Monday, May 16, 2005

Feynman-Tufte Principle

I read an interesting article on the Feynman-Tufte Principle lately on the visual display of data. The full article can be found online at

The Feynman-Tufte Principle is invented by the author, incorporating views from Richard Feynman, the master of clear and concise thinking, and Edward Tufte, the master of clear and concise seeing.

Richard Feynman who passed away in February 1988 was one of the most influential American physicists of the 20th century, expanding greatly the theory of quantum electrodynamics. He participated in the Manhattan Project and helped in the development of the atomic bomb and was later a member of the panel which investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. He received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 For his work on quantum electrodynamics. He was also famous as an inspiring lecturer. Books on his lectures in CalTech on all aspects of Physics are best sellers. His well-known contribution was the method he developed, which is still used today, to calculate rates for electromagnetic and weak interaction particle processes. The famous Feynman Diagrams he introduced provide a convenient shorthand for the calculations. They are a code physicists use to talk to one another about their calculations. The following is an example illustrating the interaction between electrons and photons.

Edward Tufte is a professor of statistics, graphic design, and political economy at Yale University and an expert on the presentation of informational graphics, such as infographics, charts and graphs. His work is important in such fields as information design and visual literacy, which deal with the visual communication of information. Please see an example of his work on the graphic presentation of weather in Japan.

The connection between the two experts occurred when Tufte was invited to speak at CalTech. He asked to see the van of Feynman which had the Feynman Diagram painted on it. Both persons are experts in the presentation of information. In particular, Tufte has a strong feeling about the inadequacy of slideware. In one his books, he said “Slideware often reduces the analytical quality of presentations. In particular, the popular PowerPoint templates usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis.”

The Feynman-Tufte Principle states that a visual display of data should be simple enough to fit on the side of a van. It refers to the Feynman Diagram which was painted on the side of Richard Feynman's van.

Tufte codified the design process into six principles on how to effectively convey ideas and information at a presentation. I think this may be interesting to managers who are frequently required to make PowerPoint presentations.

There are six principles:

1. Documenting the sources and characteristics of the data,

2. Insistently enforcing appropriate comparisons,

3. Demonstrating mechanisms of cause and effect,

4. Expressing those mechanisms quantitatively,

5. Recognizing the inherently multivariate nature of analytical problems,

6. Inspecting and evaluating alternative explanations.

In short, information displays should be documentary, comparative, causal and explanatory, quantified, multivariate, exploratory, skeptical.

These principles are easy said than done. I think they require in-depth research and deliberation on the subject matter. The basic requirement is that the presenter must have a good understanding of the issues and have considered them in different perspectives, before attempting to design the presentation.


  1. Hi Raymond - fun blog I've enjoyed browsing. I'd double check the Tufte weather map - I have not got Tufte's book in front of me but I have a feeling this diagram was not created by him as you suggest, but a Japanese graphic used by him as an example (he also made use of Japanese train schedule tables and historical itenery maps etc.)

  2. Thanks Jan. I am not sure about the weather map. I got it from The print is selling at $200 in his name. I wonder if he knows Japanese.