From Galileo to the iPhone - Edward Tufte Connects the Dots

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"Hey, have you heard of Edward Tufte?", Frank and I are standing in some random Northern Virginia parking lot and I'm swatting mosquitoes in the September humidity.


Frank enlightens. He describes a scientist and artist who wants to explain concepts of displaying information - graphs and other visual assets. Publishers can't get it right, or are not willing to publish to his standards, so, he prints his own books - eyebrows.raise(). I like that - not defiance, but someone believing in something deep enough they go beyond the status quot and make it happen correctly. Edward Tufte, aka ET, also builds large visual structures (statues) in Connecticut (in the town where Frank's wife grew up) - these not only present beauty, but are 3 dimensional descriptions of ET's analytical and presentation concepts.


Of the myriad of things Frank and I talk about - rapid bi-directional streams of consciousness - this one sticks. So, I find ET's web site and I see he's to be in Arlington, VA, in 2 weeks. I'm still a bit skeptical, but as I start reading more and more, I become quite intrigued. ET is thinking about information display at it's core, not just from the very narrow perspective of the web or the evil blood sucking spawn of Satan, known as PowerPoint, but from the perspective of history, of science, art, and cognition. When I noticed that when you attend his lectures ($380), you receive all 4 of his books, I was immediately sold. At a minimum I would I have 4 new books - wahoo! I registered. (The quality of the books is, by the way, simply amazing.) I have a tendency to coddle my books, too, especially ones of high quality like these. During the lecture, again, I was enlightened. ET was explaining a concept of presentation asks the audience to fold one of the pages in half, saying, "It's a book; it's meant to be 'used'". Pragmatic.


: Drop what you are doing and go. At the time of this writing, he's on tour now at various points in the U.S. ET is, of course, a seasoned master at presentation and for someone who periodically presents at conferences and other venues, it was great lesson to see a pro at work. Among many other 2D and 3D visuals, he showed both a 1st edition Galileo book with original drawings of Galileo's sun spot discoveries, and ET also demonstrated how and why the iPhone display works. Now, that's a perspective that transcends! There's plenty of other gems and gold in ET's writings and presentation, so, go for it.

Marc Esher asked me for the top 3 concepts I took away. I'll give you 4 plus a few more, trying to keep it as brief as possible. These concepts transcend the medium; that is, they apply to any information display, whether in print, on screen, or in person.

Moral and Ethical Responsibility: Presenting and consuming visual information is a moral activity. If you are presenting or receiving information in any way, be it on the web, in a meeting, or at conference, it is your moral responsibility to ensure the information is true and accurate. I get the fact that when you are telling people about something, that it better be right to the best of your ability, but as a consumer? As a consumer of information, it is up to us make sure that what is being presented is true and correct. We should hold the presenter intellectually & ethically responsible for what they show and tell. "It's better to be approximately correct, than to be precisely wrong."

Respect Your Audience: It seems that there is a dangerous assumption that as presenters we should know our audience. ET explains that claiming to know your audience puts the presenter in a precarious situation, creating a tendency to play down to an audience. So, it's better to respect your audience. Chances are your audience is as smart, if not smarter than you. Treat them as equals, as colleagues.

Use Successful Models: Instead of guessing at what works for your presentation, or re-inventing something, use something proven. For example, consider modeling your display after the New York Times Sports statistics or Google News. These are successful presentations that are used by millions of people each day.

Presentation Design: The problem with design is (1) designers are taught to introduce creative assets (pictures, images, things that dazzle the eye), but when displaying information, especially complex data, the idea is the opposite. We need to remove everything not related to or supporting the subject or content. (2) Use a super graphic to describe your content. This is a single large graphic that has all the information about your subject contained in a cohesive visual space. ET exemplified Charles Joseph Minard's pictorial representation of Napoleon's march to Moscow:

The above is a bit more philosophical. The following, though still abstract, tries to convey the principals of how to make it happen and what should be included in the display.

The Fundamental Principals of Analytical Design [Beautiful Evidence, pp120-135 Edward Tufte, 2006]
  1. Show comparisons, contrasts, differences
  2. Show causality, mechanism, explanation, systematic structure
  3. Show multivariate data; that is, more than one variable
  4. Completely integrate words, numbers, and diagrams
  5. Documentation: Thoroughly describe the evidence. Provide a detailed title, indicate the authors and sponsors, document the data sources, show complete measurement scales, and point out relevant issues.
  6. Content is everything: Analytical presentations ultimately stand or fall depending on the quality, relevance, and integrity of their content.

Displaying information is hard. As software professionals, I now see it's our responsibility (not just our job) to consider how the software we write is displaying the content our customers are trying to convey. Many of us are not designers, per se, and get wrapped up in performing complex computational tasks. We may end up feeling smart and get or create the occasional pat on the back for being so, but we might be just a bit more successful if we applied some of that analytical brilliance to displaying the information we compute. So many times I've heard or seen programmers say at conferences, "I'm not a designer, so, excuse my slides ...", implying incompetence at visual display. Well, this is me being your responsible and ethical consumer : You're more than a just a programmer and that statement comes across like you don't care or your audience is not worth the effort of trying your best. It's your responsibility to communicate your ideas to the best of your abilities and I know you can do it well. Ask someone you respect for advice. Ask colleagues or peers for feedback on your presentation. Then Rock the World with your brilliance.

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