Last semester, I taught a course on visualizing information at MICA. I used Tufte's first book, The Visual Display of Quantitative information. I love Tufte. I love his simple, Swiss modern approach to design. His strict belief in form following function. His unwavering defense of content and firm assertion that data presented must be understandable above all else.
However, not all my students agreed with his principles. Many of them were enthralled by all the infographics that GOOD magazine produces. Because face it, they're visually beautiful, right? I mean, the colors, the typography, the eye candy. To me, however, most infographics that fit into that genre are more art than design. Why? Because through superfluous ornamentation, they dumb the data down. And because they don't function well. Functionality is the single most important thing separating design from art.
Good design must function and function well. These criteria do not apply to art.
One student even went so far as to say that "Tufte is anti-design." I couldn't disagree more, and here are my reasons, cloaked in Dieter Rams 10 principles for good design:
Good design is innovative
Maybe you couldn't really call an infographic innovative in and of itself, but you definitely could if the information was tied to a database and represented digitally. iPhone apps, anyone?
Good design makes a product useful
There's that function requirement again. Good design functions. If it doesn't, it's bad design. Or maybe good art.
Good design is aesthetic
Anyone who's studied the International Typographic Style and the Bauhaus knows that good aesthetics in design don't mean loud and meaningless and flashy. White space is a beautiful thing and God/Allah/Yoda/insert-your-diety-here knows the world needs more of it.
Good design helps a product to be understood
See? It has to work! If those extra textures, lines, and 3-D effects don't help an infographic clearly explain the data, then LEAVE IT OUT.
Good design is unobtrusive
If those extra textures, lines, and 3-D effects overwhelm the data and impede the user's understanding, what you have is an illustration, not good information design.
Good design is honest
Yes, honest. Which is especially tricky where data is considered. Who didn't learn in Statistics 101 that numbers lie? Well, they can be down right pathological about lying if visually interpreted in the hands of an incompetent designer. Or a very competent illustrator.
Good design is durable
Durable and classic. Like the infographic that is now synonymous with Tufte's name by Charles Joseph Minard: Napoleon's March. This piece, designed in 1869, is timeless.
Good design is consistent to the last detail
I would say this is especially relevant to information design. When you're dealing with reams of data, you'd better be paying attention to detail.
Good design is concerned with the environment
In this regard, it seems to me that most information design these days is done digitally; large quantities of data lend themselves well to interactive technologies. So, not much paper is wasted. However, you can't forget about the server space it takes to host databases. Server farms are a huge energy suck. Then again, Tufte recommends using only as much ink is necessary to adequately interpret your data. Nothing more, nothing less. Which probably equates to fewer pixels, too.
Good design is as little design as possible
And this is why I love Tufte. This is exactly what he means when he damns things like chart junk and data ink. If a large portion of the ink in your piece is used to create illustrations void of data, then it's bad design.
Remember that article by Beatrice Ward, The Crystal Goblet? Well, it applies to information design, too. A crystal goblet exists to support its contents, not overpower them. Honestly, this is where I think much information design fails. The goblet isn't crystal, but more like opaque plastic.
Lastly, my own assertion: Good design is smart.
One of my students felt that Tufte's work was geared toward a highly educated audience, i.e., doctors and research scientists, and therefore, not practical for someone of average intelligence. But if you look through his books, you'll see lots of designs that are geared toward the average person. Like the train schedule (p 31). And Dr Snow's cholera map of central London (p 24). The New York City Weather Map (p 30), and the beautiful time-based relational graphics on pages 42-43.
Designers should never dumb things down, but rather, challenge, inspire, and raise the bar a little higher.