On July 28, 2009, I attended Edward Tufte’s “Presenting Data and Information” course in Philadelphia. Tufte is well respected for his expertise in data visualization and equally renowned for his complete disdain of PowerPoint as a communications tool.

I recently came across a page-and-a-half of handwritten notes I had taken during the lecture and wanted to share what I recorded. Below are elaborations on these notes.

  • Begin with the content by asking the question: “how can something be explained?” Be guided by the task. Don’t choose the mode of presentation in advance: it’s not about pre-specifying the dataset or methodology.
  • The character of relationships between elements is just as vital as the elements themselves. Provide “reasons to believe”.
  • Use causality thinking: which properties effect and govern the cause.
  • Annotate everything: annotation is the heart of explanation. Annotations reside in the background. They are subtle, but clear and help avoid optical clutter. Annotating “linking lines” adds credibility and texture to causal links.
  • Use tables; don’t be afraid of them. People read huge tables all the time: think sports, weather, market data, etc. “Bring your presentation up to the level of the sports section.”
  • Replace “chart junk” with evidence (but not selected evidence; avoid being a “cherry picker”).
  • Supergraphics are interactive: they allow individuals to explore and find what’s important to them and encourage discussion among an audience. Everyone will look at a different section at the same time. Find a really good supergraphic to open your presentation and give it to the audience on handouts.
  • There is no such thing as information overload: there is only failure of design. Add detail to improve clarity and content. Use more tables than graphics, especially for smaller numbers.
  • PowerPoint is “a corrupt method of displaying information”. PowerPoint presentations set up a dominance relationship with extreme information denial (“a long and winding road”).
  • Integrity, relevance, and interest are content properties that design will not correct.
  • Find good reports and copy them (but have good taste); “stay out of the design business. Don’t get it original; get it right”.
  • For intellectual models, avoid marketing speak and corporate pitches; you want “non-fiction credibility”.
  • Use wall charts in project management. Make comparisons over space vs. a sequential series of slides (“stacked in time”).
  • Letter codes, legends, keys, etc., are impediments to learning. They are not universal, but instead “one-off” creations that are good for only one instance. Get viewers out the decoding business: use direct labels.
  • There two issues in information design: multivariate problem: the dimensions of data need to be communicated on a two-dimensional display (“flatlands”). Every interesting analytical problem is more than one to two dimensions or factors. Information resolution: A way to measure progress in communication and presentations. Think: what is the rate of information throughput in my presentation?
  • Use the “brute force” method: build a model by getting a real object in the room.
  • The segregation of information by modes of production is a conceptual error.
  • Don’t insult or fail to respect your audience. Maintain intellectual integrity without patronizing. It’s not considered “dumbing down” to remove jargon for dispersal to a larger audience.
  • Give users the freedom to consume the material how they want.
  • For the opening screens (home pages) of websites, show off what people can learn there. People are good at scanning: they will scan, then scroll, then click; keep it flat and rich. 90% of every screen, excluding navigation, should be content.
  • Sparklines reduce “recency bias” by showing changes over a larger span of time.
  • When giving presentations, remember the following: Work on content. Practice. Show up early. Use handouts and Word documents (never PowerPoint slides). Leave more than one copy of technical reports. Define what the problem is, who cares, and what the solution is.

Here are several key quotes I jotted down during the lecture:

  • “Do whatever it takes to display something.”
  • “Document everything and tell people about it.”
  • “The metaphor is the map.”
  • “A feature that is buried is not a feature.”
  • “Talent imitates, but genius steals.”
  • “The person who heads up web design is a content expert.”

The course was more lecture than seminar, but Tufte kept me interested and engaged throughout the day. A bit prickly in person, he’s nevertheless an excellent presenter. I would highly recommend the course as a “professional development opportunity” (i.e.: training) for those interested in how to present content and data in pretty much any form, not just visual representations. Plus, you get all four of his books to add to your library, which is an excellent take-away… more so than a flash drive or fancy badge clip.