Edward Tufte: 6 Principles of Graphical Integrity

Instructor: David Gloag

David has over 40 years of industry experience in software development and information technology and a bachelor of computer science

Presenting data in graphical form happens a lot these days. In this lesson, we'll take a look at a pioneer in this area, Edward Tufte, and some principles he put together that ensure graphical integrity is maintained.

An Affinity for Visual Representation

We present information in a graphical fashion quite often. You see it in golf coverage where there is a graphical representation of a fairway and associated drive; you see it when you watch your favorite cooking program and a recipe appears on the screen; you see it when you watch your favorite weather station for news on the day's forecast.

But what is it that makes graphical representations so effective? Well, humans have a significant dependence on eye sight, and as a result, an affinity for visual representations. Further, people like Edward Tufte are constantly improving effectiveness in this area.

Who Is Edward Tufte?

Edward Tufte is a Professor Emeritus (retired) at Yale University in the U.S. His teaching responsibilities covered political science, statistics, and computer science.

He is known for his ground-breaking work in:

  • Information design, the study of methods to simplify the learning of all types of information, and more specifically,
  • Data visualization, which focuses on visual methods of displaying data.

His written work includes 4 significant titles: Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations, and Beautiful Evidence. Each was well received and praised by publications such as the Washington Post, Business Week, and Scientific American. He was also appointed to a committee by President Obama to improve governmental transparency.

Before we learn about Tufte's contribution to graphical integrity, let's define that term first.

Graphical Integrity

Graphical integrity refers to how accurately the visual elements represent the data. On the surface, this would seem to be straight forward. But in fact, information can vary widely, even for data that is related. So there is a desire and tendency to scale the data disproportionately in order to make it fit in the space allowed.

Or when values are tightly packed in one area, and sparse in another, there is a desire and tendency to spread things out evenly. In each case, this can lead to a false impression of the data, and incorrect conclusions.

Tufte's 6 Principles of Graphical Integrity

Because of the variation that inevitably crops up in graphical representations of data, Tufte came up with six principles that are meant to ensure high graphical integrity. They are outlined in his book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. They are as follows:

  • Representation of numbers should match the true proportions.
  • Labeling should be clear and detailed.
  • Design should not vary for some ulterior motive, show only data variation.
  • To represent money, well known units are best.
  • The number of dimensions represented should be the same as the number of dimensions in the data.
  • Representations should not imply unintended context.

How Are These Principles Used?

Let's look at an example of good graphical integrity. Consider The Weather Network's desktop weather app. On Windows, this app places a small icon in the System Tray that can be clicked to display current information.

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