The greatest infographic ever drawn

Double click to enlarge

Edward Tufte, author of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and Envisioning Information, wrote in the former book that this chart, drawn by the French engineer and civil servant Charles Joseph Minard in 1861, “may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn.”

I’ve admired Tufte and his work for decades.  You can’t understand the contemporary world without understanding statistics, and, as W. Edwards Deming said, no number means anything unless it can be meaningfully compared with something else.  Where statistics are concerned, a good graphic is worth a thousand words of text – provided the graphic presents the information understandably and without distortion.

The graphic above on Napoleon’s retreat is a great example of how to do it.  At a glance, you can see the position and size of Napoleon’s army on the map at any given date, and how it dwindled as it advanced, then retreated.  A second glance, at the line on the bottom, shows the temperates on the dates during the retreats.

I read Tufte’s first two books in the 1990s, when I worked for Gannett newspapers, which were a pioneer in presenting graphic information, and I recommended them to everyone who would listen to me.  I still recommend them to all newspaper editors, graphic designers, technical writers and individual citizens who want to avoid being misinformed.

Tufte wrote two other books, which I haven’t read.  They are Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative and Beautiful Evidence.  They’re expensive, so if you can only read just one, I recommend his classic, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

Click on The Work of Edward Tufte and Graphics Press for his home page.

Click on The Information Sage for a good article in The Washington Monthly about Edward Tufte.

Click on Bad Charts for the web log of Gary Klass, a political scientist and Tufte fan who discusses how charts can distort information.

Click on Edward R. Tufte wiki for Tufte’s Wikipedia article.

Click on Charles Joseph Minard wiki for Minard’s Wikipedia article.

A high quality graphic presentation matters little if the information itself is faulty.

Click on Botox and beancounting for an article in The Economist about distortions in the way the U.S. government reports economic data.

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