Art, Math & Edward Tufte

So I'm back in school. It was important to me to advance my credentials, stay relevant and keep learning. I think I probably bring some life experiences to the table that many other students do not have. Ok, age alone is a factor. But I am a Graphic Artist, with a small Advertising Agency, Adjunct Professor and occasional blogger. I’ve spent the better part of my career convincing, selling and manipulating data to send messages to a skeptical crowd - this includes corporate clients, community leaders and students. My work has evolved over time due to the influx of digital communications, data and overload messaging; it’s almost mind-boggling. Trying to organize that information in a way that makes sense and clarity out of the vast amount of sales messaging is always a challenge. I work with clients that have a lot to say and not a lot of room, or funds, to put all that information into. It often feels like the proverbial 10 pounds of … in a 5 pound bag. I believe a real master at the craft of Information Design can not only clarify the data, but can sell anything; ice cubes to the Eskimos, so to speak. I strive to be that kind of a designer; one that can take complex information, or messages and break them down into digestible parts for the whole, ultimately selling the product or message to the masses.

“All communication behavior has as its purpose the eliciting of a specific response from a specific person (or group of persons).”

Interestingly, we (meaning my husband and I) have been interested in Edward Tufte for some time now. So, when the chance to write a math research paper came, it seemed natural to involve Tufte's work. When the Information Design trend explosion came on the scene in the early 2000’s, we purchased several of his books. My husband, being a full time professor at Lansing Community College, was tasked with developing a new curriculum devoted to Information Design. The project, unfortunately, came to an abrupt end. Hence, those darned Edward Tufte books sat neatly on a book shelf, or blithely on a coffee table, and dusty on the night stand over the past seven or eight years. This "Math" project was a perfect opportunity to really have a good excuse to sit down, explore and enjoy the work of Edward Tufte. As I perused the work and began my research, I realized two very different things. At first, I was very intrigued. I tried to make comparisons between his suggestions, thoughts and ideals and my own work. As I read through the pages, I realized there was a strong connection between his ideas and what I was trying to portray. Whether or not I was actually successful or not in that endeavor, remains to be seen. Then, as I dove deeper into his thought provoking work, I basically made a horrifying realization. I felt as though, perhaps, I had actually made a career out of glossing over details. A concious decision in dumbing down information, or eliminating information in favor of fancy graphics in order to sell a product or realize a certain outcome. I spent a fair amount of time cursing those clients that overloaded brochures and publications with information that seemed overly complex to the casual viewer. I spent a fair amount of time bargaining to reduce useful information in trade for visuals. This is an idea that Tufte might call “chartjunk”. This realization was a bit of a reality check. Interestingly in my own work, this has always been a sticky wicket. At what point do you make it pretty to elevate the idea and but reduce details to make it look good. After all, it needs to look good in order to attract attention. But how much “lying” do you have to do to get people to notice, and if they don't notice, it is all for naught?

“Making something look good was considered treacherous,” said Erik Spiekermann, a German typographer and designer who created the typeface used on German railways. “If you make something look pretty it means you’re lying. If you want something true it’s got to hurt.”

I recently lost a very important bid for work with a potential client. This has come about since the research for this project has begun. Now I can’t help but compare and connect with what I now believed happened with that client and the Tufte school of Information Design. I don’t often find myself find myself in a Request For Proposal circumstance with clients. But this client was different. Our local public library, like many libraries, are finding themselves in a financial quandary. Faced with a possible closing, the board of directors decided they wanted to pursue the possibility of becoming a district library and had asked several members of the community, including myself, to serve on a volunteer board to discover potential solutions to the problem. One major problem encountered was their lack of perceived value in the community. It was decided that it would be beneficial to hire a marketing firm to develop messaging and effective communication to persuade the school board and community to vote for this change in status that would more effectively fund the library. I was asked to submit a proposal as a small ad firm in the local area, along with several other out of town firms.

