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 Edward (ET) Rolf Tufte  (1942 - )

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Lived/Active: Connecticut/New York/Kansas/Missouri      Known for: large-scale outdoor abstract sculpture, teaching

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Edward Rolf Tufte (pronounced /'t?fti/), also known as ET, is an American statistician and professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale University.  He is noted for his writings on information design.   Outside his academic endeavors over the years, Tufte has created sculptures, often large outdoor metal ones, which were first primarily exhibited on his own rural Connecticut property.  In 2009-2010, the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in its sculpture garden, had a solo exhibition of Tufte's sculpture, "See Around-Edward Tufte".  Many of the works were large scale, such as Rocket Science #1, 32 feet high, weighing 48,000 pounds and Petals, a series of 12 aluminum paraboloids of revolution, each 16 feet in length.  Some of his sculpture is created deliberately in areas to attract animals such as dogs and cattle to wander among it.  These 'visitors' for Tufte create a realistic presence, which can serve visitors as a contrast with abstraction, a conversion of "new optical experiences into familiar stories, favored viewpoints, comforting metaphors." (Aldrich)

In 2010, "the man known as 'ET' ... opened a gallery, ET Modern, in New York City's art district" at 11th Avenue and 20th Street.

Edward Rolf Tufte was born in 1942 in Kansas City, Missouri, to Virginia Tufte and Edward E. Tufte.  He grew up in Beverly Hills, California, and graduated from Beverly Hills High School.  He received a BA and MS in statistics from Stanford University and a PhD in political science from Yale.  His dissertation, completed in 1968, was entitled The Civil Rights Movement and Its Opposition.  He was then hired by Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, where he taught courses in political economy and data analysis while publishing three quantitatively inclined political science books.

In 1975, while at Princeton, Tufte was asked to teach a statistics course to a group of journalists who were visiting the school to study economics.  He developed a set of readings and lectures on statistical graphics, which he further developed in joint seminars he subsequently taught with renowned statistician John Tukey, a pioneer in the field of information design.  These course materials became the foundation for his first book on information design, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

Tufte self-published his Visual Display in 1982, working closely with graphic designer Howard Gralla.  He financed the work by taking out a second mortgage on his home.  The book quickly became a commercial success and secured his transition from political scientist to information expert.

On March 5, 2010, it was announced that President Barack Obama would appoint Tufte to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's Recovery Independent Advisory Panel "to provide transparency in the use of Recovery-related funds."

Tufte is an expert in the presentation of informational graphics such as charts and diagrams, and is a fellow of the American Statistical Association.  Tufte has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

Tufte's writing is important in such fields as information design and visual literacy, which deal with the visual communication of information.  He coined the term "chartjunk" to refer to useless, non-informative, or information-obscuring elements of quantitative information displays.  Other key concepts of Tufte are the lie factor, the data-ink ratio, the data density of a graphic (Mulrow 2002).

He uses the term "data-ink ratio" to argue against using excessive decoration in visual displays of quantitative information. In Visual Display, Tufte states:  "Sometimes decorations can help editorialize about the substance of the graphic.  But it's wrong to distort the data measures—the ink locating values of numbers—in order to make an editorial comment or fit a decorative scheme."

Tufte also encourages the use of data-rich illustrations with all the available data presented. When examined closely, every data point has value; when seen overall, trends and patterns can be observed.  Tufte suggests these macro/micro readings be presented in the space of an eyespan, in the high resolution format of the printed page, and at the unhurried pace of the viewer's leisure.

Tufte has criticized the way Microsoft PowerPoint is typically used.  In his essay "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint", Tufte criticizes many properties and uses of the software:
    •    It is used to guide and to reassure a presenter, rather than to enlighten the audience;
    •    It has unhelpfully simplistic tables and charts, resulting from the low resolution of early computer displays;
    •    The outliner causes ideas to be arranged in an unnecessarily deep hierarchy, itself subverted by the need to restate the hierarchy on each slide;
    •    Enforcement of the audience's linear progression through that hierarchy (whereas with handouts, readers could browse and relate items at their leisure);
    •    Poor typography and chart layout, from presenters who are poor designers and who use poorly designed templates and default settings (in particular, difficulty in using scientific notation);
    •    Simplistic thinking, from ideas being squashed into bulleted lists, and stories with beginning, middle, and end being turned into a collection of disparate, loosely disguised points. This may present an image of objectivity and neutrality that people associate with science, technology, and "bullet points".

Tufte's criticism of PowerPoint has extended to its use by NASA engineers in the events leading to the Columbia disaster. Tufte's analysis of a representative NASA PowerPoint slide is included in a full-page sidebar entitled "Engineering by Viewgraphs" in Volume 1 (page 191) of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's report.

Tufte argues that the most effective way of presenting information in a technical setting, such as an academic seminar or a meeting of industry experts, is by distributing a brief written report that can be read by all participants in the first 5 to 10 minutes of the meeting. Tufte believes that this is the most efficient method of transferring knowledge from the presenter to the audience. The rest of the meeting is then devoted to discussion and debate.

One method Tufte encourages to allow quick visual comparison of multiple series is the Small multiple. A chart with many series shown on a single pair of axes can often be easier to read when displayed as several separate pairs of axes placed next to each other. This is particularly helpful when the series are measured on quite different scales, but over the same range on the x-axis (usually time).

Tufte also developed sparklines — a simple, condensed way to present trends and variation, associated with a measurement such as average temperature or stock market activity. These are often used as elements of a small multiple with several lines used together. Tufte explains the sparkline as a kind of "word" that conveys rich information without breaking the flow of a sentence or paragraph made of other "words" both visual and conventional.


Curator, Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, "Seeing Around: Edward Tufte", June 13, 2009-January 17, 2010.  Exhibition Catalogue,

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