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Edward Tufte Talks information Design 193

BoredStiff writes "The Weekend Edition of NPR ran a story on Edward Tufte — the outspoken critic of PowerPoint presentations — he has been described by The New York Times as "The Leonardo da Vinci of Data." Since 1993, thousands have attended his day-long seminars on Information Design. Tufte's most recent book is filled with hundreds of illustrations that demonstrate one concept: good design is timeless, while bad design can be a matter of life and death."
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Edward Tufte Talks information Design

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  • Read his books! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by BWJones ( 18351 ) * on Monday August 21, 2006 @06:11PM (#15952175) Homepage Journal
    Tufte is absolutely one of the world experts on presentation of design. We have absolutely strived to adopt his principles of data design and presentation in almost all of our work and its paid off in terms of data interpretability. My dissertation work was presented for two years in a row at our big vision meeting getting no attention until I used some of Tufte's principles in presentation of data and the third year I had several hundred of the worlds scientists in vision research gasping, oooohing and aaaahing. It was awesome. Of course Keynote [apple.com] and a cool animation [utah.edu] of a degenerating retina helped, but still......

    His books are required reading in our lab and I encourage everyone who is involved in presentation of data of any kind to spend some time with his books.

  • by generic-man ( 33649 ) on Monday August 21, 2006 @06:21PM (#15952223) Homepage Journal
    If used well (i.e. minimally) PowerPoint is a useful tool for putting simple, otherwise-unadorned information up on a screen. Watch a Steve Jobs keynote and see how he uses presentation software (in his case, Keynote) to present only a few words or a graph per slide.

    If used poorly, PowerPoint is a tool for combining cue cards, sound effects, clip art, and cheesy animations. Yes, even Keynote's animations are cheesy.
  • by BWJones ( 18351 ) * on Monday August 21, 2006 @06:21PM (#15952224) Homepage Journal
    Ah the DOD culture of the Powerpoint. It's a scary thing. Everyone is gunning for the killer Powerpoint presentation that will get them some time with a flag. Here's a hint for those of you Powerpoint addicts in the DOD: Get a Mac and use Keynote. You will stand out with a polished presentation that is much more cinematic in appearance, yet useful in its ability to present data in a cleaner manner. And since most flags and their juniors in the Pentagon are using Windows, you will not be able to "give" them your Powerpoint where some junior officer will snake it from you. You will *have* to present it in person in front of the flag. :-)

  • by megaditto ( 982598 ) on Monday August 21, 2006 @06:25PM (#15952247)
    Well, why not stick to basics and use PowerPoint as one would use a slide projector: no fancy transitions, funky bullets, 'impressive' red-on-blue or purple-on-black colors, or paragraphs of tiny text. No animations of any sort. No 'whoosh' sound

    Put up only pictures, graphs, and charts. Usually, if one has something good to show, it'll come our well regardless.

    That being said, looking at the pictures of the blurry dogs in Tufte's presentation made me want to throw up and gave me a headache.
  • Wikipedians (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mnemonic_ ( 164550 ) <jamec@umiTIGERch.edu minus cat> on Monday August 21, 2006 @06:29PM (#15952266) Homepage Journal
    Reading his thoughts on borders [edwardtufte.com] (scroll down) reminds one of a flaw of Wikipedia's HTML/CSS design. "Strong frames ... produce content-diminishing effects," says Tufte. I seldom see borders around tables or equations in textbooks, and it does look very clean. On the other hand, Wikipedia's CSS styles place borders and underlines superfluously about everything, from blocks of code, images and underneath headings. It seems the Wikipedia web designers try too much to make "pretty pages" when, to an academic eye they look ugly and cluttered.

    Every page element should signify some meaning; a heading should be underlined to distinguish it, but only if it is not otherwise distinguished by font size, vertical whitespace or some other typesetting. One element variation should suffice, as long as it's a bold change. A table should have borders only if the data are unclear otherwise. It's sad that as useful as Wikipedia can be, it still suffers from so many flaws [slashdot.org]. Wikipedians could learn much from Tufte, or from any study of technical communication.
  • by johndierks ( 784521 ) on Monday August 21, 2006 @06:39PM (#15952314)
    Also take a look at Gapminder [gapminder.org] for really awesome displays of data.
  • by OnanTheBarbarian ( 245959 ) on Monday August 21, 2006 @06:39PM (#15952317)
    I imagine that many people will get on and post all sorts of breathless praise about Tufte. This is well deserved. His design sense is first-rate, but what's really impressive to me about him is his emphasis on intellectual honesty and detail.

