Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Visual Displays

About 25 years ago, I attended a talk at a conference by a man named Edward Tufte. He had just written a book titled The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. His talk and the focus of his book was on what makes a good graph, or visual display of information, as well as what qualifies as a poor graphic.

I loved the presentation and immediately purchased the book (which I still recommend highly). One of the most memorable parts of the book is his presentation of a classic chart by Charles Joseph Minard (1781-1870), showing the fate of Napoleon's army during its invasion of and subsequent retreat from Russia. Drawn in 1861, the plot displays six variables: the size of the army; its location on a two-dimensional surface; the direction of the army's movement; and the temperature on various dates during the retreat. Tufte suggests that it may be the best statistical graphic ever drawn, and I agree.

I have had a copy of this graphic posted by my desk ever since, which has followed me from office to office. Minard's map is a constant reminder to me of excellence. Every time I look at this graphic, I imagine how I can strive to work to produce something outstanding, either in its impact or in its effectiveness. This graph also reminds me daily that our lives are endless visual displays to those around us and to the world of what humans can accomplish if they put their minds and their hearts to a commitment.

Will I ever produce anything as elegant and memorable as Minard's graphic? Who knows? Perhaps I already have and do not even realize it. Regardless, I find that a worthy goal every day, applied to my work, my interactions with people, or just how I live my life.