I make it a point to hear people speak, not because I can’t get the information elsewhere, but because hearing them speak it directly – rich with facial expressions, gestures, and vocal emphasis cements the information into my aging brain cells. With that personal goal in mind, Edward Tufte’s one day seminar was worth the $360 price.
Edward Tufte is famous for his beautifully crafted books. I’ve often used his name as an adjective to describe a diagram, model, figure, or visualization that uses multiple dimensions to more clearly communicate. When the visualization’s shape and form clearly communicate the authors intent, it’s Tufte-ish.
In the 6 hours of discussion using the visualizations from his book Tufte laid out 9 grand principles of design. I believe his book Beautiful Evidence describes 6 of them, so possibly attendees of the class received 3 principles as a bonus.
Tufte went into a good bit of detail on sparklines, his invention for showing lots of data in an itty bitty space – in particular data over time. He said “To clarify, add detail,” which seems like a counter-intuitive statement considering conventional wisdom that removing detail makes things more clear. Sparklines carry hundreds or thousands of little bits of data – lots of detail. And putting Sparkline next to a number, or better yet a column of number beautifully illustrates how you can better make a point by adding lots of detail. “Clutter and confusion are not attributes of information, but failures of design.”
Finally Tufte wrapped up by discussing presentations and PowerPoint specifically. His short work The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint has been a lighting rod for lots of opinions. In this work Tufte lays at least part of the blame for the Columbia space shuttle disaster on presenting critical data using PowerPoint.
A quote that sticks in my mind is “pitching out corrupts within.” Supporting that was a discussion on how spinning your facts to make a point erodes at your corporate culture. If you spin facts outwardly to customers, it’s likely you’ll see that same spin being used internally. Before you know it you’re organization is spinning messages from department to department. This is especially relevant in software development where truth is often hard to swallow, and oftentimes project manager is synonymous with spin-doctor.
In Tufte’s critique of the Columbia slide he points out the spin and suggests that NASA has developed a culture of spin – or pitching out.
Tufte was funny and personable – at least as much as you can be with close to 600 people in the room.
As of this writing, my biggest takeaway was placing even more emphasis on what and how I choose to communicate. His presentation advice alone will help me. I’ll likely take a stab at distilling his 9 grand principles into a short technique. And, I’m sure I’ll find a way to incorporate sparklines into use in an application soon.
You can depend on Flickr for lots of images of Tufte, his class, and other Tufte-ish stuff.
Googling Tufte and PowerPoint churned up this little piece of irony. Here’s a PowerPoint on Tufte’s principles.