Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi
 


Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Information Design Classic Makes The Shelves Again After Two Hundred Years

Thanks to the popularity of information design guru Edward Tufte, a two hundred years old book by William Playfair has just made the shelves again.

The power of online recommendations and reviews has brought back to the shelves a book that was until a few years ago only a record in a few university libraries.

William_Playfair_graph.jpg
Pioneering time-series graph by William Playfair, 1786
- Courtesy Wake Forrest University

The power of the Long Tail is just this. The opening of market and revenue opportunities for books and content that are interesting only to a handful of people.

While until now bringing to the press again an out-of-print book meant only spending more money, today, thanks to power of the infinite shelf-space offered by online clearinghouses like Amazon, the market is re-defined by user preferences and recommendations, search and affinity engines, and by the negligible costs of digital printing and inclusion in online virtual catalogs.

The cost of adding new products and making them available is so little today, that even books having audiences of a few thousand can still turn a good profit both for the author as well as for the distributor (if you still need one).

Here is how the story goes.

Edward Tufte is THE word most respected resource on information design, data visualization and the intelligent use of graphics to communicate complex ideas in simpler and more effective ways.

I myself have bought each and everyone of his truly wonderful illustrated books and I have used his teachings in many workshops dedicated to help communication executives master basic foundation rules about effective visual communication.

What Edward Tufte concerns himself with is our often ignorant, excessive and highly decorative use of graphics.

What Mr Tufte preaches, is complete understanding of the core message to be conveyed and then working around using the minimum amount of ink to achieve that goal.

He rightfully derides 3D graph charts, the stereotypical PowerPoint slide and the brain-numbing templates we are given by our ubiquitous Microsoft tools when preparing diagrams or business charts. This stuff is good for birthday parties not for conveying serious information at-a-glance to busy business executives attending your presentation.

And what Edward Tufte does to facilitate our ability to unlearn the low-grade techniques and tools we have been misled to use, is to often look back at our visual past while learning from it.

William Playfair is in fact someone I would have never known hadn't it been for Edward Tufte desire to erudite his readers by sharing with them the history of information design as it came to be.

He made little impression in his native land, and his impact was only slightly greater in England and France. Yet he is responsible for inventions familiar and useful to us all: he was the first to devise and publish all of the common statistical graphs - the pie chart, the bar chart, and the statistical line graph.

William Playfair was the man who invented a universal visual language applicable to science and commerce alike that, although not understood by his contemporaries, it was to determine a whole new paradigm of looking at data. With his work, he did forever change our assumptions and views about how data can be displayed and made comprehensible to others.

"The Cartesian tradition of graphical representation of mathematical functions worked against the use of graphs to depict empirical regularities.

The switch to the view that a graph can help us formulate an understanding of nature by plotting data points and looking for patterns required, in Thomas Kuhn's terms, a change in paradigm. A person that might effect such a change would not only have to be in the right place at the right time, but would also have to be an iconoclast."
(Source: Ian Spence & Howard Wainer)

"In the Statistical Breviary, Playfair invented the pie chart and expanded upon this concept to facilitate the comparison of the resources of European countries.

Playfair's work has great relevance to contemporary science, but finding copies of his original versions had been until now next to impossible. The re-publication of two of his classic works in one book, makes it possible again to access Playfair wisdom for the first time in two centuries."
(Source: Amazon Reviews)

Mike Friendly of York University writes about it on Amazon:

"William Playfair's Commercial and Political Atlas and his Statistical Breviary are among the most important works in the entire history of statistical graphics and data visualization.

Here we find the origin of the modern graphical forms most widely used today - the pie chart, line graph and bar chart - and Playfair used these with great skill to make his (largely economic) data 'speak to the eyes.'

While some of his graphs have been reprinted, often badly, in historical studies, few people have been able to study the very few extant complete copies of these works to see the scope (and beauty) of Playfair's graphical innovations together, and in original context.

At least as important, a modern reader will want to read Playfair's words to see how he faced the challenge of presenting his novel charts to his audience around 1800... Spence and Wainer (authors of the new edition) have done a great service to all those interested in visual information display and its history."

So, while designers and communication scholars may rejoice at the renewed availability of this great work, what really we must pay attention to, is the power of the Long Tail, a market economics realization first written about by Chris Anderson of Wired and which basically demonstrates how thanks to online clearinghouses offering infinite virtual shelf space coupled with search and recommendations tools, niche books and content that would have gone out of print before the web-era, now makes for nearly 60% of all Amazon revenue.

Yes, you have read it right.

The little, unknown, often forgotten authors, can have a life on their own, often without ever coming blockbuster titles. Long Tail economics clearly demonstrate how much bigger is the market of those little and unknown titles compared to the vast audiences following blindly only the best seller list.

If that feels hard to understand, go and give a good read at the original seminal article by Chris Anderson, which really does an excellent job at explaining all this.

 
 
 
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posted by Robin Good on Tuesday, September 27 2005, updated on Sunday, January 27 2008


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