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Edward Tufte Wants You to See Better


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Flora Lichtman. Up next: the man who wrote the book - well, the books, rather - on data visualization. He was doing infographics before everybody was doing infographics. Back in the '80s, data scientist Edward Tufte remortgaged his house so he could start a company and self-publish his first book, "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information." Sound like a snoozer? Well, that book, along with his others on the same topic, have sold more than a million-and-a-half copies.

And over 100,000 people have paid to hear his seminar in data visualization. His ideas keep it simple, get rid of the chart junk have made him a legend in design circles. But ET, as he's known, isn't just interested in data. He's an artist, a sculpture, and now he's working on a new project called "The Thinking Eye." He joins us now. Edward Tufte, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

EDWARD TUFTE: Hello, hello.

LICHTMAN: Thank you for coming. Tell us how you describe your work.

TUFTE: Most of my work has been secretly about trying to make people smarter. The - and it means smart both in terms of science and seeing and information and art. The science and art, at least at a high level, have in common intense seeing, bright-eyed observing and deep curiosity. And I'm starting to now surface these ideas that have been lurking in my work for so long in my project "The Thinking Eye," which will be a book-movie. It's going so slowly that I think books and movies will be the same by the time I get it done.


LICHTMAN: I want to ask you a little bit more about that, but let me give out the number again, because I'm sure a lot of people will have questions for you. It's 1-800-989-TALK, 1-800-989-8255. What's "The Thinking Eye" all about?

TUFTE: Well, first, it's about how to see, intensely, this bright-eyed observing curiosity. And then what follows after that is reasoning about what one sees, and asking: What's going on here? And in that reasoning, intensely, it involves also a skepticism about one's own understanding. The thinking eye must always ask: How do I know that? That's probably the most powerful question of all time. How do you know that?

And then, finally, the creative thinking eye, it escapes itself and produces and executes, teaches a class, writes an article, makes a visualization, creates an artwork. Tweets, however, probably don't count.


LICHTMAN: You know, we have a lot of observers in our audience, professionals and lay people observers. So let's start with that seeing part. Do you have suggestions for how we can see better? Just that first part.

TUFTE: The great, big thing is to try to devote most of one's brain-processing power to the seeing. That is, as we know from all the studies of cell phones and driving automobiles, people don't do very well in seeing where they're going when they're talking. And so deep seeing requires a fairly certain serenity of one's self, but also a serene environment. And in that way, all the brain's processing power can veto into seeing.

I had this experience - almost a magical experience. I was walking out on our farm by a long, stone wall and I said to my friend, let's just not talk. And for the first three or four or five minutes, you start - what you start to hear is simply the sounds that the inner ear makes. And then, after a while, you hear things, just the slightly rustling of leaves. But what happened to seeing after maybe 10 minutes of just seeing - not talking, not doing anything else - was it like the light became perfect. Like when you have filtered light from the sun, the shadows don't blow out the dark and the brights don't go out the white. But everything, you know, is in focus and not blown out.

But now, it was just because you were seeing so much better, because all your brain power was devoted to it, it was like you were creating a perfect light for seeing. That is, you could see the details in the shadow, and you could protect the eye against blowing out to brightness.

And that's one of the main things. If you want to see well, you've got to, you know, go all out, you know, really be highly focused just on that, and not doing anything else.

LICHTMAN: Zip it, in other words.

TUFTE: Yeah. And also, the environment itself should be, you know, quiet. I think the hardest place in the world to see is at an art gallery reception, an art gallery party, because of the chaos and the din. And it's simply impossible to see the artworks on the wall.

LICHTMAN: Is seeing better related to thinking more clearly?

TUFTE: Well, I sure think so. The - that's why I call it "The Thinking Eye." In some ways, seeing is thinking. The light comes in through the lens and is focused on the retina. And the retina is doing - is pretty much working like brain cells. It's processing. And then the two optic nerves are sending what we now know are 20 megabits a second of information back to the brain. That's sure a lot better than my Wi-Fi at home.

And so the seeing right then is being transformed into information, into thinking, right as that step from the retina to the brain. And the brain is really busy, and it likes to economize. And so it's quick to be active and jump to conclusions. So if you're told what to look for, you can't see anything else. So one thing is to see, in a way, without words. That avoids the confirmation bias, where, you know, that once you have a point of view, all history will back you up. And that's the eye and brain busy economizing on those 20 megabits a second that are coming in.

