DataViz History: Edward Tufte, Charles Minard, Napoleon and The Russian Campaign of 1812 – Part 1

SOURCE: The following blog post is taken directly from A review of Edward Tufte’s ‘Beautiful Evidence’ by Yuri Engelhardt. The link to Yuri’s website can be found here.

[Note: I am about to start a multi-part series on Minard’s map related to Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812. I am going to introduce the players related to this map first, then discuss the map in some detail.]

I first learned about Minard’s map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 when I attended a one-day workshop from Edward Tufte in San Diego back in the mid-2000s. Mr. Tufte told the story of the war as it related to the map with great passion. He talked about little interesting events that occurred and I was hooked. This moment was my epiphany. I came to a strong realization that I loved everything Mr. Tufte was talking about an I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.

Edward Tufte

Edward TufteEdward Tufte is an American statistician and professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale University. He is noted for his writings on information design and as a pioneer in the field of data visualization. Mr. Tufte is known for his seminal best-selling books The Visual Display  of Quantitative Information (1983), Envisioning  Information (1990),  Visual Explanations (1997), and Beautiful Evidence (2006). [SOURCE]


Mr. Tufte  has provided the discipline with a vocabulary for bad design (chartjunk, the lie factor), for  particular graphic constructions (small multiples, micro/macro readings), and for his own criteria of good design (high data-ink  ratio, high data density). [SOURCE]


In his book, Beautiful Evidence, Mr. Tufte introduced the original concept of sparklines. He also refers to sparklines  as “wordlike graphics” or “datawords”. A sparkline  usually consists of either a fluctuating line like in a line chart, or of a  string of very tiny bars. It is usually longer than high, and is not  accompanied by an x- or y-axis or other scale. A sparkline enables the visual  display of a large amount of data in a tiny space. In addition, sparklines  are often presented in a set, enabling comparisons between the data in  different sparklines. Tufte presents interesting examples of sparkline uses,  and provides practical advice for their design (some draft pages for  this chapter can be seen here).

The Fundamental Principles of Analytical Design

“The fundamental principles  of analytical design” is the title of the fifth chapter of Beautiful  Evidence (I will refer to this book as “BE” going forward). Here Mr. Tufte provides an in-depth analysis of the by now well-known graphic showing the devastating  losses of the French Army in Napoleon’s Russian campaign (drawn by Charles  Joseph Minard). [Note: We will discuss this map in more detail later in this blog series.]

Ironically, this graphic was basically unknown  before Mr. Tufte introduced it to the world in his book The visual display of  quantitative information (1983). Then, twenty-six years later, he  uses it again in BE to illustrate and explain in detail his six fundamental  principles of analytical design, which he formulates as:

  1. Show  comparisons, contrasts, differences.
  2. Show  causality, mechanism, explanation, systematic structure.
  3. Show  multivariate data; that is, show more than 1 or 2 variables.
  4. Completely  integrate words, numbers, images, diagrams.
  5. Thoroughly  describe the evidence. Provide a detailed title, indicate the authors and  sponsors, document the data sources, show complete measurement scales, point  out relevant issues.
  6. Analytical  presentations ultimately stand or fall depending on the quality, relevance,  and integrity of their content.

Mr. Tufte declares that “The  purpose of an evidence presentation is to assist thinking”, and that these  six principles of analytical design “are derived from the principles of  analytical thinking.” (BE, p. 137). He claims that these  design principles are universal and “not tied to any particular language,  culture, style, century, gender, or technology of information display.” (BE, p. 10).

There are many other key data visualization topics that Mr. Tufte discusses in his books, but I wanted to at least introduce those topics related to Charles Minard’s map. I will be discussing Mr. Tufte and his work more in future blogs.

NEXT: The Life and Works of Charles Joseph Minard

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