Where are you, Edward Tufte?

by Jon Follett

On Tuesday, Involution Studios Creative Director, Juhan Sonin challenged infovis guru Edward Tufte to engage more fully in the discussion regarding our nation's greatest problems, including education, energy, finance, and health, among others, during a segment on The Digital Life podcast.

Edward Tufte was appointed by President Obama on March 5, 2010 to serve on the Recovery Independent Advisory Panel as the board member tasked with clearly communicating to the American people how $787 billion dollars of Recovery Act funds is allocated and distributed. The was much celebrating at the announcement, in the national, business, and design press. So, nearly a year and a half after this illustrious appointment, what do we have?

The Recovery Independent Advisory Panel is responsible for Recovery.gov, and the site's Recipient Reported Awards Map is indeed chock full of data regarding grants, loans, and contracts, mapped out on a state by state basis. But the interface is not in any way beautiful, elegant, or particularly usable, at least not in the way that you would expect from a Web site with Edward Tufte as its key infovis advisor. Which begs the question … what is the real public face of Tufte's offering to the national dialogue, if it's not, in fact, located at Recovery.gov?

A generation of designers has been highly influenced by Tufte's contributions to the field of information visualization, and his books and seminars are near legendary. Tufte has proven, without a doubt, that he is the greatest curator, analyst, and critic that the field of information visualization has to offer. But, as a craftsman, there is no single game changing design that Edward Tufte can point to, that has influenced our world in a positive and significant way.

In the field of industrial design and consumer electronics, Steve Jobs and Jonny Ive will be remembered for a bevy of achievements, from the iMac to the iPhone to the iPad; Dieter Rams will be remembered for the T 1000 world receiver and innumerable products for Braun. In the field of architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright is remembered for the Guggenheim and Fallingwater. However, in the field of infovis we have nothing that approaches this level of design power yet, despite the fact that we live in an age and in a nation hungry for it. If Tufte is to find his place among the greatest design minds of the century, he will need to produce this visual language to help us, as a nation, grapple with the significant issues before us.

One of Tufte's great influencers is Charles Joseph Minard, whose graphical depiction of Napoleon's March, illustrating the attrition of troops during the Russian campaign of 1812, Tufte refers to as probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn. The Recovery Act is deserving of visualization, if not as good as this example, than at least better than what we have now.

Sonin's rant on The Digital Life was a challenge to one of his great design heroes to take up the gauntlet and help improve the state of understanding for Americans around our most pressing problems. We live in an era where we are deluged with data, but devoid of true comprehension: Good information visualization just might lend us just the clarity we need.

Topics: Design, infovis, obama, Analysis, Blog, edward tufte, Podcast, information design