LICHTMAN: So that means seeing things and not labeling them, either?

TUFTE: I think there's a lot of premature labeling. Now, the situation in teaching is different. You're trying to point out where people should see. But analytical seeing, I believe you should try to stay in the sheer optical experience as long as possible. As - once you have an idea, or somebody tells you something to look for, that's about all you can see.

I had this experience recently. A dear friend of ours has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and I hadn't seen her for about six months. And when she came and visited, I couldn't see her anymore. I could only - I was always looking now for symptoms, how the dementia was manifesting itself. And, I mean, I know about how (unintelligible), and I couldn't see her through any other lens but, you know, the possible symptoms. And that one word, that one piece of knowledge totally - and I was self-aware of it, but it so totally corrupted every time I looked at Sigrid(ph) .

LICHTMAN: A lot of people want to ask you questions, so let's go to the phones to Springfield, Virginia. Enrique, you're on the air.

ENRIQUE: Yes. My question is: Have you seen good examples of data visualizations and visual experience, either on the Web or mobile? And what are the pitfalls or potential issues with data visualizations in a digital medium?

LICHTMAN: Good question.

TUFTE: I don't think the issues involve being digital. In other words, it doesn't really matter, the analytical issues, whether you're, you know, scratching a piece of stone, or on a piece of paper or on a computer screen. I have been recently - partly at the end of the year, but also thinking more broadly - I think probably the best visualization ever are Feynman diagrams. They show nature's subatomic behavior. They've been used for 70 years by scientists, and they've thankfully replaced a lot of hairy mathematics.

I think there's been - obviously, the digital world has opened up more possibilities with visualizations. But some of the most spectacular visualizations were done of all - in 1610 by Galileo, as he made these - made his remarkable discoveries. So visualization is timeless, and the principles for showing information - like nature's laws - are timeless. So we can - I think I can learn more, a lot more sometimes, from 1610 and Galileo than I can learn from the last five years of looking at visualizations.

The main thing that's happened is the information throughput and the information resolution has gone up enormously in the last decade. And I view high resolution pretty much like being smart. So that - you know, we talk about high-res people, but it - that's where visualizations have been helped, by a much higher data throughput. So I think resolution is not everything, but it's really important, really, and our screens have become close to magical now in terms of resolution.

LICHTMAN: The Feynman diagrams, you made sculptures - which you can see pictures of those on our website at if you'd like to see Edward Tufte's sculptures of some of those Feynman diagrams. Do those count as what you call forever knowledge? And explain that term.

TUFTE: That phrase has meant a lot in my own life. I - years ago, I was at the Center for Advanced Study, and I wrote a manuscript, and I showed it to Bob Merton, the great sociologist. And he wrote on the margin that this was an echo of some very famous work. I did not take that as a particular compliment. I took that as telling me: play in the big leagues.

And what that meant to me was to be like, in a way, like science, which - the findings of which are forever, because the laws of nature apply to every particle in the universe forever. And so knowledge about that is, in a sense, forever knowledge. And though I wanted to stop worrying about this quarter's latest journal of whatever it was, or what's - what is topical or what's in The New York Times this week, I wanted to do things that have that universality and forever-ness of science.

And so I've been ever since preoccupied with how the fundamental tasks of thinking can be replicated in our designs of information, so that our architectures support learning about causality - that's a forever cognitive task - support, that our architectures support making comparisons, which is a fundamental forever task. Our displays help us assess the credibility of a display, and how do they know that? That's a forever task. So it's - that - in other words, the mind-information relationship and learning from evidence, optical evidence, is a forever problem.

LICHTMAN: I'm Flora Lichtman. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR, talking with Edward Tufte. Sorry. I rudely interrupted you there to pay the bills, as Ira would say.

TUFTE: I'm awaiting the next question, here, from our callers.

LICHTMAN: OK. Well, then, I think we should go to the phones. How about to Mark in Salt Lake City, Utah?

MARK: Yes, hello. I just want to say, Mr. Tufte, you are a true inspiration and a wonderful person. I think you're one of the most fascinating people on our planet today.

TUFTE: Well, that's very kind. I hope I don't screw it up.


MARK: I don't think so. I just really am curious to know - you know, I used to be a graphic designer when I was at the university, at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and we were all big fans of you down there. And what's your background? How did you get your start, and how did you fall into what you do today? I've just always been very curious to know that.

