engineer; his mother an English professor whose book on writing, Artful Sentences, is the only Graphics Press book not written by her son. Tufte’s job description evolved through studies of statistics (Stanford), a doctorate in political science (Yale), and a public-policy professorship (Princeton), as he saw a lot of data and thought about how to present it. He spent the eighties consulting with various companies (and with various degrees of frustration), from IBM to the New York Times.

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