Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Edward Tufte Lecture

I went to this because for years I've meant to read the Tufte books, but whenever I try, I find them a bit dry, and just kind of pick around. I thought maybe if I attended his day-long lecture, it might give me more of a handle to the books. And in fact, all attendees get all four copies of his book, in a box with a handle, which seems a good omen!

The lecture was a full house, with maybe 200-300 attendees. I worried at the beginning -- he did not warm up to us, but initially seemed kind of cold and distant. But, as time went on, he started addressing us a bit more warmly. I had been warned that he was a man of stong opinions, and that was certainly true -- but strong opinions make for good lectures, because they make the audience think.

I'm a book nerd, so the coolest parts for me were when he would bring out these ancient tomes (first edition of Euclid's elements, etc.) and bring them around to show us how text and imagery were much more wisely combined in the past. 

The key points I took away:
  • Giving people more data, as opposed to less data, is much more useful to them if it is presented in a way that they can explore it easily and draw their own conclusions. 
  • Find a way to create a "supergraphic" of your important data. That is something with as much information as possible, shown in ways that are easily explorable.
  • Powerpoint is for giving pitches, not for presenting data. Tufte takes a very hard view here, saying "pitching out corrupts within." The idea is that powerpoint is such a narrow channel of information that it can only allow for leading people down a single train of thought, and this can make both the presenter and audience unable to see the bigger picture. Tufte recommends abandoning powerpoint, and handing out a small number of printed sheets of paper that show your supergraphic. I had to think hard about this -- since I make frequent use of powerpoint. However, I'm seldom using it to explore data, but rather to show a chain of thought. That said, it is clear to me that there are several places in my life that creating some supergraphics would be of value. But, wow -- creating good ones is a lot of work. 
Anyway, I definitely recommend attending the Tufte lecture, if you get a chance. I still haven't read all the books, but I feel like I have a much better handle into them -- hopefully I'll find time to read them soon!


  1. I love Tufte's work and have his book "Visual Explanations" sitting RIGHT HERE on my desk. In fact, it's sat right here on my desk for a year now, and I have yet to really dig into it, so I know what you mean.

    I'd love to attend a lecture on how to create a good supergraphic.

  2. I attended a Tufte seminar 3-4 years ago. I remember him talking about how to create in-line data representation (I don't recall his exact wording) to give the user the benefit of an Appendix without having to flip away to a different page. Put the data where the data is being discussed. He also talked a lot about how to cram a lot of information into a simple, intuitive little "thumb" (again I'm paraphrasing).

    I use both of those ideas on almost a daily basis, particularly when designing games and websites. Tufte helped me think very carefully about how to give people the information they need, where they need it and without having to explain how to read it.

    If you get a chance to check out one of his seminars, I highly recommend it. There aren't many professions where his teachings wouldn't be applicable, which I imagine would be especially true for the Jesse's audience.

  3. Funny, this is the third time I've checked Tufte's books out from the library, thinking, "maybe this time I'll finally get it." Nope. In looking for one of his lectures on youtube I stumbled on your site. Thank you for making me feel better. By the way, the books are always available.
    I'm not promoting or selling anything but I have found a resource that lets us still make use of powerpoint, cause face it, even though people always want the presentation emailed or on paper, visuals definitely help.

    A really interesting resource is aspire communications website or search Relational Presentation. It takes alot of Tufte's ideas... I suppose since I've never really been able to decipher them... and applies them toward using straight old powerpoint to its best potential. Face it, powerpoints are abused so learning to utilize them Tufte style (like in the first scene of DaVinci Code) could be really powerful. The person who put the coursework together has spent alot of time studying Tufte, and I think he developed this as part of his Master's thesis.

    It's still alot of work! Any known links to a Tufte lecture would be appreciated...