Book Review – Seeing with Fresh Eyes:  Meaning Space Data Truth by Edward Tufte

I am concerned at the lack of interest in the IR search community in the design of search results pages and the design of the individual results snippets. You could argue that these are topics  are out-of-scope and yet recent work on perceptual speed suggests that we should be taking more care about information design if only because no one else seems to be concerned with it.

I will admit to having a long running and very considerable interest in information design, looking at (for example) the colour contrast and legibility of road signs, a topic where the UK has long been at the peak of good practice. This interest was stimulated by reading The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by the American statistician Edward Tufte in 1980. Since that ground-breaking book Tufte has gone on to write more books on the subject of information presentation. Seeing with Fresh Eyes was published in 2020 and I am very grateful to Pam Mozier at Graphics Press, Connecticut, for making a review copy available.

You don’t read Tufte’s books. You gently meander from page to page in books that are as lovely to look at as they are to use marveling at the insights he brings to the most mundane elements of our working and living days. The pages are full of quotations, marginalia and a multiplicity of diagrams, charts and other images all related to what might be described as the cognitive aspects of information assimilation.

“What has this to do with search?” you may well ask. Turn to p10 of this book to look at the diagram that Tim Berners-Lee used in his 1989 CERN document “Information Management – a Proposal’ and then read a gentle de-construction of it on p11. This gentleness is a hallmark of Tufte’s writing. He argues his case with examples and not rhetoric and self-opinion, and you find yourself at the end of a page, section or chapter remarking to yourself “Ah – now I understand’.

The relevance of this book (and indeed of all his books) to information retrieval is that so many research papers on IR present complex outcomes of equally complex experiments or conjectures in a graphical format. Since I would guess that a substantial amount of IR research is published in a two-column format interspersed with both in-column and cross-page graphics and tables reading Tufte might just cause authors to look at their papers with fresh eyes, along the lines that Tufte proposes in this book. For example, Section 4 is entitled Data Analysis When The Truth Matters:On the Relationship Between Evidence and Conclusions – Remodeling Statistical Practice and Teaching. 40 pages that will forever change the way you present the results of your research!

Normally I look at the index of a book first to get a sense of the approach an author has taken. This book has no index, both because it is impossible to index in the conventional sense and because this is an unconventional book. One way to view it as that it is like walking around an art gallery which has insights about the painter and their picture set alongside the painting, or (nowadays) presented on your smart phone.

Among Tufte’s other books are Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative and his provocative assessment of PowerPoint The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within.

Treat yourself and take advantage of the wisdom and commitment of a very wise man.

PS. If I’ve started a train of thought about readability do read this 85pp review of readability research.

About Martin White
Martin White

Martin is an information scientist and the author of Making Search Work and Enterprise Search. He has been involved with optimising search applications since the mid-1970s and has worked on search projects in both Europe and North America. Since 2002 he has been a Visiting Professor at the Information School, University of Sheffield and is currently working on developing new approaches to search evaluation.

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