~ Archive for May 13, 2003 ~

As long as we’re on the subject of Edward Tufte…

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Now that Edward Tufte’s name has come up it seems natural to start thinking about information design.  A very strange set of graphics regarding media industry ownership is available at http://www.thenation.com/special/bigten.html (click on a company, e.g., AOL, after the page loads).  It is unclear why this information is presented graphically at all or what one is supposed to infer from two blobs overlapping.  Contrast with the market maps at http://www.smartmoney.com/ (click on “maps” and choose one), which make it easy to visualize how important an industry is and whether the stocks in that industry are going up or down.

Something new from Edward Tufte

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If you visit http://www.edwardtufte.com/ you’ll see a new publication from the great man:  “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint”.  This is first notable for its format:  a 24-page essay on full-size paper with very high quality color printing.  This is not traditionally a commercially viable format.  Normally one must write short enough for a magazine or long enough for a 200-page book in order to get into the mainstream distribution systems.  High-quality printing is, of course, generally not on the menu except at some university presses.


The most topical item in the essay regards the PowerPoint slides used to guide thinking about the Columbia‘s wing while the shuttle was still up in space.  (A sad echo of the poor presentation materials used to decide whether or not to launch Challenger, a theme discussed in Tufte’s earlier book Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative.)


Remember how horrified you were at your first slide-based presentation?  The disaffected civil servants who stood up in front of you in public school at least tried to get you to pay attention to them, rather than darkening the room and insisting that you focus on one disembodied sentence at a time.  By now most of us are used to PowerPoint, however, and we need something like the Tufte essay to bring back the outrage.


Slides are useful when you need to show everyone in a room a graph, a photo, or some other item for discussion.  Somewhere in the 1960s and 1970s things went horribly wrong, however, as bullet points began to make their way onto the slides.


A modest step back from the PowerPoint culture is to limit one’s PowerPoint slides to charts and photos.  If you can’t resist some text, limit yourself to an opening outline slide dense with structure and a closing summary to remind everyone of what they heard.


Why not step back more dramatically, though, to an age before the computer and the overhead projector?  Color printing has never been cheaper and society has never been richer.  Why not print up materials in advance of the talk and hand them out?  If you need to refer to a chart or photo during your talk, ask people to “turn to page 3 of the handout”.  You can leave the room lights on, people will focus their attention on you, the discussion and flow need not be constrained by the tyranny of the bullet points.  The one disadvantage of the handout approach is that you can’t use a laser pointer.

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