22 August 2013

The Visual Display of Edward Tufte

About a quarter-century ago, I was a young Editorial Assistant at a publishing company, and someone handed me a copy of Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

I already had a copy of that book, a holiday present from my mother. (I think I’d entered a “hard to shop for” period after years of easily identified obsessions.) I’d found The Visual Display of Quantitative Information quite interesting, both in its content and in its backstory: Tufte had self-published the book back when desktop-publishing programs were new and Amazon and print-on-demand barely conceived of. I read that he was making big money from the book and/or speeches and consulting contracts based on it.

That success evidently caught the attention of higher-ups at my employer. One of them sent a copy of the book down to the editors on my floor along with a memo to look into this and do something about it. I saw one of those editors carrying around the book and naively piped up that I was familiar with it already. That was how I came into possession of a second copy of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

I was too new to realize that corporate activity around the book wasn’t really driven by a wish to start publishing oversized volumes on quantitative displays. Rather, it was driven by a wish to satisfy the higher-ups’ desire to have someone handle this matter. The book was like the monkey in the old Harvard Business School analogy: passed off from one desk to another within the organization until someone figures out a way to toss it back outside.

I don’t clearly recall how the episode ended. I think I was still wrestling with how best to explain “We can’t afford him” when word arrived that our department’s higher-up had passed along the book because an even higher higher-up had given it to her, so she wasn’t really pushing for any action. Tufte went on to self-publish more volumes without being bothered by us.

All of which leads up to the news that for several years Edward Tufte has been working on large-scale sculptural installations, sometimes in collaboration with stone worker Dan Snow. Three that caught my eye are:
Tufte’s website says the next open-house viewing at Hogpen Hill Farms in Woodbury, Connecticut, will be on 5 Oct 2013.

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