Tufte: Envisioning Information: "Escaping Flatland"

by Carson Reynolds

The first chapter of Tufte’s Envisioning Information introduces several concepts and oppositions. Tufte sees the information designer’s role as squeezing as much “data density” out of two dimensional pages which he thinks of as flatland, following Abbot.

He provides several examples of what he considers to be paradigmatic information displays. Some of the examples are self-similar so as to provides points of comparison. Form these he seeks to extract principles.

The main principles that he introduces in the first chapter are the benefits of “small multiples” and how they can be used to increase the dimensionality of information presented on 2-D paper.

Additionally he begins to refer to micro/macro readings, which presumably means to being able to access information at multiple levels of granularity, as with a map.

He also eschew “chartjunk” which he describes as superfluous displays that don’t add any information. He think people use these gaudy displays to cover up a lack of real data.

In opposition to others like Norman and those who advocate keeping it simple and stupid he lauds “wondrously complex” displays. One might argue that for pedagogy it is important to expose complexity and pack information, whereas for utility it is important to keep things simple and communicative. UNIX might be a computational corollary of exposed complexity whereas PalmOS might be more in the utility camp.