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Presenting Data and Information with Edward Tufte

Today I got to attend a one-day class presented by Edward Tufte, author of The Visual Display of Quantative Information.

What follows are completely random notes from the conference:

A conspicuously unmarked bus full of people followed my car into the parking lot.  I suspect they were Google employees.

I remembered to bring my pen, a UniBall Signo, but didn't bring anything to write on.  I figured the conference room would provide something.  But when I got there, I noticed that a lot of the other attendees brought their own stuff too, and more often then not, their stuff was Moleskines, iPhones, and UniBall pens, too!

For a second, I thought Tufte's laptop was an Apple MacBook Air, but upon closer inspection, it wasn't the Air.

Tufte is very sensitive to the effect caused by putting boxes around text.  He's against the optical clutter it causes, especially when the lines of the box are too close to anything else, and thus "activate" the negative space inbetween.  The lines can cause shimmer with the content they're trying to box.  He pointed out the box around the surgeons's warning on cigarette cartons, and also pointed out that putting the surgeon's warning in all caps did not make reading the warning any easier, it actually made it more difficult.  (Maybe, I'll have to think about that.)

Tufte is a fan of Gill Sans and Trebuchet.

Tufte does not dismiss the value of annotation and the written word.  Sometimes a few paragraphs are better than a chart.

He provided an anecdote about the dense tables and charts on the sporting page vs. a military presentation where the data was highly distilled for executive consumption.  He says that we really don't have to hide the details like they did in the military presentation.  We're perfectly capable of combing through somewhat dense data when it's presented effectively.

Tufte's aesthetic reminds me of Jakob Nielsen's, a little but.

Tufte's got a thing against the effect that Microsoft PowerPoint has had on data presentation in general.  He uses a PowerPoint presentation made by one of the manufacturers of the Space Shuttle Columbia as a prime example of the ill influences of PowerPoint.  I've got to find that presentation to see what he was talking about.  Should be at, maybe.

Tufte may be something of a bibliophile, too.  He showed us a 1570 edition of Euclid's Elements and Galileo's Sunspots books.  They were pretty awesome.  Euclid's book had little pieces of paper glued to some of the pages where the reader was supposed to fold flaps up, to better visualize 3D geometry.

Tufte, as a publisher, pointed out how impressive it was that the 1570 edition of the book's glue still held, and didn't warp the page it was glued to.  The obverse side of the page was perfectly flat and normal.

He quoted "About Face": No matter how good your interface is, it'd be better if there was less of it.

He offered the following presentation guildelines:
  1. Define the problem.
  2. Show its relevance.  (Why the audience should care.)
  3. Show the solution.
He also recommended showing up early, to resolve problems with the venue, or to socialize with the audience.  He did this.  He walked down the rows, asking about us and signing our books.  He also recommended finishing early.  He did this, too.  By two minutes.  He finished at 3:58.

Tufte won some points with me when I read his list of personal favorite writings:
  • Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, et. al., A Pattern Language
  • Robert Merton, On the Shoulders of Giants
  • Evelyn Waugh, Scoop
  • Italo Calvino novels
  • Gore Vidal literary essays
  • The Paris Review Interviews, Writers at Work (15 volumes)
  • Paul Klee, Notebooks
  • Richard P. Feynman, Surely You Are Joking, Mr. Feynman, and What Do You Care What Other People Think?
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 pastilla on Dec 12th 2008 at 2:18 PM
Sounds like a very interesting day. Will pass this on to someone I know who teaches a course in science communication methods. I confess total ignorance of Tufte - but I've known a lot of graphic artists whose dedication to their own personal aesthetic rivals any religious dogma/dedication/Hate of Otherness. Was it your overall impression that he was illuminating the One True Way? Did he allow for other preferences?

 collisions on Dec 12th 2008 at 4:34 PM
Wow! The powerpoint excerpt rocks.