    What I really would like to see is a new widget set (with lots of data presentation support - obviously most of the widgets should be quantitative displays) and a style written in some already well-supported widget set (Qt, Swing, ...) that lives up to Tufte's ideas about maximizing data ink and minimizing junk. While I really admire the effects that Tufte and some of his acolytes achieve, quite frequently it seems that they achieve these effects by painstaking work in drawing or desktop publishing packages. More than once, I wince at some bit of graphics or interface that I've designed, thinking, "Damn, that's an embarrassing bit of work for someone who has read Tufte, but I just don't have the time or skills to fix it..."

    This makes it a lot harder for schlubs like me who don't really have skills in this area, and don't have time to develop them. Further, it makes it more or less impossible to achieve these sort of fine effects programmatically - I'd like to see interactive displays that are informed by his sort of design sense, not just nice presentations (using hand-outs, of course :-) ), papers and books.

    If anyone is interested in this - or knows of systems that go any decent way in this direction - please post or e-mail me at:

    geoff AT cs DOT usyd DOOOOT edu DoT au

    (sorry about the stylized "dot" silliness, but something tells me that the traditional foo AT bar DOT com is probably already being mined by spammers - or will be soon).
  • by OnanTheBarbarian ( 245959 ) on Monday August 21, 2006 @06:51PM (#15952379)
    I think the standard Tufte line on this, is that if a 'few words' are all you're going to get up there, then why not just say the words and leave the screen blank?

    As a side bonus, you'll get eye contact from your audience rather than the disconcerting experience of looking out at a sea of faces who are all looking slightly to one side, peering at:

    - Standard Tufte line

        * high-data essential

    - Good to have eye contact ... or some low-information drivel like that.

    But on the whole I agree that PowerPoint isn't inherently evil if used as a way of doing a nice slide-show of reasonably detailed elements (graphs, pictures, movies). The only problem is that the resolution of projectors is still pretty wretched compared to printed graphs.
  • by The Great Pretender ( 975978 ) on Monday August 21, 2006 @07:02PM (#15952430)
    As a veteran on massive data presentations (scientific), globally, to very different audiences, I concur with megaditto. Any presentation software is most effective when viewed as a direct replacement for the slide projector. No animations, no sounds. A few rules I live by:

    1) No matter what my company says, they get a white background presentation with a small logo in the bottom left corner of each slide. I refuse to use background templates of "company colors" 2) No crap on the borders. I can't stand the waste of space that borders use up. I would rather make my table 20% bigger than have a pretty pattern of lines off-setting the slide 3) Text titles no bigger than 36 font, text subject matter no smaller than 24 font 4) Preferably 1, if I must then 2 plots to a slide 5) No test describing the plots on the slide, I should be doing that 6) No bar charts! I hate bar charts 7) Bold primary colors, none of this 'earth shades' 8) Plots imported from a graphing package. I use Sigmaplot of Origin. Excel is the armpit of graphing.

    Bottomline is that if you have to use sounds and animations to capture the audiences attention, you're not doing a good job as a presenter, or the audience is just plain not interested in your subject (which happens).

  • While I think that you have a nugget of a good idea, I have my doubts that it's possible to make a software tool that encourages or enforces good design. Software can't legislate good taste, and a lack of good taste is the problem.

    Now for a crass generalization: techies always think that a problem can be solved with software and/or obsession. But sometimes, it takes actual skill to do good work. After all, programmers rarely hesitate to get pissy with some noob who works in Visual Basic, but they somehow think that art and design are skills that can be picked up from a book.

    If it's really important to you to have attractive visuals, then don't be an arrogant asshole, and hire someone to do the work. It doesn't have to be expensive (go to any art school, and you'll find dozens of young, eager artists and graphic designers looking for a break, and willing to work for reasonable rates), and it will go a long way to making you look more professional and polished.
  • by OnanTheBarbarian ( 245959 ) on Monday August 21, 2006 @07:32PM (#15952567)
    Alright, you have a good point there, but to some extent you're attacking a straw-man. I don't imagine that a software library can magically make good visuals for me. Also, I never said that we'd get together a bunch of programmers (and only programmers) and make the perfect, beautiful widget set - obviously, designers need to help with individual components (and the overall layout if the overall layout can be determined ahead of time - see ahead).

    However, there are so many cases where there are existing cliches that could be improved. For example, Tufte has a brilliant redesign of a scatterplot that uses pretty much every bit of ink on the screen to convey useful data (for example, the X and Y axes become range bars that show the univariate distribution of data). This could be hacked once and for all into a TufteScatterplot widget. And so on.

