Tufte and Elephants

Last week I was in Washington DC. I got the bus from the airport to Wiehle Reston metro station where you get the Silver Line into the city. There on the station plaza are two colo(u)rful sculptures one of an elephant and one of a donkey – the symbols of the Republicans and the Democrats respectively. On my return trip on Saturday the elephant looked bigger and the donkey distressed.

On Wednesday, reeling, I went to an Edward Tufte workshop on Presenting Data and Visual Information. Years ago I got his book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and I came back with the course 'party bag' of another copy of it + three other beautifully presented books he's constructed. Read a delightful review of them here.

He opened the day – no hello or introduction as they are one of his bugbears 'people don't need an attractor, they've already arrived' – with a Stephen Malinowski musical animation before moving on to discuss the National Weather Service, weather forecast page which he used to illustrate his fundamental principles of analytical design (Chapter 5 in Beautiful Evidence).

Beyond the principles I came away with multiple new ways of seeing and things to try out. For example:

He's scathing on PowerPoint presentations. He thinks 'stacked in time' information penalizes the reader or viewer – far better to have it 'adjacent in space'. And he is ferocious on PowerPoint produced pie charts and dashboards that he condemns as 'chart-junk'.He praised Amazon's Jeff Bezos for doing away with PowerPoint and instead running meetings with 6-page narratives. Am I bold enough to take this approach in the next meeting I present at?

He recommends scrolling – not page turning to lead people through info. I've just completed someone's online survey that follows this principle and now I'm aware of it I noticed how much easier it is to keep going rather than having to press 'next page' every bundle of questions.

He told us not to segregate information but keep the flow by reducing all visual impediments. He pointed out, for example, the redundant colon in the label 'High: 62 F' on the weather forecast.

He thinks lines and boxes interrupt flow (he's no org chart man). Here's what he says on Gantt charts: 'About half the charts show their thin data in heavy grid prisons. For these charts the main visual statement is the administrative grid prison, not the actual tasks contained by the grid'. Good, I can add that to my case against the use of the 9-box grid.

He's insistent on leaving the reader to pick out the information he/she is interested in. He was humorous on the way George Miller's paper 'The Magical Number 7 + or – 2' has been (erroneously) interpreted as suggesting that people have a limited capacity to interpret text. As he pointed out the weather website one is info dense but viewers have no problem finding what they're looking for. He firmly stated 'never accept an argument that lots of info will confuse the user.' He mentioned the New York Times and Washington Post as other exemplars of visual presentation and pointed out that in any news report every 4th paragraph there is a 'human interest' quote. Now I know that I've been seeing it!

Towards the end of the day Tufte talked about Streams of Story in his book Visual Explanations – highlighting Barbar's Dream in which the 'graceful winged elephants of kindness, intelligence, hope, love … drive out the demons of anger, ignorance, fear. It's a powerfully told story in exquisite visuals. We might hope the elephant at Wiehle Reston station would take to it heart.

What/who do you recommend as exemplar visual data and information presenters? Let me know.

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