To many, Edward Tufte is best known for his dogged and unwavering promotion of Charles Joseph Minard’s Napoleon’s March to Moscow graphic as the perfect form of information visualization. That, and those swanky flyers that he sends out through the mail. Until I attended Tufte’s seminar a few years ago, I was ashamed to admit that I had never given that graphic more than a cursory glance. Once I did, however, it took me five or ten minutes to really understand it. And I was kind of turned off by that. So I’ll add my voice to the growing chorus of those that disagree with Tufte. But I’ll be less articulate. I just didn’t understand it, plain and simple. That’s actually one of reasons that I started this blog. Is there such a thing as the perfect visualization of information?
Of course there isn’t. And anyone who insists otherwise merely has a strong opinion.
So, if you accept that, then there’s the issue of, for each piece that we create, where is the sweet spot between accuracy and getting our message across? That’s a messy answer, in my opinion. I always want to be accurate, but if it’s at the expense of losing my audience, or making them work too hard to understand what I’m attempting to convey, it’s on me, the designer/developer, to take a step back and either try a different approach or rethink whether the project is worth doing.
So, imagine my delight when I found the site of Michael Friendly, a professor of statistics and noted author on data visualization at York University, who would like to do Minard one better. He issued a challenge to data visualization developers:
Can we re-draw it in some modern programming language? What does this tell us about comparative power and simplicity of various programming languages and environments?
The visualizations that are featured in Friendly’s site are fascinating attempts to recreate and re-imagine this graphic by today’s developers. Cool stuff. Granted, there’s myriad other examples online of others trying to do the same thing. But Friendly’s site had, to me, a great range of what’s out there. Too bad many of the examples cited are in printed books and hard to access. But digging through the examples is worth it. Imagine, for example, Napoleon’s march through a 3D cube which visualizes time and distance through various layers. Or as a trippy, post-apocalypic romp through physical space? My favorite is this Flash re-creation of the whole shebang, from the perspective of… everything. This is what people mean when they say “bells and whistles.” I chuckle to think what the very intense Edward Tufte’s assessment would be. Props to Menno-Jan Kraak for a terrific website cataloging all of these examples.
And, if you are really, really, really into the Minard graphic, go here for more, ranging from atlases to games.
Oh, and there’s even a piechart. But I’ll let you find that one yourself. Here’s the fancy original image from Wikipedia.