Stephanie Briones

Rethinking Data

The final months of my Resident Apprenticeship has come with some new tasks. One of which is reading one book per week.

This week's book is Edward R. Tufte's Envisioning Information. It is packed with many valuable insights, and I am sure that if you have the great pleasure of creating a table or two, you would benefit from reading Envisioning Information.

Escaping Flatland, a page from Envisioning Information (Source)

Constructing Tables

Tabular data is pretty universally important. We use and rely on tables daily, but they are usually painful to design and to look at. If we could learn how to display information in a simple, more straightforward way, I think that we might grow to enjoy creating tables that we and other people can appreciate.

Using Tufte's guidance regarding tabular data, I'd like to try to redesign a table, one that could use a little work. I encourage you to try it too. Here's a table I found via Google image search.

"International Rankings and National Health Expenditures" (Source)

This table isn't all bad, it just could use a couple of tweaks to make the information a little easier to digest. Some of the things I instantly noticed are the center alignment of the first column, the left alignment of the table headers, and the right alignment of the table data. Just evening those out would go a long way in making improving the table's readability.

Here's what I might do:

  1. Remove the borders.
  2. "First try to do without rules altogether. They should be used only when they are absolutely necessary. Vertical rules are needed only when the space between columns is so narrow that mistakes will occur ..." Jan Tschichold, Asymmetric Typography
  3. Enlarge the title of the table.
  4. Left align the data.
  5. Simplify color.
  6. "The often scant benefits derived from coloring data indicates that even putting a good color in a good place is a complex matter." Paul Klee, Notebooks: The Thinking Eye
  7. Allow some breathing room.
  8. Given the probable audience, simplify wording and numbers.
  9. "... our readers are alert and caring; they may be busy, eager to get on with it, but they are not stupid." Edward Tufte, Envisioning Information

Here's what I came up with. There may be more here that could be changed, there may be a whole new way to present this data. I'd love to see how many different solutions could be thought up for this one table.

Tufte's Envisioning Information is definitely a book that I will reference again and again.