I think I understand Tufte's concept of a "Duck" -- A graphic that is taken over by decorative forms.

But I couldn't understand why he called this a duck (a "superbly produced" one at that). It seemed to me more functional than decorative.


Tufte - "superbly produced duck"


2 Answers 2


If you assume duck to mean "irrelevant decorative elements" there are a few things that strike me as likely: (1) the "squares" only roughly indicate location of the target area; (2) squares represent volume, which is incongruent when overlaid on 2d geography; (3) shading of mountains/geographic features doesn't add detail.

Also problematic: comparison of h20 volume applied to crop types is difficult to discern using grids. Quick, which crop color uses more water??

enter image description here

If you want to compare volume to crop type then you should use a plain column chart, where it is easy to distinguish relative heights. This is analogous to why bar/column charts are preferable to pie charts - humans are better at comparing heights/lengths vs area/volume. If, on the other hand, the point of the graph is to compare crop type irrigation by area, you would want to display a column graph with regions next to each other, but grouped by crop type.

As far as a superbly produced duck, my guess is that the Applied Irrigation Water is a duck, but a superb duck, at least when compared to the monstrous duck on the preceding page of the Visual Display of Quantitative Information 2nd Ed.

horrible duck


In The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, page 116-7, Tufte explains both the concept of a 'duck' and its provenance. There is a small service building in Flanders NY called 'The Big Duck' whose form is the shape of ... a duck. It is a form without function, that is its own end and shows, in data graphics, hardly any data at all.

Th Big Duck in Flanders NY


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