Graphs and graphic design


I bought Edward Tufte's The Visual Display of Quantitative Information last week. I'd never heard of the author before, but saw this book referred to in several places and got curious. Apparently the book got into Amazon's top 100 non-fiction books of the last century. Since a lot of my work involves presenting quantitative information in papers, seminars or lectures, I thought it might be interesting.

The book is a wonderful exploration of what makes an attractive, accurate and efficient visual presentation. Tufte sets out his ideas clearly and persuasively, with many examples of good and bad graphs and charts. He also draws parallels between clarity of the text and clarity of the graphics. Of course, I have an intuitive idea about what makes a good graph, but I've learned a lot more about the theory behind it by reading this book.

As much as anything else, the layout of the book is very interesting. Each page has the left-most 70% devoted to the text, then the remaining 30% on the right to 'footnotes' (though they aren't at the foot), or references. Each note or reference is lined up horizontally with the referring text, which minimizes the distance your eyes have to jump to read both the text and the references. It also maintains a pleasing amount of whitespace on the page, and short readable lines for the main text. I don't think I've come across this layout before.

Most of the academic papers I read are in PDF form or online: it saves the tedious trudge down all of two flights of stairs to go to the library. One of my pet peeves is that the PDFs are direct translations from the printed version, complete with two or more columns of text, footnotes at the bottom of the page, and references at the end of the paper. This is a pain in the scrolling fingers when you are reading a PDF. Instead of being able to scroll continuously through the paper, you have to go down to the bottom of a column and then back up to the second column on the same page. A layout like Edward Tufte's would be perfect for a PDF, with the notes and references shown at the right without the need for any excessive scrolling. This format would probably take up more pages, but this is hardly a problem with an electronic document. I can't imagine that it would be too difficult to have a different layout for the print and electronic versions.