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For more than a decade, Edward Tufte has been championing efficient, coherent and effective ways of presenting information. Through his books and seminars, Tufte has shown that the endless sea of information that we are forced to wade through does not have to be as dense and confusing as it often is. Tufte understood, well before the advent of the Internet, how excess information and poor presentation rendered complex ideas difficult to understand and easy to confuse. His books are invaluable tools for web site and interface designers.
Envisioning Information, the middle volume in Tufte's "trilogy", focuses on rendering complex and often three-dimensional information in two-dimensional space; on "escaping flatland" as he says. "The world is complex, dynamic, multidimensional; the paper is static, flat." Tufte presents hundreds of examples of effective information presentation, in the form of diagrams, maps, charts, timetables and more.
Tufte's books are sensual objects; they represent the finest in layout, book production and design. Leafing through this book, as well as Tufte's other books, is a delight, as every double-page exemplifies the principles illustrated throughout the book. One is rewarded by careful examination of the examples in this book, to see how, across centuries and in many countries, people have developed strategies to present the most intricate information.
One such example is an extraordinary 19th century topographic diagram that shows the lengths of the world's major rivers, straightening them out so they appear parallel, yet retaining their major elements, such as the deltas and major lakes along their paths. While the actual shapes of the rivers are skewed, the relationships among them are unique; a bar chart, or even a simple table, could have illustrated their lengths, but the rivers come alive in this presentation.
Tufte presents many examples of how color can add depth to maps and diagrams, with varying shades representing depth and altitude. Some brilliant examples of timetables illustrate how space and time can be effectively reduced to a mere two dimensions. What is unique about the timetables is the many ways people in different parts of the world, and different eras, have come to grips with the complicated relationships they must express. A "wondrously complex" example is a graphic timetable developed for a railroad line in Java, which manages to display "a four-dimensional tour with a dozen other variables carried along".
Tufte revels in the trouvailles he presents. He delights in their sleight-of-eye, as a designer somewhere has found that unique manner of giving visual structure to information, of making it come alive on the page. He is eminently more successful than Jakob Nielsen, who, in his books on web usability, offers more criticism than positive examples, and who fails by presenting books which fly in the face of his own principles.
Tufte's books are the best example of what works and how to accomplish design miracles. But don't expect to find recipes that can be copied and applied to just any type of information; Envisioning Information is a compendium of unique graphical presentations of information, but contains no shortcuts. Designers with a subtle sense of their skills will find food for thought, but only those with natural talent will be able to emulate the type of examples in this book.
In the end, this book is a delight for anyone who appreciates fine design and attractive books, in addition to being a unique group of examples for people working in the information industry.