LICHTMAN: Thanks for calling, Mark.

TUFTE: I don't quite know how I ever arrived like this. In a rough sense, I just go to the studio every day and go to work, that it's very hands-on. My background comes - my mother is a professor of English emeritus at the University of Southern California. My father was a civil engineer. They had also very good taste about furniture and things, even though they were both the youngest of 10 children on the farm. They had a very elegant and gracious eye.

And it seems like I've always bumped into the right people all along. I've always tried to celebrate excellence in any field I went into and go to the best people as soon as I could and listen to them. And I've been involved in a lot of things, usually at a, you know, recently high level, and I never got trapped by the disciplinary chauvinism of the university world. I - the world is much more interesting than any one discipline, and I've just - I'm interested and curious in so many of things in the world. And the...

LICHTMAN: Hold that thought because we have to take a quick break. But we'll be back to hear...


LICHTMAN: ...hear more about it. Thank you. We're talking with Edward Tufte, data scientist, the Galileo of graphics, the da Vinci of data, as he's been called. What are your questions for Dr. Tufte? 1-800-989-TALK. 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us.


LICHTMAN: I'm Flora Lichtman. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.


LICHTMAN: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Flora Lichtman, talking with Edward Tufte. Dr. Tufte, I want to get your thoughts on some of the current superstars in data and design. Did you follow Nate Silver's blog this presidential season, the FiveThirtyEight?

TUFTE: I - yes. I followed his work for years, and I thought - actually, I gave some awards - the data table of the year, I gave to his data table that he did after the election, based on the real data. And I thought it was an extraordinary summary of the event. It was even better than most - than some of the tables on It's a terrifically well-designed table that described the election. And he's a very wise person.

Predictions are very difficult, and it's easy to get your head knocked off, and you're out there on the high wire. And - then the other thing is he is just marvelously productive in, you know, producing things that people want to know about. And he's also able to separate his own, you know, political views from the predictions. That's usually where people go wrong. They get a little optimistic for their side. And he made the separation.

LICHTMAN: What about Steve Jobs? What do you think of the approach that he took towards design?

TUFTE: I think it was extraordinary. His approach was different from everyone else's, which is to start with the user experience, and work backwards to the technology. I always, in - likewise in my own work, I'm really indifferent to the methodology of producing visualizations, and all I care about is relationship between the viewer's brain and the intellectual tasks and the material at the - as it's presented.

And this is outside-in design, that you design the surface. That's what the user sees, after all. You design the surface first, and then you view the software as simply, you know, hey, is there - anybody - any software out there that can solve the problem? Most displays are designed the other way around. The government starts out refereeing among application solutions desperately looking for a problem to solve, and what the user sees is kind of byproduct of software houses.

But Steve Jobs started at the relevant point. It's all about the relationship between the viewer and the information on the screen, and the viewer's cognitive tasks in looking at that information.

LICHTMAN: Is there a data that - sorry - is there a data that can't be visualized well?

TUFTE: Not if you allow artists into the arena.



TUFTE: The kinds of more subtle, emotional, grander, symbolic things. But for those kinds of things, I think art does very powerfully. I mean, I think, of course, of Picasso's "Guernica," one of the, you know, best few paintings of the 20th century and probably the best thing about the horror of war ever done, the unspeakable horror of war. But there it is in "Guernica."

LICHTMAN: Have you felt like there have been times in your career where - you have such high standards, it seems. And I think that's why so many people admire your work so much. But have you felt like there have been times when you've been too uncompromising in your principles, that you've lost an opportunity somehow because of that?

TUFTE: The opportunities I wouldn't want. I used to do a lot of consulting, and I consulted at one time for enough - to nearly everybody a long time ago. But I couldn't get much done as an outsider. I was a corporate consultant to IBM for a long time, and I learned a lot from them. And I didn't think I taught(ph) them enough. But a big company - changing IBM is like trying to change Sweden, and it would require, you know, diplomatic and bureaucratic work that I'm not good at, and some accommodation. And that's just not me.

I'm, at my best, on a kind of innocent and contrary posture, I think, wide-eyed, but somewhat skeptical posture. And that's not - it doesn't work in much of the world today.

LICHTMAN: Thank you for joining us today, Edward Tufte.

TUFTE: Well, thank you. Thank you. Good.

LICHTMAN: It's a pleasure to talk.


LICHTMAN: That was Edward Tufte, data scientist, based in Connecticut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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