self-exemplify – Dr. Edward Tufte’s seminar in Chicago July 23

In his book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2nd edition, Edward Tufte describes how he wanted to make the book, self-exemplifying. In other words, the book should use the techniques about the effective display of information to describe techniques about the effective display of information; it should be an example of itself. Dr. Tufte’s Seminar today in Chicago did the same thing.

I often find myself experiencing a great sense of relief and identification when encountering a thought leader who has wrestled with the same issues as I have in my work, and aspired towards some effective execution, whether this is with technology issues or softer issues like managing complexity, personal productivity, etc. I felt the same sense of relief in Dr. Tufte’s extremely concise and coherent exposition on effective information display.

This was a fairly dense 5 hours. I found myself taking some notes, but for the most part trying to pay attention and absorb what was presented. I was noticing that Dr. Tufte was not shy about opinions and frequently would illustrate points with succinct and boldly-worded statements about best practices (or lack thereof).

I am reproducing some of these statements and impressions here, as hastily noted. If you do anything with the presentation of information (whether that be PTA newsletters or CPM Dashboards), please do yourself a favor and participate in these wonder learnings if you have the chance.

Here are Dr. Tufte’s ideas and statements in roughly chronological order. Also, it’s possible I have paraphrased him inaccurately. I’ll claim any mistakes as the heat of the moment. Dr. Tufte is definitely more lucid than my note-taking ability. This is intentionally left in “brain-dump” format. I think many of these statements are provocative on their own, but I hope these might intrigue anyone reading to either seek out Dr. Tufte’s books (Beautiful EvidenceVisual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and NarrativeEnvisioning InformationThe Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2nd edition ) and/or his seminar.

  • Presenting (to others) is a moral act.
  • Examination of the Music Animation Machine. Especially how there is no legend or guidelines yet it’s a very dense and intuitive presentation of information
  • Dr. Tufte used this as an example that refutes the idea of “information overload” and he cited several examples of dense presentation throughout the seminar (e.g. 800,000 data points on 2 sides of an 11×17 page)
    • “There’s no such thing as information overload, just lousy design”
  • A worthwhile diagram deserves the same amount of intention as the text that would impart the equivalent amount of information
  • Graphics are frequently used to depict causality
    • Policy and prevention missions both need to analyze causality
  • Every linking line should be annotated
  • The map is the gold standard for effective presentation
  • “Chart junk” should always be replaced by information
  • In a graphic presentation, are you using the results of evidence, or “evidence selection” i.e. are you cherry-picking favorable data?
  • One should assume that presenters have similar motivations as the audience (and vice-versa)
  • You want an open mind, but not an empty head.
  • Maximize content reasoning time; minimize content interpreting time.
  • Paper has 10 times the resolution as a computer display. Paper has 100 times the resolution of projected slides
  • Authoritarian presenters tend to distrust their audience. This creates the tendency to stint information. (3 points per slide – sound familiar?)
  • Rather than “know your audience”, “know your content”. Respect your audience instead.
  • Do whatever it takes to impart the content. e.g. Sock Puppets, real objects, physical models. Don’t be constrained by convention
  • Every time you can get a real object in a presentation, do so. (Dr. Tufte did this with a 1570 edition of Euclid’s Geometry and a 1610 edition of Galileo’s sunspot observations)
  • If possible, see how data is originally collected.
    • Example of water being collected from the cleanest part of the river in a pollution impact study
  • 1 + 1 = 3 – describes the phenomenon that 2 graphic elements create 3 effects – the effect of each, and the effect of the juxtaposition of the 2 objects
  • Local Optimization = Global Pessimization
  • The goal is to zero out the interface
  • Omit grids. Good typography supplies enough guidelines.
  • Tufte then went through 7 (or so) fundamental principles which are discussed in his book, Beautiful Evidence
    1. show comparisons – “Compared to what?”
    2. Illustrate causality
    3. show multivariate data. Translation: enrich your data with dimensional attributes
    4. integrate all content. There shouldn’t be different modes to view the comprehensive presentation
    5. Document all sources, scales, and any missing data. It enables the credibility of your presentation.
    6. Content counts most of all. Over presentations, style, formatting
    7. Locate imporant comparisons in a common space. Use small multipliers.
  • The point of information display is to assist thinking.
    • Most design can be placed in its decade because it is based on fashion. This is not necessary a complete evil
  • Design is based on human factors.
  • After 2D drawing is just that: 2D.  Perspective drawing is something like 2.33 dimensions
  • Navigation instruction is a 4D presentation:
    • 3 physical dimensions
    • and time (the 4th dimension)
  • Information resolution = the ability to communicate more bits per area unit  and/or per time unit
  • Galileo’s telescope was the first increase of information resolution beyond the capabilities of the human eye
  • Since 1610, information resolution has increased 10 million to 100 million-fold
  • Make displays worthy of the the human eye/brain system
    • The human eye/brain system was measured to a capacity of 10 megapixels per second per optic nerve
    • Tufte asked, “Why are we looking at these moronic displays? (PowerPoint)
  • Label directly; don’t use legends
  • How do you solve the flat-land problem (i.e. displaying 3 dimensional artifacts on a 2-dimensional surface [screen, paper, iphone])
    • Use a model
  • The principles of analytic design come from the principles of analytic thinking
  • Quoting Steve Jobs (?), “Real artists ship”
  • Interface design
    • (Quoting someone, not sure who – Alan Cooper) “No matter how beautiful your interface is, it would be better if there were less of it.”
  • Forming your summary:
    • State what the problem is
    • State who cares
    • State the solution
  • Other key pieces of advice
    • Show up early
    • Finish early (Which Tufte did)

One thought on “self-exemplify – Dr. Edward Tufte’s seminar in Chicago July 23

  1. finally, got time to read your Tufte comments. Alot I don’t understand but what I do certainly is stimulating. I love doing diagrams and showing with a picture – diagram – flow chart – even a sketch. This is beyond the day to day biz of design and is energizing, reminds me of why I loved this field in college – it was about communication. (Versus constantly working to write the best sales oriented 4 word headline or value statement which is harder but not as provable)

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