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The Minister of Information

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Beautiful Evidence rings out variations on several Tufte themes, but it’s a little different from its predecessors in that it tries to reduce his case-study method to first principles, a set of six rules that have real-world applicability. (More koans, like Content counts most of all.) In particular, he dissects an image he’s used before. It’s a diagrammatic map showing Napoleon’s march to and from Moscow in the winter of 1812–1813. The map displays the facts—the army left Poland with 422,000 men, and came back with 10,000—and conveys the awful toll on several scales: the sinking temperature, the loss of nearly half the army during one frigid river crossing. Drafted by one Charles Minard in 1869, it “may be the best statistical graphic ever drawn,” and he sells prints through his Website. It is also, he’s said, about far more than data: “He did this because he hated war. It took me twenty years to notice it, but nowhere on this does he mention Napoleon. It doesn’t celebrate the surviving celebrity.” I’ve been in no fewer than three apartments lately where those prints are on the walls.

The other big introduction in this book is a tiny visual device Tufte calls a “sparkline.” It’s intended to convey a bunch of data, perhaps a couple of hundred numbers’ worth, in a space no larger than would be required for a couple of words, like this bit of medical monitoring:

Sparklines are aimed at the financial and sports pages, and you may soon see one in a newspaper or on a news site near you. A few papers already use them, and, as he points out, “Sparklines gets as many Google hits as Andy Warhol.” Tufte also suggests that, should you need to present data about, say, the bond market, you can fit a couple hundred of them on that eleven-by-seventeen sheet you should be using. Use both sides, and “that’s 800,000 numbers,” in entirely manageable form! Yes, this is very nerdy stuff—and then again it isn’t. The chief weapon in contemporary politics is framing the argument. A boiling-down of the health-care crisis to a set of crisp visuals could swing a lot of votes. Look what An Inconvenient Truth’s slideshow did.

Which brings us to those slides. About four years ago, Tufte began a minor crusade against Microsoft PowerPoint—he seems almost morally offended by its rigidity and clutter (“It’s a low-resolution screwup, like voice-mail menu systems”)—and a chunk of Beautiful Evidence is devoted to explicating quite how crappy it is. At his conferences, Tufte picks apart one particular PowerPoint slide, revealed during NASA’s inquest after the Columbia disaster. It’s from a set of slides so constrained by their own bullet points that they more or less convey the opposite of what they mean. The data said a rescue operation was in order; NASA’s managers understood that they had a go-ahead to land the Columbia. Seven dead.

PowerPoint may be a step backward, but the backlash is under way (Google “PowerPoint is evil” if you disagree) and there is abundant evidence that Tufte’s work is rising out of the Flatland of academia. His first book called out the Times’s lousy graphics; today, he says, the paper has some of the best. The current vogue for less-is-more minimalism, for ample white space, is traceable in part to Tufte, especially when it comes to a certain maker of MP3 players. In fact, when I ask him whom he’s never worked for but would like to, he leans in and says, “A-P-P-L-E! [But] they don’t need any help.”

The lovefest appears to be requited. In press photos of the iPhone, the device displays a New York Times Web front page on its screen. And that page contains a tiny ad for Beautiful Evidence, one that ran on the Times site for exactly one Sunday. Tufte thinks the cameo was a lucky break. I have no doubt that it’s an anonymous Apple designer’s thank-you note.

Tufte envisions Beautiful Evidence as the fourth book in a five-volume series, and I ask him what No. 5 might be. “No more staring at pixels on the screen. More staring at ... what’s going into Real-land.” In other words, that new book may not be a book at all. “Movies, books, DVDs—I don’t know. It’s called ‘walking, seeing, and constructing,’ and it’s now in Spaceland. No more representations. Instead of designing with Adobe Illustrator, I’m designing with a Komatsu excavator.” The beginning of that change in focus appears at the end of Beautiful Evidence, in a digression about the display of fine art, including photos of his own sculptures. He says his ultimate goal is “to try to help people see better and more intensely. Seeing intensely”—probing the intersection where art and science and philosophy all meet. Off the printed page altogether, getting out of Flatland for good.


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