A Gourmet Tufte Sandwich with Confetti Filling

This morning, in my personalized list of Google alerts, I spotted a link to a new video by PBS about data visualization. I’m a longtime, avid supporter of PBS, so I was hoping for something useful. I also knew, however, that PBS doesn’t always vet its content adequately (some of the self-help gurus that PBS features are laughable) and that it doesn’t always get the story right. So, I held my breath, hoping for the best when I followed the link to the PBS video “The Art of Data Visualization.

My spirit rose when the video began with the words of Edward Tufte and his image filled the screen.

I nearly swooned as Tufte calmly and eloquently uttered statements such as “Style and aesthetics cannot rescue failed content” and “There are enormously beautiful visualizations, but it’s as a byproduct of the truth and the goodness of the information.” At last, I thought, a professionally made video that features the best of data visualization. Within seconds, however, I found that Tufte served only as the bookends of this video and that much of the content in between conflicted with his statements.

Here are a couple samples:

And, of course, a video about data visualization is not complete without at least one of the infamous monstrosities created by David McCandless.

I can only imagine how Tufte must have felt when he saw the final product and discovered how his statements were contradicted by much of the other content that PBS chose to include. It is because of this possibility that I turn down invitations to participate in projects like this video that don’t allow contributors to control the content. Unless you have a contract that grants you the right to review and approve the final product, great harm can be done to your reputation and you can unwittingly participate in a project that undermines your work.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if PBS or some other respected media provider decided to work closely with leaders in the field of data visualization to present it at its best and most useful? I’m betting that I could get many of my colleagues—several of the best and brightest in the field—to participate in this project with enthusiasm if we were given the right to work closely with the production team and then review and approve the final content. Perhaps we could even use Tufte’s portions of “The Art of Data Visualization,” but fill the middle with a consistent message about the true potential of data visualization to enlighten with beauty as “a byproduct of the truth and the goodness of the information.”

Take care,

3 Comments on “A Gourmet Tufte Sandwich with Confetti Filling”

By TTTHS. May 12th, 2013 at 7:25 am

But David M gave a TED talk! (with 1.3 million views) He is a “thought leader”!

Metaphorically speaking, sex sells. In the age of Apple, bright, shiny circular things are in vogue, and D.M. sells circular and shiny like nobody else.

By Stephen Few. May 12th, 2013 at 10:38 pm

Just to be clear, I am not saying that all of the content of this video other than Tufte’s is poor. It’s a mixture of what I consider ineffective and effective examples of data visualization. The problem is that much of the content conflicts with Tufte’s statements, which serve as introduction and epilogue. As such, the message of the video is incoherent and will lead to confusion. Keep in mind that the audience for this is not people in the know. There is enough confusion as it is. It’s a shame that PBS with their good intentions have added to the confusion.

Also, I noticed in a response to this blog post on another site that someone is characterizing the debate as one of conservatism (Tufte and I) versus liberalism (McCandless, etc.). If you’re familiar with the issues, you realize that these politically loaded terms do not represent the two sides of the debate. At its heart, the debate is about effectiveness. What is the role of data visualization and how should it be designed to serve this role effectively? No one who knows me and my work could honestly characterize it as conservative in any sense of the word.

By Daniel. May 16th, 2013 at 3:48 am

I’ve kind of had the same experience when watching the video. Although nicely put together and giving that documentary type of feel, there are parts where I say to myself: ‘Isn’t this just the opposite of what is being said?’. For instance, I can hardly believe that with saying ‘every pixel must be directly related to content’, Tufte meant the displaying of the image that is shown on 0m28s.
I would very much like to see what results we would come up with when working closely together with a production team.
I might be able to help out with this one! I will send you a personal email.
Also, it is incredible to see how fast this video is spread around the internet. For days now, the only twittering I seem to see is about this video (#datavisualization). Blinking twice will leave you with everybody thinking that this is the new standard for Visualization.