Edward Tufte is a statistician and political scientist, who has written extensively on information design and data visualisation. The advice he gives on the visual communication of information and data is widely applicable but does have particular relevance to the production of scientific conceptual figures and is certainly worth a read.
Three of his books, detailed below, cover the main topics and guidelines.
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983), is concerned, according to Tufte, with ‘pictures of numbers’, how to depict data and enforce statistical honesty. Although conceptual figures rarely include actual data, the guidelines concerning clarity of visual presentation are generally applicable to all kinds of figures.
Envisioning Information (1990), is concerned with ‘pictures of nouns’, e.g., maps and photographs. Again, conceptual figures may not include these elements, but the book also describes visual strategies for design: colour, layering and interaction effects, all of which are relevant when producing conceptual figures.
Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative (1997) is concerned with ‘pictures of verbs’, the visual representation of mechanism and motion, of causes and effects, of explanation and narrative. As such, it is the book most relevant to conceptual figures. It contains a lot of very useful advice and includes the following comment on page 53, “For information displays, design reasoning must correspond to scientific reasoning. Clear and precise seeing becomes as one with clear and precise thinking.”
All of the books are published by Tufte’s own Graphics Press, based in Cheshire, Connecticut, USA. More information can also be found on his website.
* The header image for this blog post is a re-drawn detail of a figure used in a report into the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. The figure appears on page 47 of Visual Explanations, where it is used as an example of poor information design.