Learning from Edward Tufte

Earlier this week I attended Edward Tufte’s one-day course on Presenting Data and Information, which was fantastic. Below are a few of my top takeaways. I would highly recommend the course to anyone interested in data visualization. 

Space vs. time. One of the themes of the course was how to organize information in space, rather than through time. In other words, ditch the slide deck (which transfers information very slowly through time) in favor of a high-throughput web-based document. 

With an information-rich document, the reader can focus on what is important to her; it is a way to achieve real personalization. With slide decks, by contrast, the listener must wait for the presenter to finally get to the handful of slides that the listener actually cares about. 

Effective presentations. For an effective half-hour presentation, Tufte suggests starting with study hall. Provide the attendees with an information-rich document at the beginning of the meeting and give them about 12 minutes to read it (whether on their personal devices, locked-down iPads, or paper—Tufte suggests 11x17 or A3 paper folded in half to make a four-page booklet). This method has higher throughput because people can read faster than you can talk. Moreover, the attendees can decide which parts of the document to read based on their own priorities or interests. Only then do you begin speaking, again for about 12 minutes. You are, in a way, orally annotating the written material. You might, for example, informally highlight a concern of yours that you did not want to put in writing. Then, end early—no one will be upset that the meeting did not last the full 30 minutes. 

Web design. Tufte views much of current corporate web design as simplistic. He posits that the phenomenon of sparse corporate homepages (containing only a handful of links with vague names like “sharing,” “participating,” and “our values”) stems from a misreading of the article The Magical Number 7, Plus or Minus Two. Web designers understood the article to mean that you should limit the number of menu choices on a web screen. But Tufte points out that some of the best consumer-facing websites have very dense webpages (e.g., the New York Times, Google News, National Weather Service).

The future of the interface. Tufte’s prediction (aspiration?) is that in the future we will not have user-interface designers, although we will still need plenty of information designers. The goal is to zero-out the interface. This will be possible thanks in part to touch screens, which reduce the amount of “administrative debris” on the screen (e.g., scroll bars). Instead, the information will become the interface. 

Data visualizations. Tufts sees maps as a metaphor for all visualizations. He suggests comparing your own visualizations to Google Maps to assess your use of natural color, layering, typography, etc. He has a great video about maps on his website, which features this Swiss map.

Relatedly, Tufte also advocates for mode indifference. That is, you should never segregate information based on its mode of production. For example, the glossy photo pages sandwiched in the middle of a book, separated from the explanatory text. (A more current example would be the proliferation of apps on our devices.) Back when the mode of production for words and images was the same, they were perfectly integrated—like this da Vinci drawing. This sort of integration is what we should strive for in our own visualizations.