According to my research, Tufte has spent a fair majority of his career working with government and found, not surprisingly, government is mired in complex information and data. According to Tufte, this complex data has often been manipulated and over-simplified, glossing over important details. These details are crucial pieces in unfortunate events such as the Columbia and Challenger shuttle disasters. In Tufte’s opinion, even complex data can and should be presented completely on a simple 11x17 piece of paper, a minimalist approach in design philosophy. However, by using layers of data in his process, he contends, actually clarifies the information by adding more details. After the investigation of the Columbia disaster, Tufte wrote a manuscript accusing Microsoft’s Power Point software as co-conspirator in the Columbia shuttle accident. Tufte has long believed the simplification of complex data produced by the software was a direct hit on the operations of the NASA space program.

“…but acquainting Tufte with the slow, procedural pace of bureaucracy has been the greatest challenge, Tufte drives race cars, and most people in [government] drive tanks.”

Never having dealt with a governmental agency such as our local library in my prior work, a request for marketing proposal came to me as a bit of a challenge. In this event, I can see where I became a bit of race car while dealing with tanks. I had jumped in, went right into solutions without explaining or clarifying the data that brought me to those conclusions. I did not understand the audience appropriately or their need for complex data in order to sell my marketing ideas. Looking back, I suppose I can see why librarians might want more detail. It’s probably not rocket science to concede my oversight. The winning bid came from a public relations firm that clearly communicated their approach by using key words to a librarians heart… research and complex data. In my opinion, research is a given—did I really have to explain that? However, the use of complex statistics as hard evidence by this competing firm ultimately won over the board of directors in the bidding process.

“There is no such thing as information overload, only bad design. Confusion and clutter are failures of design, not attributes of information—and so the point is to find design strategies that reveal detail and complexity rather than fault the data for an excess of complication.”

In my proposal, I distinctly over-simplified my ideas and plan for the success of the library. However, I firmly believe my plan would have garnered the best result, for the least amount of budget—but my information design was clearly not successful and not sales worthy.

In explaining what I have learned in my research about these topics, I would have to say a light-bulb moment came to me in class one day. As we began to discuss statical data and the basic statistic principles, I clearly recalled a certain campaign I developed for a client of mine. This client is a local hospital looking to increase the use of a new digital equipment acquired by the location. During a time when traffic at this triage-type hospital was light and the facility was underutilized, I developed a campaign along with the Communications Director designed to create a call to action to increase traffic flow to their new high quality diagnostic center for mammography. I recall assisting in the messaging of this particular campaign, where we used a statistic to create urgency. The statistic went as follows: “1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime”. This campaign ran in 2010, 2011 and 2012 respectively.

This campaign statistic of 1 in 8 was essentially used as a scare tactic to entice local women to “hurry up” and get their mammogram at the new digital facility. As the campaign wore on over a period of 3 years, new research and conflicting evidence on the development of breast cancer in women, based on age and other factors, suddenly poked real holes in the data previously presented, and our catchy headline. The numbers printed in this campaign were deemed as absolute, as the number of chances in which a woman might develop cancer—now or today. This sobering statistic was largely debunked when absolute risk was re-defined to individual decades, where the numbers were significantly lower in younger age groups and hence, the headline became notably misleading, and the campaign was subsequently canceled. Interestingly, visits to the facility also dropped significantly after the information was released exposing the statistic as largely false.

“A further difficulty arises, a result of fast computing. It is easy now to sort through thousands of plausible varieties of graphical and statistical aggregations—and then to select for publication only those findings strongly favorable to the point of view being advocated. Such searches are described as data mining, multiplicity, or specification searching. Thus a prudent judge of evidence might well presume that those graphs, tables, and calculations revealed in a presentation are the best of all possible results chosen expressly for advancing the advocate’s case.”

On that day in class, I realized the closeness of what I do and the expression of mathematical statistics can significantly impact messaging, and importantly in my line of work, it’s overall success or demise. Statistics, Ive learned, actually fascinate me. Although I have never had a statistics course, I now know how closely the relevance of pertinent data effects every message in advertising. The messenger can be very deceptive, and the receiver can choose to, and often does, absorb information that has a strong probability of being deceptive. When that information comes from seemingly credible sources, like hospitals, giving the viewer all the more reason to believe the claims. This is particularly concerning for me as a graphic artist, largely designing visual communication for clients that may or may not have appropriate data.

Maps and Mathematics.

