Seeing with fresh eyes
October 7, 2021

Seeing with fresh eyes through the latest from Edward Tufte

By Paul Laughlin

In this book review, we explore how we can all start seeing with fresh eyes especially when using data.

Edward Tufte is a living legend in the field of Data Visualisation. His book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” literally opened my eyes to the importance of this field. As a young analytics manager, back in 2003, his writing helped me see the importance of taking care with our use of graphs. I have much to thank him for in the impact that has had on my career.

Over the decades that have followed, I have learnt more about what works and what does not. About the reality of improved data visualization in practice in large organisations. But alongside that pragmatism and compromise, Tufte continued to rage against poor design & misleading presentations of data.

Built on the foundation of Tufte’s works to date

His latest book Seeing with fresh eyes Meaning Space Data Truth is built on the body of work that preceded it.

In 2001, Edward Tufte self-published “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information“. This outlined principles for better graphical practice and educated a wider audience on a theory of data graphics. He also walked through some great historical examples of data visualisation, including famously Minard’s map of Napoleon’s defeat in Russia. He wrote with such clarity and authority it was like receiving the commandments of data viz fresh from Mount Sinai.

Despite the success of that seminal work, it was not Tufte’s first book on this subject. He published “Envisioning Information” in 1990. There he explores many of the principles he will keep advocating, especially data density, careful use of colour & the power of small multiples. Then in 1997, Tufte published “Visual Explanations” in that book the focus is more on robust statistical & scientific thinking in our data viz designs.

Prior to ‘Seeing with Fresh Eyes‘, Edward Tufte’s last book was “Beautiful Evidence” a title that suits the beauty of that artefact (and many of the books that have gone before). There was some (helpful) repetition (including a larger fold-out version of Minard’s Russian map. By this book, his focus had moved onto art as much as science. There is exploration of a wider variety of visual forms (including writing & artworks). Together with useful explorations of the sparklines that Tufte created and how to improve on Powerpoint presentations.

Releasing the restraints, seeing as the artist sees

Edward’s latest book is very much built on all the principles and advice laid out in those earlier books. All are worth reading for different purposes, although they most some repetition of both images & soapboxes. But his latest book feels different. It is like some restraints have been taken off and he feels greater freedom to show what he sees.

It is instructive when approaching this book to remember that Tufte is an artist (a sculptor) as well as a professor. Right from the beginning of this work you are presented with poems, spaced out word stacks and a variety of images. It feels like a professor who has been released from his curriculum. Now he is speaking from the heart and you get to experience the breadth of his polymath interests & knowledge.

Prepare to see anew how words, as well as numbers, can be presented in creative & impactful ways. Expect to learn about medical procedures, musical compositions, famous scientists’ notes, public signage & maps. They are all here as we will visually explore them. Many data viz topics are explored in this book. But above all, it is an experience. A challenge to open your eyes and see anew the information & media that surround you. To care anew about truthful & effective communication.

What did I take from this journey through Tufte’s collection?

I’ve emphasised the artist’s approach in this book, but it is also like a museum curator’s collection. In this book, we are exposed to what Edward has curated. It feels like the collection of a man who walks through life with his eyes open. It is an eclectic collection that deliberately unsettles us from the normal styles of presentation. Encouraging us throughout to search for meaning, recognise the value of space & take care to present data such that we communicate truth.

So, what did I take from the many recommendations in this book? One is his advice on how to achieve smarter and shorter meetings. In short, include reading time (study hall) & hand out a well designed short report rather than any slides. It’s an approach that Jeff Bezos implemented in Amazon. My second is the care that should also be taken in laying out textual information. Beyond just thinking of annotation in charts, consider using content-responsive typography. Plus, the simple power of lists & instructions at the point of need.

What will you gain by reading this book? I don’t know. At one extreme, if you’re an American there are important tips for navigating poor practice by the healthcare system. If you’re a scientist, there are beautiful examples of richer mixed media note-taking. Analysts & scientists will also benefit from the challenges for more scientific rigour in their work & presentation of evidence.

How will you help others see differently?

In closing let me share one of my favourite quotes from this book. As so often from the work of Prophet Tufte, it is a call to our consciences as much as our minds. Analysts take note…

“A good way to have credibility with your colleagues is not to have lied to them last week… Every paragraph, every visualisation should provide reasons to believe. Presenters should provide data downlinks with a clean codebook. Fear that others may look at your data encorages getting it right in the first place”

‘Seeing with Fresh Eyes Meaning Space Data Truth’ by Edward Tufte (2020)