Part 07: Edward Tufte, Stephen Few, Rolf Hichert

This blog is influenced by a blog from Jorge Camoes, an expert in data visualization. He lives in Oeiras a suburb by the sea near Lisbon, Portugal. He came in touch with the design approaches of Stephen Few and Edward Tufte. I want to make shure, that I added my points about the guys and I added my opinion about Rolf Hichert in this context. The original blog was posted here.

God and Moses? The Differences Between Edward Tufte and Stephen Few

I have a confession to make: my past is paved with chart-making sins, including some capital ones (yes, 3D pie charts, too). But years ago I saw the light in Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and since then I’ve been avoiding eye-candy temptations. Now I do my best to pursuit the path of data visualization virtue.

Every God Has His Moses: Edward Tufte and Stephen Few

Some time after that first revelation, I stumbled on Stephen Few’s Show Me the Numbers and I though: “wow, Tufte for business!”. As a father of twins, I know that good things come in pairs, and now I had two great role models to help my recent conversion.

Or should I say one and a half?

Edward Tufte and Stephen Few are often cited together, as if they were a single entity. For many of us, simple mortals, Stephen Few is some kind of translator of God’s voice. Given Few’s background, that wouldn’t be completely inappropriate…

For some time that’s how I looked at Few’s work on charts and data visualization. But I was wrong. They do share similar views about basic data visualization principles. And they seem to share the same level of stubbornness, too. But there is a major difference.

Tufte, the Artist vs. Few, the Engineer

Tufte is an artist. His data visualization principles derive from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s minimalism, and in that sense, he approaches charts from an aesthetic point of view. His charts are as beautiful as a chart can be, if you happen to like the aesthetic minimalism.

I don’t know how and when Few became aware of the need for better data visualization. But he embraced Tufte’s principles not because he is an aesthete like Tufte, but because he values efficiency and those principles happen to improve it.

Stephen Few would never title a book “Beautiful Evidence”. He doesn’t mind to use Excel to create his chart examples, while Tufte needs full control of details like kerning (and he uses a designer’s tool, Adobe’s Illustrator).

On the other hand, Tufte would never write a book about dashboards (Beautiful Dashboards? brrrr…). From an actionable, business visualization point of view, Tufte is The Visual Display… Almost everything else is beautiful, yes, and perfect for the coffee table.

And while Tufte escaped Flatland for good, Few still keeps both feet firmly on the ground, discussing BI tools, pie charts or irregular time series (and I don’t think his new book changes that).

The Need for a New Business Visualization Model: the Emotional Link

Both approaches are very consistent and they give you a set of guidelines that you can apply to all your charts and adopt as a general framework.

What I am not comfortable with is their positivist attitude, specially in Few. Because Tufte’s charts are aesthetically pleasing, we can derive some emotion from that. In Few’s case, his charts are purely functional.

The Need for a New Business Visualization Model: Interaction

Jacques Bertin says that knowledge is built by the user when interacting with the chart. Why interaction (and animation) is absent from Tufte’s and Few’s books is something I don’t really understand.

Although I respect Tufte and Few, I feel that there are pieces missing in their theories. We can borrow some pieces from Bertin’s work (and Tukey’s?) and that will surely help, but the real issue here is to find the balance between the need to correctly (bureaucratically?) display the data and the emotional response that helps to keep the audience interested.

My opinion to Jorge Camoes`post = HE IS RIGHT, BUT..

Edward Tufte and Stephen Few are experts in data visualization and the observation is correct. Tufte is talking about data visualization like an artist, who lives in his own world and shares his knowledge in only one way. Stephen Few is talking about data visualization like an engineer, who works and worked with customers like data analysts in large companies.

While Tufte is looking for beauty in his life and environment, Few is looking for the correct and intuitive usage of data. And this in my opinion the most important difference in their approaches.

Do not Forget Rolf Hichert, the European expert for data visualization

But what is important to add here. While Edward Tufte and Stephen Few are famous in English speaking countries, Europe has his own data visualization guru. His name is Rolf Hichert and he founded the International Business Communication Standard Association (IBCS-A).

He declared his own concept which combines elements of Tufte and Few but brought the issue data visualization with additional “SEMANTIC RULES” on a new level. While Few is talking about the beauty of visualization and Few about the correct usage of charts, Rolf Hichert defined the correct look and feel of charts and tables.

His idea is that everything which shows the same shall look the same. Everything which is not the same must not look the same. So, he defined rules for charts and tables as well as the usage of these visualization objects in presentations, management reports and statistics. The advantage is, that everyone who is introduced to this concept, does understand the shown data and the message of the author.

Large companies around the world started to adopt the concept because they saw a real advantage for the inhouse reporting. And in the last years, SAP did understand it as well and started to implement the design guidelines in their new Business Intelligence Software. There are several further smaller companies who created software solutions, but with SAP, the whole issue accelerates tremendously.

And this is the most important difference between Tufte, Few and Hichert. Hichert influenced user companies as well as software vendors to built beautiful charts and tables, to use them in a correct manner AND in addition, to design in the same Approach that there is only one design for one chart or table type and analysis approach.


About Tobias Riedner
Tobias Riedner foundet in 2015. He works and worked as innovator, consultant, analyst and educator in the fields of business intelligence and data warehousing. He learned a lot from the best consultants, managers und educators in the past and shares his knowledge worldwide. He works for a steady growing traditional company which is a leader in industry 4.0.