Edward Tufte devotes a large amount of his dissertations to the study and critique of maps. I find this to be some of the most interesting work he discusses. Ever since I was a very small child, I have been intrigued by direction and location. Normally I would consider myself a “big picture thinker”. I am mainly concerned with the end result and the details surrounding large projects or ideas tend to overwhelm me. However, there is one exception to this rule. Nothing brings out my inner obsessive compulsive disorder like a good map. Tufte describes most modern maps as heavily decorated, using pictures or graphics that he largely dismisses as “reading for the uneducated”. The sheer intense data that is represented in a map is a great example of how complex data can be layered in small visual bites, without pictures or “decoration” and still be highly readable, and will often communicate much more than the obvious data.

“Minard made this [map of war] because he hated war,” he said. “The map wasn’t about Napoleon, the war’s surviving hero, who is mentioned nowhere on the page,” Tufte explained, “but of the quiet, anonymous misery of tens of thousands of French soldiers. This was meant as an antiwar poster.”

There is a clear reference to mathematical data in true cartography. This involves actual proportions and parallels of information in small two dimensional areas to convey distance, location and space. Edward Tufte broadly complements Google for data display and architecture on it’s maps application due to it’s daily use by large populations. On the Edward Tufte website, he refers to a list as such that a designer may compare their work with that of Google Maps using the following criteria: straightforward content rich design, subtle but effective color, distinct typography, numerous multi-layers, a clear scale and free of confusion. By utilizing these paths of Tufte ideals of good design, this type of information display will accommodate many diverse users. But, there is always more to the story. Maps are much more than a diverse collection of distance and data. Maps often represent a subconscious communication directly to the viewer. Whether that be a positive or negative inference, the viewer can read much more than distance in a good map. Additionally, it has been said that these kinds of graphics are some of the few that can actually be trusted in today’s explosive market of advertising messages.

“By Definition, a map is a flat surfaced pictoral representation of the earth or the heavens. The medium of a map, which can be understood as a graphic guide, is fertile ground for discovering and developing personal problem-solving strategies. By focusing on the charting and plotting of comings and goings and exploring all aspects of what a map can represent, personal travel experience can produce innovative design solutions that extend well beyond the traditional map concept. This [maps] uniqueness lies in the connection between the two given points of a journey and the time-sequenced visual documentation that follows. The idea of what is actually being communicated (going from one place to another) is of secondary importance here—the critical aspect is not what, but how.”


In conclusion, I wanted to express my delight in a certain passage I found in my research. This passage is displayed in Edward Tufte’s, Visual Explanations, where Tufte directly quotes Salmon Rushdie from his children’s book on page 120:

“… the Water Genie told Haroun about the Ocean of the Streams of Story, and even though he was full of a sense of hopelessness and failure the magic of the Ocean began to have an effect on Haroun. He looked into the water and saw that is was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and [the Water Genie] explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each colored strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories…”

I have many Tufte books, previously sitting so quietly, so dusty on the shelf unopened. I found it incredibly wonderful to discover this single passage during my last few hours pouring over the vast amounts of information, literally on the very last day of my research. How’s this for visual explanation and quantitive evidence? My daughter, Annie, is student of mathematics and science at Michigan Technological University. Yes, somehow, I have a daughter that is more interested in math and science than art. Even with a scientific and mathematical style, she is interested in the creative side of life. Even as a very analytical and complex personality with a propensity for detail, I also find her to be a realist. She explains information in a critical, expansive and information rich way; and takes a no-frills approach to most communication, very Tufte-like in my estimation. She is blunt with a dry sense of humor and I like this about her. I find her to be somewhat forceful yet refreshing. And, my gut instinct is to decorate her experiences when relaying information to others, a definite Tufte non-no. Last fall, Annie began an endeavor to be involved in theater arts on the MTU campus. That play just so happened to be: Haroun and the Sea of Stories, in which Annie played Iff, the Water Genie. She can recite this Tufte highlighted passage verbatim. I think it may be an understatement to say she and I might embody the two distinct sides of Informational Design - Art and Math. While there are plenty of conventional ways to conclude my research findings, I feel this to be the ultimate Tufte parallel. This is a true culmination of layered but separate women, escaping flatland in pure color and information within narratives of space and time, celebrating these small multiples of mother and daughter—the art of Design and Mathematical co-existence within complex and diverse information aesthetics.

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