Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

Review: Edward Tufte’s Course on Presenting Data

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In the spring, I attended Edward Tufte’s one-day course on presenting data and information. I read his book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, several years ago, as well as his screed against PowerPoint, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, and imagined his course would be similarly provocative. I was not disappointed.

Tufte began with general guidelines about design and presenting information. Followers of his work and readers of his books know his maxim that design follows content. Those three words convey his teachings well: design follows content. People make presentations to show data, demonstrate causality and draw intellectual connections; they do not make presentations to show off pretty colors, write in fancy fonts or dazzle the audience with a lightshow.

Throughout his course, Tufte attacks PowerPoint as an inadequate conveyor of information, knowledge and insight. ‘PowerPoint presentations tend to be about PowerPoint, not about the presentation,’ he said. In addition, the information contained in a typical presentation usually underwhelms the audience: read through the next PowerPoint you receive and you’ll probably agree. And, rather than using PowerPoint slides to highlight key points to elaborate in, most presenters simply read his slides, adding an occasional point. His pamphlet on PowerPoint contains much more of his thoughts and all managers should read it.

Tufte took the class through other useful subjects: How to Make a Good Report; Project Management; Using Three-Dimensional Aids (which included viewing several 15th and 16th century books, which often used three-dimensional shapes imbedded to advance the learning of their readers); How to Make Presentations; and Web Design. Each of these sections augmented the lessons of his books (which the attendee receives with the course).

He also reviewed the (then) recently-released version of the iPhone. The simplicity and elegance of design aids the user, who can quickly access many functions from one screen. He does not like the use of icons, which take up valuable space – which could be better used to add more content. Here, Tufte takes his valuable lessons past their limits; he seems to see no role for marketing, or for using any technique besides the inclusion of content, for garnering attention.  While content surely must be the pre-eminent concern in presentations, marketing must also play an important role in many facet of business, including product design.

Tufte was at his best when he highlighted examples of good design and presentation in areas the attendees had not thought of. He admires the reporting of many sports statistics, especially baseball’s box scores, as examples of design following content – and of showing that readers can consume a great deal of content in a small amount of space. He showed several examples of sparklines, which convey trends, timeframe and other data in little space. Another example: maps, which show a huge amount of data, generally in a clear, straightforward way. Last, Tufte argued that simple, unadorned writing can make an effective presentation. Sentences and paragraphs convey causality, relation and explanation.  Indeed, writing out the problem, its relevance to the presentation attendees, and the solution can very effectively communicate the most essential points in many presentations.

The one-day format packed a lot of instruction into a short time. I left the day mentally tired, having considered presentations, meetings, project management, and conveying insight from data in entirely new ways. The day was well-spent.



Written by Russell S.

November 9, 2009 at 3:01 am

One Response

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  1. […] and fonts, and vaguely relevant drawings dominated the pages. As I read, I kept coming back to Edward Tufte’s admonition that design follows content. This book included pictures for pictures’ sake, and large ones. The writings on the page […]

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