    One of the major problems with the 'hire a graphic artist' approach is that frequently, we're dealing with systems that will display unanticipated data. I'm working with a statistical problem at the moment (and building some generalized tools to deal with it) and I have no way of knowing ahead of time whether someone is going to work with a model with 60 factors of which 5 are significant or 10 factors of which 7 are significant. I don't know what sort of names the person will give the factors. I don't know whether the significant factors will be all pretty much the same size (e.g. 1.5%, 2.2%, -1.3%) or hugely different (200%, -50%, 10%). When presenting 'significance' in a system, I can't have the system automatically call the nearest design school to handcraft a nice display. Thus, a system that makes a programmatic attempt at trying to achieve ideals of good design is much better than a system that doesn't even bother.

    Of course, anyone will be able to cobble together a rotten-looking, dishonest and confusing interface out of these kind of components. So what?

  • What I really would like to see is a new widget set (with lots of data presentation support - obviously most of the widgets should be quantitative displays) and a style written in some already well-supported widget set (Qt, Swing, ...) that lives up to Tufte's ideas about maximizing data ink and minimizing junk.

    Tufte would like that too. One of the central points of Beautiful Evidence is that software tools are all wrong for presenting information. They artificially segregate it into textual, visual, numeric, and so on. I was suprised to see that good old RagTime [ragtime-online.com] is still around, and in its latest iteration it seems strongly focused on integration of disparate types of information.

    Even with more broadly capable software, different problems still require different visual representations. This is sort of like the blog template conundrum. Sure, there are many professionally-designed blog templates, but if you really want your site's look to match its content, you have to tweak the template yourself. It also reminds me of logos. Sure, you can assemble components and create your own spiffy new logo, but it takes a talented designer to create a truly professional logo that carries a strong message and resonates with viewers.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 21, 2006 @08:08PM (#15952741)
    Here's a link to a long interview with Tufte.
    http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/s15427625tcq1304_ 5.pdf [edwardtufte.com]

    The interviewer asked him about why he self-published:
    "After moving to Yale University, I finished the manuscript in
    1982. A publisher was interested but planned to print only 2,000
    copies and to charge a very high price, contrary to my hopes for
    a wide readership. I also sought to design the book so as to make
    it self-exemplifying--that is, the physical object itself would
    reflect the intellectual principles advanced in the book. Publishers
    seemed appalled at the prospect that an author might
    govern design."

    So, here's a guy writing a book on how to present information and the publisher thinks he knows better. LOL. Naturally, Tufte chose to keep control of the process. In other words, we are to do as he does. (as opposed to do as he says.) This approach reminds me of a lecture our principal used to give. The lecture was on how to lecture. He gave seven different techniques. He delivered each technique by using that technique. This is what Tufte refers to as self-exemplifying. Our library doesn't know it yet but they are buying copies of his books. :-)
  • Re:HTML Design? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by moosesocks ( 264553 ) on Monday August 21, 2006 @08:46PM (#15952923) Homepage
    It's not nearly as bad as Jakob Neilsen's site [useit.com].

    I'm using a 1680x1050 monitor, and I personally have no problem with Tufte's website. If you've got a huge high-resolution monitor, you're pretty foolish to be browsing with your windows maximised. With the window open to about 2/3 the width of the screen, the content fits perfectly.

    The absolute *worst* UI paradigm that has plagued the computing world for the past decade is the maximize button. Ever since multitasking was supported at the OS level, we've had the marvelous ability to work on more than one thing at a time. I don't spread every page of my newspaper out across the kitchen table when I read it. Why should I do the same for my web pages?

    Apple was smart to have left it out of OS X, and Microsoft should have left it out of Win95, or killed it with XP. For the first week, it's annoying to drag the corners of the windows around, until you realize how much more productive you can be by having two pieces of work side-by-side. Heck, even for single-tasking, multiple windows are great. If I'm writing a research paper on Shakespeare, I can have a copy of Hamlet open right alongside the paper for quick reference and easy quotations.

    Of course, those 14" 1600x1200 laptop screens *are* a problem, because they make text and images unbearably tiny. Apple's the first (mainstream) vendor to tackle this issue head-on, and the next version of OS X should be resolution-independent [tuaw.com], which should open the door for smaller, higher-resolution screens that won't kill our eyesight.
  • by LargeWu ( 766266 ) on Monday August 21, 2006 @11:29PM (#15953498)

    Check out http://presentationzen.blogs.com/ [blogs.com]. The main focus of this great blog is to get presentations to tell a story, and to use highly visual images to enhance that story. The focus remains on the presenter, however, and not the slides. Handouts are still cool, and in fact recommended, so you don't have to create a "slideument" that fails as both a presentation aid and hardcopy documentation, but they should be able to completely stand alone from the presentation (a.k.a something like a white paper).

    Tufte's main area of concern seems to be in technical, scientific, and academic presentations. This blog focuses more on business presentations, and while they advocate different styles, I don't think they're necessarily contradictory.

"No, no, I don't mind being called the smartest man in the world. I just wish it wasn't this one." -- Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, WATCHMEN