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Field Notes from the Digital Prairie

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Back to School with Edward Tufte

Earlier this week I had the chance to attend a one-day course taught by Edward Tufte, author of one of the classic texts of information design, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
(he has also written Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations, and Beautiful Evidence). Have attained rock-star status among certain circles of geeks (he spends a total of about an hour at these courses signing autographs), the Yale statistics Professor Emeritus spoke for about five hours on the topic of "Presenting Data and Information." In large part, the course was a distillation of the arguments he has made in his books, with a practical focus on presenting and consuming in-person presentations of information. Some of the points he made that stuck with me:
  • Presenting (and consuming) information is a moral act as well as a practical one, that must be done honestly.
  • The process of presenting information should always be driven by the content, not by style or software capabilities. Everything else is "chart junk."
  • There is no such thing as information overload, only bad design.
  • Powerpoint presentations set up an authoritarian presentation-style based on information denial. They have incredibly slow rates of information transfer and are therefore disrespectful of the audience. Instead, provide the audience with high-resolution, high-density information on paper, allow them to look it over and explore themselves, then allow them to cross-examine you about it.
  • There is nothing wrong with tables -- people efficiently consume large amounts of data in tables every day (for example, in sports pages).
  • You can -- and should -- clarify by adding more data.
Of course, all designers would agree with some of these points (that design should be content-driven, for example) but that last point seems to fly in the face of conventional design thinking. I would love to hear a debate between Tufte and John Maeda (whose book Laws of Simplicity I reviewed a while back).

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