Godin, Tufte and Types of Infographics

A few days ago Zach wrote about Seth Godin’s take on Edward Tufte. You know you’re really onto something when your first three comments include: "Seth Godin is out of his gourd and totally wrong." and "Hallelujah, Seth!!!!!" (note the five exclamation points).

Let’s start with some facts:

  • Godin is a provocateur. "I think this is one of the worst graphs ever made," he says about the Napoleon graph. That’s hardly a well-reasoned statement—but it makes a point. Personally, I think Godin’s in way over his head when talking about what graphs are for.
  • Tufte is a provocateur. "This is, for example, the conclusion of sparkline analysis in Beautiful Evidence, where the idea is to make our data graphics at least operate at the resolution of good typography (say 2400 dpi).", he writes. This provocation is more subtle than his well documented aversion to PowerPoint. He’s saying that a computer screen is not an effective tool for data graphics.
  • We are provocateurs, too. Pitting these luminaries against each other with only a brief amount of context is a recipe for delightful blog swirl and discussion.

In a battle between provocateurs it’s best to at least keep your sense of humor about you. You should also be careful and clear when defining your terms.

There are at least two categories for infographics: exploratory and explanatory. A great example of exploratory infographics is what Hans Rosling is doing with Gapminder. This shows us that we can use infographics to go on a personal journey of discovery to understand data. I choose what questions to explore and how to represent the data. Exploratory graphics can be quite complex because I maintain a thread of context in my mind as I explore the data. Animation is very useful here to help maintain context while changing dimensions.

Explanatory graphics are at best the distilled product of exploration and at worst, as Tufte often points out, a tool of deception. Explanatory graphics are often used to establish facts to guide a discussion. "We’re selling more widgets than wodgets! The widget sales trend is up!". I’m sure this is what Godin is talking about: "I think you’re trying to make a point in two seconds for people who are too lazy to read the 40 words underneath."

Tufte has done a great job at increasing awareness of good information display. On the other hand, he promotes graphs that are strongly tied to a specific context—a facet of the data that they are illustrating. For instance, the Minard graph is a story about the survivors of Napoleon’s march. It does not directly illuminate the battles fought, or how men died, or the story of the armies that faced Napoleon, or the demographics of his army, or the strategic choices Napoleon faced. While this famous graph illustrates many dimensions, it obscures many others, and we need to be aware about this editorial judgment.

Tufte frustrates on a number of levels. He is enormously influential in business. Businesses send people to his seminars and they come back energized with the essential truthfulness of his message. Yet weeks later those principles are abandoned by the lack of practicality of his message. No one in business is going to design a graph in Adobe Illustrator as he can. They use Excel. Seldom can we spend days or weeks refining and testing a graph. The work must be done and then we move on.


The Google Video links here jump directly to a point in the presentation. You can create direct links like this:


The #17m26s appended to the end of the URL jump you to 17 minutes and 26 seconds into the video.

Thanks for all the comments on the previous post, but I wanted to single out Jorge Camoes for a particularly level-headed comment. Thanks.

Some more discussion can be found at Emergent Chaos were Thomas Ptacek has posted an insightful comment.