There was a point not too long ago when people were really excited about the display of information. This excitement was epitomized for me by Edward Tufte’s work in information display. It brought home to me a unity in the several ways of transcribing information from the way we understand it to the page. When I write, read, program, draw, manipulate equations or design graphical displays, there is some unity in what needs to be done. I should have clarity, of thought and of expression; and this requires both a clarity of understanding and a facility with the tools at hand.
I am being abstract so I’ll just say what brought on this discussion: good displays of information don’t always have to be flashy, sometimes a list will do. Terry Tao has a really cool break down of several numbers that are relevant to the current discussion of the economic climate. I think it would have taken deliberate effort on my part to have come away without understanding the relative proportions of the US budget and the numbers concerning the housing crisis better.
The list succeeds by bridging the key difficulty in understanding the financial numbers — that they are simply too large. It surmounts this difficulty by analogizing what we understand poorly with what we understand well. This all seems very straightforward and basic and yet, we have probably each seen literally millions of examples of graphics, advertisements, textbook illustrations, or journal article figures, where the designer did not accomplish this. He or she was not sure what the key difficult was and failed to make the information as understandable as it could have been. I am sure I am guilty of this myself. This is because displaying information is not a straightforward task and there is often room for improvement.