Tufte: Envisioning Information: "Color and Information"

by Carson Reynolds

Tufte seems to have a real affinity with mapmaking design techniques. Much of the examples and guidelines that Tufte provides are drawn from Swiss mapmaking. In general Tufte likes using broad swaths of natural, muted colors, with bright, saturated color for emphasis. He has a strong disdain for posterization, and the use of broad swaths of color as a design technique. Russian propagandists would be among his least favorite designers, one imagines.

Tucked away in this chapter is also a beautiful diagram in favor of asymmetric designs. Classical, central designs are discouraged. But the design also uses a saturated bright X to forbid designers visually.

Tufte notes that colors can be used to help distinguish and identify different objects, instead of abstract labels (like triangle ABC in the case of geometry).

There is a brief discussion of traditional GUIs in the midst of the color discussion. Tufte seems to have an axe to grind with existing interface designs. He specifically loathes the visual clutter and narrow-band communication that computers afford.

There are four design rules Tufte sprinkles through the chapter from Eduard Imhof’s Cartographic Relief Presentation, summarized below:

(1) Load colors used unsparingly cause confusing and unpleasant effects, provide a poor basis for color differentiation.

(2) Light/bright colors next to white produces unpleasant results, especially for large areas

(3) Large background and base-colors should do their work most quietly.

(4) If there are two large areas of enclosed color, then the picture falls apart.

Tufte recommends using value scales, but ones were there are fine separators to help handle boundary effects between colors. He talks briefly about interactions between colors and using lines to avoid pitfalls.