Tufte: Envisioning Information: "Micro / Macro Readings"

by Carson Reynolds

In this chapter Tufte focuses on graphic displays that allow for some higher level-summary and micro-level interpretation. I think there is an implicit comparison that he’s making with these displays and maps. Tufte likes the map’s ability to convey large amounts of information density, but more importantly, the ability to read them at several different levels. For instance, one could look at the political boundaries and topographical grid lines on the same map, by examining different resolutions. This might be summarized by the statement: “to clarify, add detail.”

Interestingly he equates reading at the micro level with personalization. Namely, that finding specific information as part of large presentation is narrowing the context of the information so that it is constrained to the bits relevant to the viewer.

Tufte also notes the importance of multi-function graphics. These increase dimensionality, Tufte insists. This would certainly run the face of Norman’s analyses of interfaces which use multifunction, but this might reduce again to pedagogy versus utility. One instance that Tufte points to is the stem-leaf plot where the leaf values end up plotting a univariate histogram. In short “ink serves more than one informational purpose; graphic elements are multifunctioning.”

There are some interesting statements critiquing computer UIs. He quotes Donoho at length about the cost of “context switches” users face when moving back and forth between graphic presentations. He also comes out against anthropomorphizing “an inherently murky idea.” He does assert that we thrive in information-thick worlds. It might be interesting to reconceive this by thinking of UI as a type of information.

Tufte seems to be insisting that more is more, or more specifically, that “less is a bore.” Basically he argues “Clutter and confusion are failures of design, not attributes of information.”