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Reading list

March 2012

Reading list

Books and articles that matter

By Dean Andy Boynton

I recently turned to Edward R. Tufte’s Envisioning Information (Graphics Press, 1990), a beautiful volume that resembles a coffee table book but offers solid inspiration in dealing with a challenge we face at the Carroll School: how to display and convey the mountain of data we rely on in making decisions so we can not only analyze it but bring it to life.

Like many organizations, we constantly gather and report information—specifically, at the Carroll School, data about faculty research and teaching effectiveness, the core of what we do. Then we wrestle with ways to make data and analytics serve as tools that can help us become more effective at that research and teaching.

Enter Tufte, a tireless advocate for presenting complex information in a visually sophisticated yet simple way. An artist and statistician (he is also a professor emeritus at Yale University), he uses design to render complex and often three-dimensional data in two-dimensional formats like the printed page or the computer screen.

Envisioning Information is filled with elegant renderings of extraordinarily complex data. It showcases effective strategies for presenting intricate information developed over centuries by people across the world. For example, a two-inch by four-inch chart shows five years of daily and nightly weather in Aomori, Japan, for the month of February. Although the chart contains 144 pieces of data, it manages to convey clearly and in a visual way “both a sense of average and of variation about that average—the two fundamental summary measures of statistical data.”

The book is also packed with substantial text. Tufte explains how viewers ultimately understand quantitative information, and he argues for graphical representations of information that give “the focus over to data rather than data-containers”—for “designs so good that they are invisible.”

Envisioning Information is not a how-to book. It is, instead, a book that will inspire anyone who works with data, as it did me. Tufte’s analytical approach to visualizing information provides a jumping-off point for both clarity and innovation.


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