Information and Presentation Design: Gleanings From a Course With Edward Tufte

I recently had the opportunity to take Edward Tufte’s one day course, Presenting Data and Information. Tufte is the master of the subject, and everything I’ve heard about his course was positive, I can now concur and recommend that anyone interested in data visualization and usability should take this course of you have the chance, it’s really quite affordable and you get a set of his books with registration.

The course really focused on two related topics:

  • Presentation of information and data and evaluating visually presented information and data.
  • Crafting powerful presentations (live presentations).

Throughout the course Tufte uses examples from the four books you get with registration (The Visual Display of Information, Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations, Beautiful Evidence) as well as anecdotes and some supplemental examples. The books are superbly – and intelligently (natch) – designed. Using examples ranging from Albrecht Durer’s engraving of Saint Jerome in His Cell to a data-map charting Napoleon’s losses during the French invasion of Russia in 1812 to the iPhone interface and his own sculptural explorations, Tufte kept an audience of artists, designers, web geeks and Wall Streeters engaged for 6 hours. He even showed off two books that were about 500 years old: a first printing (1613) of Galileo’s treatise on sunspots in which he states in print that the Earth revolves around the sun, and a book on math and geometry from around 1570.

Designing and Preparing for Presentations

It seems that presentations are all the rage recently. Ignite events (20 slides, 15 seconds each slide, 5 minutes total, a modified Pecha Kucha presentation event – 20 slides, 20 seconds each slide) sweeping the globe, Powerpoint Karaoke too, people are posting their slide decks on and others are actually watching them! I even attended PresentationCamp a few weeks ago, and just bought slide:ology by Nancy Duarte who’s firm created the Al Gore’s presentation for An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary that one an Oscar, so basically an Oscar winning presentation.

Tufte has some strong opinions about presentations and some sharp words for Microsoft’s popular PowerPoint software. He recommends not using PowerPoint to design anything, think of it as a “projector operating system.” Interestingly he called attention to the proprietary nature of PowerPoint in addition to the ridiculous animations and effects that people often get suckered into using with PowerPoint because of the templates the software provides. Instead he suggests designing all of your slides with other software and merely stitching them together with an application like PowerPoint.

Presentations should not be named for the software used to deliver them. Tufte used the example of the presentation made to NASA engineers by Boeing engineers after the Columbia Orbiter was damaged during launch but before it was lost upon re-entry. The presentation was made with PowerPoint (28 slides) and was referred to by low level NASA engineers as “The Boeing PowerPoint Pitch”. The accident investigation committee found, according to Tufte, that “The distinctive cognitive style of PowerPoint reinforce the hierarchical filtering and biases of the NASA bureaucracy.” The major lesson here is to respect your audience, they can read 2.5 to 3 times to them faster than you can read to them. They can also read in sentences. And they can also process more numbers than you think. Tufte’s lesson here is that you should increase information resolution: communicate more bits/unit area or unit time. 80 million Americans can read baseball box scores — many thousands of numbers on one page, thousands of words — yet the average PowerPoint slide has 12 numbers on it.

In what almost seems like a paradoxical suggestion to this, Tufte recommends use sentences, starting a presentation with a 3 paragraph summary: problem, why care (relevance), and solution. His major criticism is of presentations that dumb-down and over simplify complex information, reducing it to a bunch of non sensical or misleading info graphics or “chart junk” and a series of bullet points.

Tufte’s recommends starting presentations or reports with a high resolution supergraphic or data dump.Hand out an 11 x 17 sheet of paper, either with a supergraphic, or folded with 4 sides containing a summary and important data (tables or other high resolution graphics) provide it to your audience before you start and give them time to read/review it. In this way information is not stacked in time or sequential, the audience can go back and forward. Paper has a much higher resolution than the screen. We have complicated problems/data and simple display surfaces. If you want your audience to compare two or more pieces of data, use spacial adjacency (put them next to each other, so people don’t have to flip back and forth) and small multiples (a bunch of small images that present your information) like Tufte’s Sparklines. As Tufte said, “There is no such thing as information overload, only bad design.”

Here are a few one liners I managed to catch:

  • The Information is the interface. Good design is self effacing.
  • Remove Chart Junk! Don’t attract attention to administrative elements, don’t distract from the content.
  • Reduce optical clutter by reducing contrast of administrative elements (no drop shadowed connector lines!)
  • Annotate everything.
  • The content Doesn’t care what it is (a box, a bubble, drop shadowed lettering). The viewer doesn’t care just make it clear.
  • Use tables for performance data. Stay away from chart junk!
  • Order items by performance (in a table or list) not alphabetically.
  • Use full screen videos and images.

When making non fiction reports or presentations you should be making content decisions, NOT design decisions. Make a good simple template (for tables of data for example, or a reusable super graphic like a map) or steal from the best. T.S. Elliot said “Talent imitates, genius steals.”

Tufte offered the suggestion of running your presentation like a press conference: provide the information, answer questions from the audience. And his last tips for making better presentations:

  • Get better content
  • Practice, practice, practice!
  • Show up early. Finish early.

Presenting Content On The Web

The course is much more geared towards in person and print data visualization, but Tufte also has a body of work related to online usability and design, and touches upon it in the course and in his Visual Explanations book (pages 146-150) and Envisioning Information (chapters 2 & 3) he also recommends every entry in both books’ indexes under the “interface”. Only two industries refer to their customers or audience as “users”.

Tufte seemed to suggest that many websites and web designers show disdain for their audience and the “user” language is one example of it. Many of the lesson’s from above hold true for web design: respect your audience, don’t distract them with flashy graphics that are “administrative” or, in other words, not content. 90% of every screen should be content, visitors come to your website for content, not for fancy navigational elements, or fancy non-content “chart junk”. He echoed one of Steve Krug’s lessons: design subtleties are lost on your visitors. Make things obvious, help them get to the information they are looking for as quickly as possible The “High Resolution Data Dump” lesson from presentations translates to the web in the form of giving users your audience lots of content so they can scan for what THEY are looking for, as an example look at newspaper home pages which offer hundreds of links.

I’m not sure that this lesson is universally applicable on all websites, but it is a provocative concept and it challenges some traditional lessons of usability from the likes of Krug who suggests that the more options you give a user, the less likely they are to make a decision. When you combine the “lots of options” concept with Tufte’s dictum that clutter and information overload are failures of design, it makes a bit more sense. Detail is not clutter. Navigation is NOT content. Once again the lesson that good design is self effacing is important here.


I intend to followup with more when I read all the recommended sections of Tufte’s books on website and interface design. But I will leave you with this article and video on iPhone interface design. The Tufte website features a valuable “Aske E.T.” section that is a wealth of information about his views on a wide variety of design topics like this. You can also learn more about SparkLines on wikipedia, the Tufte website or Google for it to find jQuery and PHP libraries to implement them on your website, there is even a module that implements Sparkines for Drupal.

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