Tufte’s “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information”

August 01, 2011

This book doesn’t really talk about software. Well, it does now and then, in a disparaging manner, saying how Powerpoint, Excel and such have been detrimental to displaying information in a useful manner, using fancy patterns and colors instead of presenting info.

Nevertheless, if you’re dealing with software, this book is useful, especially when you consider one of the main propositions of Bret Victor’s Magic Ink: that all software these days is information software, because it deals with visual display of information.

Really, you should read the whole book. It presents a ton of useful examples and discussion. But it also distills key ideas into points, and I’ve just written those down here for my own reference. They may not make sense, or don’t stand out, without going through the whole material.

Principles of Graphical Excellence

Graphical excellence is the well-designed presentation of interesting data—a matter of substance, of statistics, and of design.

Graphical excellence consists of complex ideas communicated with clarity, precision, and efficiency.

Graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.

Graphical excellence is nearly always multivariate.

And graphical excellence requires telling the truth about the data.

Graphical Integrity

The representation of numbers, as physically measured on the surface of the graphic itself, should be directly proportional to the numerical quantities represented.

Clear, detailed, and thorough labeling should be used to defeat graphical distortion and ambiguity. Write out explanations of the data on the graphic itself. Label important events in the data.

Show data variation, not design variation.

In time-series displays of money, deflated and standardized units of monetary measurement are nearly always better than nominal units.

The number of information-carrying (variable) dimensions depicted should not exceed the number of dimensions in the data.

Graphics must not quote data out of context.

Data Ink

Above all else show the data.

Maximize the data-ink ratio.

Erase non-data-ink.

Erase redundant data-ink.

Revise and edit.


Forgo chartjunk, including moiré vibration, the grid, and the duck.

High-Resolution Data Graphics

For non-data-ink, less is more.

For data-ink, less is a bore.