November 8, 2010

A Day with Edward Tufte

I had the delight of spending today with Edward Tufte, preeminent author on information design, professor of computer science, Presidential Appointee, and sculptor, at his gallery in Chelsea. Okay, I
paid to spend the day at his course, Presenting Data and Information, and was prompted because it was uniquely being held in his gallery, ET Modern. It was a day of inspiration, epiphany, and art appreciation. What follows are quotes from Professor Tufte, in the order in which they were delivered:
Making a presentation is a moral act as well as an ethical and intellectual act.
Your spirit of inquiry should be: Whatever it takes to explain something.
Show causality. Linking lines in a chart equal verbs.

We never need boxes. The 2-dimension of the noun is shown by the 2 dimension of the font. Boxes reflect insecurity in design. You should be suspicious when you see boxes and bold face - maybe there could be content there.

There are 2 things you are doing in every presentation you give:
1. Explaining the story
2. Explaining why you believe the story
Everything is about credibility. Everything we do when presenting should encourage belief.

I happen to think that public health organizations are inherently noble.

You want an open mind, but not an empty head. Balance skepticism and knowledge. That's called judgment.

In evaluating presenters, incompetence is greatly under-estimated! And conspiracy and malice is greatly over-estimated.

The people in your audience are probably more like you than any other group in the world (next to your family). Start out with great respect for them.

No wonder they are called Power Points - they are intensely controlling! Let people pull their own relevant information from your presentation, using their own cognitive style.

The only thing worse than a presenter reading a PowerPoint is the dreaded Slow Reveal. In that case, audience members should rise up and declare, "The knowledge presentation at this meeting is quickly approaching zero!"

Much of today's design is narcissistic and shows us a poverty of information.

The human eye/brain link is processing information at 20 megabits a second, in 16 colors, and is a sophisticated editor that can remember, forget, and cluster.

Here we are with this ability. So why are we sitting in meetings looking at a large screen with 4 numbers?
Have we suddenly gotten stupider because we came to work? [This was a recurring lament.]
Clutter is an attribute of bad design. If the audience is confused, fix your design.

We will do whatever it takes to reason by causality.
For all you Neurocooking narrative fans, Tufte shared the following quote from Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories (discussed and graphed in Tufte's book, Visual Explanations)
…the Water Genie told Haroun about the Ocean of the Streams of Story, and even though he was full of a sense of hopelessness and failure the magic of the Ocean began to have an effect on Haroun. He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and [the Water Genie] explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each colored strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories…

1 +1 = 3. The first mark, the second mark and the space relationship between the two. Sculpture is the relationship of the object to its surroundings.

There are only two industries that describe their clients as "users": illegal drugs - and computers.

Any chance you have to get something real into the room, do so. Most of us spend most of our time staring at one dimensional representations of things.

You want to annotate everything. Have sentences pointing to items of substance. Show people how to read the architecture of information.

All tables should be thought of as performance tables. Order the data by performance. When you put things in order by measure of performance, your audience may learn something new.

Never, ever do Lowest Common Denominator Design. You're trying to get everyone in the audience into the elite, to make them smarter. They can't get smarter unless you give them knowledge.

Gain credibility by showing Mastery of Detail - of one small part of the presentation. Be authentic. Don't be generic. Don't pretend to be something you are not. Talk about what you are good at.

92% of every web page should be content, and navigation does not count as content.

Agencies, departments, and organizations don't do things - people do things. People's names should be on things to foster both accountability and pride.

Most design today is based on fashion and style, and what technology throws up. Analytical design must be based on analytical thinking.
Tufte's Fourth Grand Principal of Analytical Design is Integration of Evidence
Completely integrate words, numbers, images and diagrams. [On the fallacy of left/right brain thinking]: Thinking tasks don't care about mode of display. Why should we let the plumbing of the brain decide the cognitive tasks we are doing? This is like letting your gastroenterologist be your chef.

The reason you are giving a presentation is content. And design can't salvage failed content. The finest typography won't turn lies into truth. Relevance is a content property. The best way to make improvements in your presentations is to get better content.

Woodcuts look like woodcuts. A lot of PowerPoint presentations look like PowerPoint itself. They don't look like content.

No matter how beautiful your interface is, it should be less ugly. The idea is to zero out the interface altogether and be left with nothing but content.

To clarify, add information. If information is in chaos, fix the design.

The best visualizations in the world are those published in the journal Nature.

How to Make a Presentation
Use PowerPoint solely for full screen images. (Stay away from cognitive stuff.)

Until we all have iPads, use an 11 x 17" paper, folded, as a handout. This holds the equivalent of 200-250 PowerPoint slides. Put a Super Graphic [Tufte's term for the one graphic that perfectly encapsulates your information] on the inside. Deliver a high resolution data dump.

Sentences are smarter than bullets. They have agency in them; a subject and a predicate. Use sentences to describe the problem, its relevance, and the solution you are presenting. If the roof falls in, you'll have it all out there.

People can read 3 times faster than you can talk.
  1. Have your audience read.
  2. Then, you point out a few things.
  3. Finally, you take questions.
This will result in 30% shorter meetings!

If presentations where you work are about positioning, then maybe you want to work somewhere else. The willingness of an organization to sacrifice spirit for length of meeting is indicative of a serious problem.

The best advice I ever got about giving a presentation is to show up early.

Tufte was asked about the best presenters out there:
Steve Jobs. He's got a mix of enthusiasm and content. He's got some nice signature moves.
The worst presentation: I've had my heart broken once every 5 years at Bob Dylan concerts.

On consulting:
I wasn't very good at it. I always learned more from my clients than they learned from me. It's hard to be on the outside.

I asked him, If resources were unlimited, what would be your dream project?
I thought the government work would be, but I haven't put the necessary time and energy into it. I'd rather be in Chelsea 3 days a week than in DC, which is what it would take to do right, at a minimum.

I don't do anything for the people. Everything for the people is in my books. I like to make sculptures.

...About 10% of my books is about the war against stupidity. And that is a war that will never be won. My sculpture is about joy and lightness and happiness.

Stop staring at the glass. Get off the sofa, and fly into 3-dimensional space and time.


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  2. Edward Tufte is a genius. Thank you so much for sharing this.



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