Monday, February 14, 2005

Graphical Style

I bought a new copy of The Elements of Style on Friday. My old copy disappeared last year. I probably loaned it and forgot to make a note, but I hold no grudge against whoever has it now. I can afford a new copy, and perhaps the old one is doing some good where it is. Still, I am glad to have a new copy for my shelf.

After signing my name in the cover of my purchase, I read the text again. As I read, I was reminded of an article on style in technical illustration that I'd read on Friday: Pictures and Proofs by Bill Casselman [1]. Casselman's article on illustration and Strunk and White's book on writing offer similar advice: reduce clutter, think about how the material would be presented in spoken discourse, and ask whether the presentation really conveys the point. The analogy between writing and illustration is imperfect, though, and an ear for language and an eye for design are rarely given to people in equal measure -- as I know too well.

How I wish I had the equivalent of The Elements of Style for technical graphics! With the aid of the computer, I manage to illustrate my papers and talks well enough; but I cannot call my illustrations any more than competent. I never learned to draw as neatly as I write, though I'm nowhere near the phenomenal level of incompetence Poincare is said to have achieved. My color vision is weak, and I have trouble choosing colors for my own graphics, just as I have trouble understanding the use of colors in other people's presentations. But I know no source of condensed advice on how I can improve my graphics. I should invest in Edward Tufte's books, but they are tomes; I would not expect to read them in entirety in an hour and a half, or even in a day. Even if I were to encroach further on my office mate's shelf space to accomodate Tufte's books, I would like something thin and informative to use every day.

Any suggestions?

  1. Bill Casselman, Pictures and Proofs, Notices of the American Mathematical Society, vol 47, no 10, pp 1257-1266, Nov 2004.