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Tufte’s “Beautiful Evidence” and principles of analytical design

September 12, 2011

With “Beautiful Evidence” done, I’ve now read all four of Tufte’s main books on information design.

I have to say that the first, “Visual Display of Quantitative Information”, and last, “Beautiful Evidence”, left me with the strongest impression. The other two are a great read and provide interesting stories like how Maya Lin designed the Vietnam Memorial while still an undergrad student, and a deep analysis of John Snow’s analysis of 1854 London cholera outbreak, including showing why many modern representations of it are flawed and do not depict his map correctly.

Together, the books have great stories from earlier history as well as 20th century, about how great data presentation has helped or damaged miscellaneous human events, such as both of the Space Shuttle disasters.

Beautiful Evidence presents six principles of analytical design that I’ll note here for my own reference.

Show comparisons, contrasts, differences.

Show causality, mechanism, explanation, systematic structure.

Show multivariate data; that is, show more than 1 or 2 variables.

Completely integrate words, numbers, images, diagrams.

Thoroughly describe the evidence. Provide a detailed title, indicate the authors and sponsors, document the data sources, show complete measurement scales, point out relevant issues.

Analytical presentations ultimately stand or fall depending on the quality, relevance, and integrity of their content.