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In the early 1980s I worked for a start up that was developing presentation graphics software. Hard to believe, but there really was a time when no one had access to Power Point or Illustrator, and the ability to produce computer-generated charts and graphs was considered a luxury. To help us in the design of our product, we needed the visual equivalent of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style—definitive advice on how to use charts and graphs to present information in a persuasive and comprehensible manner. Amazingly enough, there was no such thing.
We weren’t the only ones who noticed this gap in knowledge. Edward Tufte was teaching statistics at Yale and spent a lot of his time looking at data. He became compelled by the challenges of representing information visually, and soon it became a personal passion that consumed him.
In a weekend workshop I took with Tufte many years ago, he told the story of how his first book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, came into being. After struggling to find a publisher who understood his vision for the book and/or would allow him to create it his way, he decided to take the self-publishing route. He took out a mortgage on his home and painstakingly laid out every page spread by hand. Once he had his first print run, he ran a small ad in the New Yorker magazine.
His description of that initial offering was quite dramatic, and it does make a great story. He had run out of money at that point and only had enough left for a five placement ad run. The first week the ad ran, he received no responses. The second week, still nothing. The third week brought in just a few orders. But after the fourth week, something happened. He hit some unseen tipping point and orders for the book went exponential.
That was 1983, and the rest is history. Tufte’s flight of visual information-centric books have sold in the millions world wide. He is also well known for his vociferous repulsion for Power Point presentations (well-founded IMHO) and considers them a serious blight upon all of our visual sensibilities. His presentations are full blown performances and a far cry from the tepid, ordinary, boring (I get sleepy just thinking about it) Power Point snooze shows we have all had to sit through.
One of his favorite “charts” was actually made in the early 19th century and features the full account of Napoleon’s ill-fated attempt to conquer Russia. Tufte loves it because it is such a remarkable example of complex information being made comprehensible. He is indeed the whole world’s Minister of Information.
I thought of Tufte when I read about an attempt to render certain aspects of the current economic climate in a more comprehensible form. This excerpt is from the New York Times and features Damon Rich, an artist who was recently featured at MIT here in Boston.
When it came to representing the sprawling nature of the foreclosure crisis in New York City, the artist Damon Rich figured out that the best thing to do was to shrink it down to size.
And so he used the 9,335-square-foot Panorama of the City of New York, the intricate architectural model built for the 1964 World’s Fair, and hundreds of neon-pink triangles to demonstrate just how the city has been marked by economic troubles.
Each plastic triangle represents a block where there have been three or more home foreclosures. Visitors on the balcony walkway that surrounds the Panorama, at the Queens Museum of Art in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, can see in a single glance precisely where subprime lenders wreaked the most havoc…
The first challenge was figuring out how to mark the more than 13,000 foreclosures. “We had a brainstorm,” Ms. Harris said. The small plastic dividers put on the top of a delivered pizza to prevent the cheese from sticking to the top of the box would work perfectly. “We bought 2,000 of them and spray-painted them pink,” a color that would not clash with the Panorama, but would still stand out, Ms. Harris said.