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Beautiful Theology

Signifying truth in more than words alone

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Visual Explanations part 1

I’ll restrict my postings on Visual Explanations somewhat, since Kristin will only be skimming, and I’ve got a lot to square away in relatively little time. I’ll try to put up two posts, one emphasizing the first chapter (and following matter), and the second emphasizing the last chapter (and preceding matter).

I’ve assigned Tufte for a variety of reasons. First, it’s an exquisite example of craftsmanship; this shows us what books look and feel like when someone cares about their quality — and such examples matter to theological communicators, because our vocation involves us in communication about the greatest excellence (which passes all understanding). If we try to communicate about sublime truth in slipshod gestures and haphazard words, we risk conveying to our audiences the message that God, truth, beauty, don’t matter so much. As Thomas Merton says,
We who say we love God: why are we not as anxious to be perfect in our art as we pretend we want to be in our service of God? If we do not try to be perfect in what we write, perhaps it is because we are not writing for God after all. In any case it is depressing that those who serve God and love Him sometimes write so badly, when those who do not believe in Him take pains to write so well. I am not talking about grammar and syntax, but about having something to say and saying it in sentences that are not half dead. Saint Paul and Saint Ignatius Martyr did not bother about grammar but they certainly knew how to write . . . . A bad book about the love of God remains a bad book, even though it may be about the love of God. There are many who think that because they have written about God, they have written good books. Then men pick up these books and say: If the ones who say they believe in God cannot find anything better than this to say about it, their religion cannot be worth much.*
Or Stan Hauerwas, in his recent commentary on Matthew: “. . . [O]ne of the essential tasks of the church is the ‘care’ of words,” or Gerald O’Collins whom I recollect to have said “A theologian is someone who watches his language in the presence of God” (I’ll look that one up later).

To specifics: the Introduction takes up a premise that informs my interest in this whole theme: “. . . Clarity and excellence in thinking is very much like clarity and excellence in the display of data. When principles of design replicate principles of thought, the act of arranging information becomes an act of insight” (p. 9). The first chapter sets out some premises about communicating information — setting a scale relative to which the communication can be correlated to other information, applying consistent criteria (measurements) across a body of data, using gestures for maximal information (while eschewing irrelevancy and distraction), finding a way to allow the information to set the agenda for expression (rather than wrenching the information to fit the vehicle of communication, illustrated comically in the map of Britain on p. 24, tragically in the space shuttle catastrophes in subsequent pages).

In subsequent chapters, which I’m traversing quickly and lightly, Tufte makes a case for the paramount value of context for ascertaining what’s important — and not “context” only, but “the right context.” Note — in the context of discussions we’ve had elsewhere about “aggregation” — the point on p. 36, that how you parse data shapes the “obvious” conclusions about what it means. The Challenger engineers presented correct data about launch experience, temperature, and O-ring damage, but presented it in such a way as to impede our perceiving that it was a virtual certainty that a launch temperature in the 20s would entail dangerous damage to the O-rings (the graph on p. 45 shows the data pattern that suggests a curve that has already veered toward increasing frequency and seriousness of O-ring damage by the 50s — 25 or 30 degrees warmer than the day of the Challenger launch). Now, Tufte has the advantage of being able to display the array post facto to reveal what actually happened — but we should allow that his graph doesn’t involve any legerdemain, but the display of plain data on a clearly-marked, evenly-articulated field.

Legerdemain, by contrast, involves manipulating our attention so as to distract us from useful information. Tufte takes up the topic of magic both because it’s an instructive exercise in disinformation, and because the process of illustrating magic helps us understand how to render clear, illuminating visual explanations. His analysis of illustrating objects in motion draws on, yes, the techniques of composing comics that we’ve been studying for several weeks now (cf. p. 61; note in the illustration on p. 62 that Tufte calls attention to the use of blank space as a gutter).

This chapter reinforces Tufte’s polemic against distraction, visual noise that does not contribute to a project’s communicative purpose. His point applies as well to the physical actions of a conjurer (or presider, or a teacher) as to the graphic display of information. What we do affects the shape of our audience’s (or congregation’s, or class’s) attention; though one may well want to eschew deliberation about the communicative quality of actions, the decision to opt for “natural” behavior entails the choice to communicate without such critical attention as heightens the clarity, effectiveness, impact, and precision of our expressions. In this regard, Tufte’s prescriptions relative to making presentations command our vigilant regard (though not, of course, slavish obedience). In the end, we may apply Tufte’s criteria for information design to many more areas of communication than only information design.

*The Sign of Jonas, 56-7.


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