Edward Tufte & presenting data.

Emily Down | June 23, 2011

Edward Tufte, graphic designer, author, and professor, presented a one-day course in Portland yesterday, titled, “Presenting Data and Information.” Within the course, Tufte discussed interface and presentation design, complexity and clarity and statistical data. Greg, Jama’s Product Manager, and I attended — and we spent the day soaking in the data and design goodness.

Tufte has long been considered the Godfather of information design. As a student in my design classes, Edward Tufte’s books were required reading. His four design books, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations and Beautiful Evidence, outline the bad — content-light “chartjunk” — from the good — inspired design of “the wonder of the data.”

I recommend attending one of his courses if you have the opportunity. He’s engaging and fun, and his ideas on data-rich content challenge much of what he calls today’s “trendy” designs. Here are a few of my key takeaways:

  • “To clarify, add detail.” Tufte believes that the principles of analytical design stem from the principles of analytical thinking. When we remove detail from charts and graphs in order to simplify for the reader, we remove the context — or even remove the information most relevant to someone else. We each process information according to our own cognitive process, and look to different portions of a graph, table or graphic for understanding. As designers, we shouldn’t suppress information for “lowest common denominator design.” As Tufte says, “there’s no such thing as information overload, only crummy design.”
  • Cut the inefficiencies in meetings. Tufte strongly believes that we’re inefficient in our transfer of information. When we read, we read 3-4 times faster than we can listen. When we read, we read to our own cognitive style and can skip. We can’t do that as an audience member. To have more efficient meetings, Tufte suggests that we first read as the “data dump.” The meeting leader should provide reading material to transfer information. Afterwards, he should “speak to his priorities” — the information he wants to be sure you understand — and hold a Q&A session.
  • Clutter. For Tufte, if it’s not content, it’s clutter. At the beginning of class, Tufte asks, “Why the boxes? We never need the boxes.” He’s referring to boxes within charts, graphs or any information design. He continues to ask if we ever see boxes around cities on a map (we don’t). So why do we use them in our own designs? Boxes for emphasis add to more boxes, which he equates to talking louder & louder over others in a restaurant. Pretty soon, it’s too loud to hear yourself think. If it’s unnecessary, it’s clutter.