A few weeks ago I had the *great* pleasure of seeing Edward Tufte present on Data and Information. For many years I’ve had his books on my “to buy” list but when the RUMies organized a group to see him live, I just had to be there. Based on the conversations on the list and what I’ve heard elsewhere, my expectations were high – and they were exceeded; if you ever have a chance to see ET, take it. His delivery style is quite something and I found myself scribbling down a ton of notes.
ET opened with one of the most stunning things I’ve ever seen – the Music Animation Machine (see some examples here and a discussion on Tufte’s site here). Though I’m not musical and I’ve never played an instrument, I immediately knew what these images meant and represented. The movie was the epitome of design; the screen wasn’t cluttered and nothing in the display could be removed. This example led us into one the central themes of his presentation: whatever it takes to explain the content is the proper display. In other words, content is king, content should determine the display (content driven design as it were). Don’t begin with a specific display approach, start with a content problem and do whatever it takes to explain the information.
Though this was the most prominent idea that I took away, there were a number of great concepts throughout the day. This list is hardly exhaustive but should give you a sense of what ET is all about.
- Details lead to credibility.
- There is no such thing as information overload, just bad design.
- Eliminate clutter.
- Great design disappears, it gives itself up to the content.
- Super graphics can be extremely useful.
- Every paragraph, chart, etc. should lend credibility to your argument and give your audience a reason to believe.
- There is no one “right way” to display data – try a few different approaches.
- The sports and financial sections of your newspaper are filled with great examples of table design.
- Tables are nearly always better than graphics.
- Don’t get it original, get it right.
- Don’t under estimate your audience – don’t pander or patronize.
- The principles of analytical design are the same as the principles of analytical thinking.
Though ostensibly about visual design, much of what ET had to say applies directly to presentations (from both sides of the podium), a topic that he touches on near the end of his seminar. If you are a consumer, you should be very wary when the presenter won’t share his data. As soon as you hear words like “proprietary” and “confidential” you can be assured the data is cherry picked, a crime second only to outright lying. Of course when you’re presenting, be sure to shed light on the data – this will do wonders for your credibility. Speaking of presentations, you owe it to yourself to read through ET’s breakdown of the key PowerPoint slides concerning the damage to Columbia. Pretty powerful stuff.
Tufte spent a fair amount of time discussing sparklines, a “small, high resolution graphics embedded in a context of words, numbers, images.” The prototypical example would be a stock performance chart though Beautiful Evidence is full of examples. It’s quite something to see just how much data can be expressed in small areas yet be incredibly easy to grasp. And there are a number of ways you can generate these for your own data!
I could go on and on but I don’t want to bore my lone reader. To say I walked away impressed is an understatement; if you have a chance to see ET, do not hesitate. Just watching him present is worth the price of admission.