Whoever heard of a tour of a sculpture garden coming with instructions? When the owner and artist is a professor emeritus at Yale University, it’s not a surprise that there would be “course requirements.” The fact that he was a professor of political science, statistics and computer science is, however, in stark contrast to the giant abstract art scattered about the 200+-acre Hogpen Hill Farms in central Connecticut. But, as a pioneer in the field of data visualization, Edward Tufte is known for helping people see things in entirely new ways.
My husband is a database designer, so he has known of Tufte’s work in data visualization for decades and constantly calls upon Tufte’s insistence that data and reports should help the reader see the data cleanly and clearly without the imposition of what he calls “chart junk”—excessive doodads that may look pretty but serve only to distract the reader.
When it comes to data, Tufte is very precise about helping people see what he wants them to see, whether that means seeing more or seeing less. However, when it comes to his art, he does not want to limit the viewer’s experience in any way. The art pieces are enormous and spaced widely around the property’s rolling landscape (itself a work of art from Mother Nature). The industrial-inspired pieces include giant villages of carefully placed stone formations…metal people reminiscent of sculptor Alberto Giacometti’s lithe statues
…and even an airstream camper balanced 30 feet or so in the air on what seems to be a “ginormous” industrial teeter totter (see above).
More than anything, Tufte wants visitors to quiet their busy minds and instead look deeply…look lightly…look from all angles. The brochure encouraged us to “Walk around the piece…look and see…fast/slow…up/down/sideways…close/afar…above/below…and enjoy the multiplicity of silhouettes, shadows, dappled light, clouds, airspaces, sun, earth, flowing.” And it says to do it in the privacy of our own thoughts so we can formulate our own ideas. The signs posted along the lengthy driveway remind us that we spend far too much time talking and far too little time absorbing. Each sign is an Instagram-worthy post…
If you see something, say nothing.
Our only language is vision.slef
Shut up and look.
Fresh eyes see now…words later.
And my personal favorite…
Old words deform new seeing.
It was incredible to notice what happens when I shut up and looked without a preconceived narrative or agenda…I just let the experience and ideas in.
What a metaphor for our entire world. If I had a nickel for every time in the past decade-plus that I have said, “Because we’ve always done it that way is not an answer” when talking to the Bottom Line team about how to adapt to the rapidly changing information marketplace. To survive, we have had to step outside of the preconceived framework and look at the challenges from entirely new perspectives at every angle and in every way.
Even bigger is the societal change surrounding us—some of it for good, and some of it for bad. Our very core values are being challenged. But with all of the finger-pointing, blaming, defending and accusing going on, it is impossible to see the lessons that can be learned or identify the path forward. We are drowning in “chart junk”—headlines that are intended to distort…personal attacks rather than fact-based arguments…powerful pictures often taken out of context and used as propaganda.
We need to take Tufte’s advice when viewing the living sculpture of our world—“shut up and look” and leave the words for later. Take your own views of what is good and what needs change. See things from assorted points of view. Walk around the situation to understand it fully. Look with fresh eyes free from the influence of past presumptions. And draw your own conclusions.
Miracles can happen when we unleash our minds to envision and create them. It takes more vision and fewer words.
Sarah Hiner, president and CEO of Bottom Line Inc., is passionate about giving people the tools and knowledge they need to be in control of their lives in areas such as living a healthier life, the challenges of the health-care system, commonsense financial advice and creating great relationships. She appears often on national radio and hosts the Bottom Line Advocator Podcast, where she interviews leading experts to help people be their own best advocates in all areas of life.