The manner in which complex statistical data is presented can have a profound effect on viewers when a precise method is used. Instead of presenting a confusing and overwhelming mass of numbers and lines, advertisers can use design clarity to their advantage. Communication is possible only when confusion is removed.

Professor Emeritus at Yale University, Edward R. Tufte, has taught courses in statistical evidence, information design, and interface design. He has authored award winning books on the subject in addition to his teaching.

Two key principles of communicating complex information clearly are visual effectiveness and scientific accuracy. For example, visual comparisons are essential. Viewers must to be able to answer the question, "Compared with what?" upon immediate inspection of an information display. The data must present apparent causality, or a cause and effect relationship, in order for the reader to draw pertinent conclusions. Ideally, the reader must also be able to see an entire visual story unfold in one image. To do this, the information must contain more than one or two variables and must integrate words, numbers, and images into one cohesive idea. In addition, the information should be presented in a single "eye span" so that the viewer is not required to maintain one set of data in mind in order to compare it to a separate set of data. All conclusions should be evident upon initial viewing.

One necessary objective of data presentation is establishing credibility. Documenting displays is imperative to verifying authenticity and reinforcing the impact of the data. The purpose of good design is to be "invisible." That is, the design of the display must never overshadow the data itself. Design always must serve the content. There is no place in Tufte's world for "design for design's sake." As he is fond of saying, "Good design is clear thinking made visible." For information display, it is more important to be accurate than original.

An audience is more apt to remember your information when presented with a clear, visual display. Does your data confuse or clarify what you are trying to say?

Books by Edward R. Tufte, which we highly recommend, include Envisioning Information, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, and Visual Explanations.


Probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn, this map by Charles Joseph Minard portrays the losses suffered by Napoleon's army in the Russian campaign of 1812. Beginning at the Polish-Russian border, the thick band shows the size of the army at each position. The path of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow in the bitterly cold winter is depicted by the dark lower band, which is tied to temperature and time scales. Available at www.edwardtufte.com.



Good design is "invisible." What you see is the useful
and interesting information, not the style
.