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Envisioning Information.

Envisioning Information celebrates escapes from the flatland of paper and computer screen, rendering several hundred superb displays of complex data. Revealed here are design strategies for enhancing the dimensionality and density of portrayals of information--techniques exemplified in maps, charts, tables, diagrams, statistical graphics, computer visualizations and two-dimensional presentations of three or more dimensional data structures.

The world is complex, dynamic, multi-dimensional while paper or computer screen is flat. Envisioning Information works to bridge the gap, to explain by theory and copious examples how best to portray complex and voluminous data. The principles of information design are universal and thus all the examples, whether tables, maps, diagrams, etc., have something to offer the finance officer. The increasing power of microcomputer graphics strongly suggests that the ability to produce maps and graphics of great diversity will soon reside on desktops at an affordable price. This will be an enormous benefit to finance officials who are prepared to ask for the best designed representation of data. Envisioning Information shows the way.

As an impressive examples of the effective presentation of complex and voluminous data, and author displays a series of 12 graphs, called "small multiples," which portray urban air pollution for southern California. The data are a summary of 28,800 readings from a spatial grid of 2,400 squares, each five kilometers on a side, displayed by time of day and pollution types. The data are voluminous, but the peaks in the 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. column convey to the reader the seriousness of the problem without the need for extensive comment.

The author discusses various design strategies that produce excellence in information displays. For color, his advice is to use pure, bright or very strong colors sparingly on or between dull background tones to avoid loud, unbearable effects. "Human eyes are exquisitely sensitive to color variations" and we should remember that the "fundamental uses of color in information design [are] to label (color as noun), to measure (color as quantity), to represent or imitate a reality (color as representation) and to enliven or decorate (color as beauty)." This is wise advice to anyone who has just installed a new color monitor and is planning his or her first collection of color slides for a presentation.

Tufte urges his readers to avoid confusion and clutter by finding design strategies that "reveal detail and complexity;" one technique is to visually stratify various aspects of data, though this is often difficult especially on computer terminals with their administrative debris of menu bars, window borders, etc. Color, carefully chosen, can be used to create a layering effect, as in machine diagrams. "What matters--inevitably, unrelentingly--is the proper relationship among information layers. These visual relationships must be in relevant proportion and in harmony to the substance of the ideas, evidence and data conveyed." As an example, Tufte offers a redesign of a train schedule which shows how to subordinate less important data as a technique to emphasize what really matters.

Dark grid lines are "chartjunk" to be avoided, just as one should avoid surrounding words by little boxes with "active negative white spaces between word and box," like the box with the Surgeon General's warning on a cigarette package.

Whether discussing maps of transportation systems, three-dimensional statistical scatter plots, railroad schedule charts, compound interest tables, weather charts or population maps, the author focuses on self-effacing displays committed to rich data. Many examples are of direct relevance to governments everywhere.

The greatest value in Envisioning Information is in learning to rethink one's approach to presenting information. The author focuses on data density and insists that "it is not how much information there is, but rather how effectively it is arranged" and that "clutter and confusion are failures of design, not attributes of information:" all serious food for thought.

Envisioning Information is sumptuously produced, exquisitely annotated and eminently readable. Everyone responsible for dealing with a flood of data and images containing detailed and complex information should be familiar with this book.

Envisioning Information is available for $48 from Graphics Press, Box 430, Cheshire, CT 06410 (203/272-9187).

Reviewed by Joseph T. Kelley, a consultant and trainer working out of Cambridge, Massachusetts; previously, director of budget and finance for Lawrence, Massachusetts, and assistant director of GFOA's Government Finance Research Center.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Government Finance Officers Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Kelley, Joseph T.
Publication:Government Finance Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1992
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