Edward Tufte, Offering 'Beautiful Evidence'

Edward Tufte makes a point during a seminar. i i

hide captionEdward Tufte makes a point during a seminar.

Graphics Press
Edward Tufte makes a point during a seminar.

Edward Tufte makes a point during a seminar.

Graphics Press
A dog dives into water on the cover of Tufte's latest book.

hide captionTufte's latest book quotes British typographer Eric Gill: "If you look after truth and goodness, beauty looks after herself."

Graphics Press

Edward Tufte has been described by The New York Times as "The Leonardo da Vinci of Data." Since 1993, thousands have attended his day-long seminars on Information Design. That might sound like a dry subject, but with Tufte, information becomes art.

Tufte's most recent book, Beautiful Evidence, is filled with hundreds of illustrations from the worlds of art and science. It contains historical maps and diagrams as well as contemporary charts and graphs. In one chapter alone, there's an 18th-century depiction of how to do a cross-section drawing of how a bird's wing works, and photos from a 1940s instruction book for skiing.

They all demonstrate one concept: Good design is timeless, while bad design can be a matter of life and death.

He's an outspoken critic of PowerPoint presentations, saying they oversimplify and can stand in the way of communication. Far too often, he says, the bells and whistles of PowerPoint are used as a crutch by people who don't have anything to say.

"If your words aren't truthful, the finest optically letter-spaced typography won't help," he says. "And if your images aren't on point, making them dance in color in three dimensions won't help."

Tufte has taught at Yale and Princeton, using his background in statistics and political science. But now he's carved a niche for himself as a guru. His daylong seminars attracts a wide variety of people who deal with data — Web designers, marketing analysts and doctors.

In recent years, he has promoted the use of what he calls Sparklines. They're dense, word-sized line graphs that can show, in less than an inch, the last 100 readings of a patient's glucose, a year's worth of stock activity or the win-loss record of a baseball team.

During his classes, Tufte talks about Galileo's book The Starry Messenger, published in 1610. Then he takes out a first-edition copy and delivers this message:

"This is Galileo. This is where Galileo said that the Earth goes around the sun once a year. And this is the only place he said it."

Tufte says it's important that his own books present his argument for good design persuasively, setting an example. In Beautiful Evidence he quotes the British typographer Eric Gill, saying: "If you look after truth and goodness, beauty looks after herself."

Books Featured In This Story

Beautiful Evidence
Beautiful Evidence

by Edward R. Tufte

Hardcover, 213 pages | purchase


Purchase Featured Books

  • Beautiful Evidence
  • Edward R. Tufte



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: