Sunday, January 31, 2010

Edward Tufte's "Presenting Data and Information"

Edward Tufte, the "Leonardo da Vinci of data", came to Dallas on 25 Jan 2010 and educated, entertained, and enthused an almost overflow crowd of 500 with his Presenting Data and Information course. If your job involves documenting and presenting quantitative information and ET (as he tends to refer to himself) rolls into your town, I strongly urge you to attend this course to benefit from his expertise on the topic. (Courses in Philly, NYC, Pittsburgh, and Arlington, VA are next on his list.)

Let’s get one issue out in the open right away; ET is not a fan of Microsoft and especially not PowerPoint. Regarding the latter, he claims that it’s openly hostile and condescending to its users. OK, that’s his opinion. To me, PowerPoint is just a tool that can be used well or misused. But for god’s sake, don’t use the built-in presentation templates. For an example of how improper use of PowerPoint can strangle a presentation, see Peter Norvig’s hilarious Gettysburg PowerPoint Presentation.

To put ET’s work in perspective, he calls both designing and consuming (viewing) information displays moral and ethical acts. In that context, consider his 6 Grand Principles of Information Design.
  1. Allow comparisons, contrasts, and differences of the data.
  2. Show causality, mechanism, and explanation.
  3. Include multivariate data.
  4. Integrate evidence.
  5. Document everything.
  6. Content counts most of all.
During the course he backs up these principles with examples from his four books (which you receive as part of the course), showing concrete examples of how these principles have been applied successfully (and sometimes how those authors could’ve gone one step further to improve the design). If you can’t attend ET’s course, his books are excellent resources. They are wonderfully printed, beautifully illustrated, and chock full of tips, tricks, and techniques for information design. If you have to choose one, I recommend The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

Speaking of books, the course is almost worth the price of admission to see two rare books ET cites and displays as fine examples of information design: a first edition Galileo and a 1570 English translation of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry.

Actually giving (performing) a presentation was only briefly mentioned toward the end of the course. ET advises as follows.
  1. Use PowerPoint as a projector operating system.
  2. Create full-screen images - get rid of the standard corporate background and logos.
  3. Prior to the presentation, create, print, and distribute a document formatted 2-sided 11x17 with text (full sentences) and graphics illustrating your point.
  4. Turn the presentation into a high-density data dump followed by a Q&A session.
Would I attend his course again? Yes. Do I recommend that you attend? Yes. Will I buy his upcoming fifth book on "seeing in 3D"? Yes. Will I read his mother’s book "Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style"? Yes. Do I practice everything he teaches? I have not chugged the Kool-Aid but take little sips (subject to time and understanding).

You can find ET online at

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