Edward Tufte Seminar—June 20, 2011

In June I went to Edward Tufte’s one day course on displaying information graphically. It was a pretty great presentation that left me with lots of food for thought as well as some new books to digest. I’ll summarize my notes from the day here in a more organized form than I was able to do at the time.

Charts & Tables

  • Charts should be directly annotated, not leaving the heavy lifting up to legends.
  • Minimize format interpretation time, by presenting information as straightforward as possible.
  • Order tables by performance rather than alphabet. Alphebetization hides unwanted data.
  • Don’t design for the lowest common denominator. Millions of people decipher sports tables daily, they can figure things out.

Presentations

  • Giving access to raw data demonstrates credibility, which is essential in a presentation. Establishes that the presenter is not cherry picking.
  • Use evidence to establish competence & credibility, but avoid jargon.
  • Viewers should not be cynical about a presenter, they should have “an open mind, but not an empty head”. This is why establishing credibility will help the audience find trust more easily.
  • Provide information ahead of time. The meeting will immediately be more productive if people come prepared. In fact give them some of your time to read, in the end it will be faster.
  • Start off with a Super Graphic (high resolution graphic), instead of a slow reveal.
  • Get better content.
  • Practice, practice, practice.
  • Show up early.
  • Use slides as a projector, not as powerpoint.
  • Finish early.

High Resolution Graphics

  • Display lots of information at once allowing each viewer to scan and analyze using their own cognitive style to absorb what is presented. This is why small, isolated charts are so useless to true comprehension.

Interface/Process

  • “No matter how beautiful the interface is, it would be better if there were less of it.”
  • Woodcuts & Powerpoint are about themselves, not their subject.
  • Control by scanning instead of drilling down, flatness is good.

Content

  • Do not segregate multimedia pieces from a written story, flow them right in with each other. They’re telling the same story after all. Galileo ran his diagrams right in the body copy.
  • Put your name on things, it stakes your reputation on their quality.
  • Design should be about content, not fashion or software, which are process that should be invisible to the user.
  • Comparisons are much easier to make when they can be made in space, not time (on the same page or spread, as opposed to the next).

Sparklines

  • Awesome!
  • Pack immense resolution and data sets into minimal space, allowing the viewer to notice long-term trends that they might miss otherwise.

Principles of Analytical Design

  1. Show comparisons, contrasts, differences.
  2. Show causality, mechanism, explanation, system, structure.
  3. Show multivariate data, that is, show more than 1 or 2 variables.
  4. Completely integrate words, numbers, images, diagrams.
  5. Thoroughly describe the evidence. Provide a detailed title, authors, sponsors, sources, scales, point out relevant issues.
  6. Analytical presentations ultimately stand or fall depending on the quality, relevance, & integrity of their content.

Conclusion

I found the experience very enlightening and challenging and would encourage anyone to go and try it themselves. Tufte is a very confident presenter and better for it. His lack of hedging is refreshing. His principles may not always be practicable or right in every imaginable case, but he does leave you analyzing the way you deal with data and its presentation. I myself find that his aesthetic tends to ignore the curiosity that a little fashionable flair can spark, but it’s hard to walk away not wanting to be better and more credible. I feel like I’ve been given homework, not a bad thing.