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An Interview With Edward Tufte

by on September 10, 2009
 

P1130394Stamen Design is the talk of the geospatial design world.  Each offering is smart: minimalist yet visually pleasing, multi-variate and ready for analysis.  Flowing Data, no stranger to fine infographics themselves, recently featured Stamen’s California Stimulus Funding Map with high praise: “It’s slick as hell.”  This is what good information design gets you.  And, as far as academic memory serves, the revolution in modern information design started with a man named Edward Tufte.

Tufte, or ET as he prefers it, possesses an invaluable combination of talents that he draws from and to our collective benefit as visualization workers: an eye for art, thorough knowledge of content, design prowess, discipline, a desire to share and the energy for successive public speaking engagements in which he preaches his gospel.  I met up with ET after one such lecture in Cincinnati on August 25th, at which time he was kind enough to participate in an audio interview that sits at the end of this post.

Read the rest of Maitri’s article & hear the interview after the break.

If you want to know what the lecture looked, sounded and felt like, read Alan Bisbort’s Escaping Flatland, a great article on the man and his talks.  Not much has changed since Tufte began offering the Presenting Data And Information lecture years ago, other than a fourth book and a couple of new examples, but not much has to change when the point is returning to the first principles of information design: make wise comparisons, show causality, employ multiple variables and, above all, focus on the content.  This point was driven home for me early on in the lecture as I internally formulated a question on one of my favorite topics: “How will the techniques presented in this lecture help me better represent 3d digital cities?”  As if my mind had been read, the answer came: “Don’t ask how visualization techniques can help display data.  Ask how data can be best represented.”  In other words, understand and serve the data, not the technique.  Again, as you will hear in the interview, the medium, template and software are not as important as getting the bytes of information across in the most succinct words, graphics and other media possible.

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The 4 Books (click for details)

It was like being in a real classroom again.  All four of ET’s books were provided at entry (in a cute, little cardboard valise and included in the price of admission, thankfully), there was an hour or so of pre-reading and everyone was expected to follow along as the instructor paced the floor switching among books, while relevant illustrations popped up on two large flanking screens.  A production of high value, with roadies, props, a clever script, cell phones discouraged and hand-picked entry and exit music. ET doesn’t deny this. “Nothing here is an accident,” he told me later.  Some refer to it as showboating, unnecessary and avoided simply by purchasing and reading the books.  Given that the lecture hall was packed with people from banks, household & industrial goods companies and graphic design firms where Powerpoint and associated “chart junk” reigns supreme, ET in person definitely has something to offer.  In the end, I believe a one-time investment in a knowledgeable voice telling you that the standards for information display suddenly lower when we come to work, and that there is a cure for it, is worth it.  If those of us responsible for data dissemination leave with higher graphical and ethical standards for making presentations, we as a society are that much better for it.

Besides, as a collector of first editions, I’d pay the admission fee over again just to get a closer look at ET’s copies of Euclid’s Geometry (from 1570 and previously owned by a Shakespearean contemporary named Ben Jonson) and Galileo Galilei’s Il Saggiatore, in which the Italian astronomer wrote the divine yet fatal words: dal mouimento annuo della Terra (which translates as “the annual movement of Earth” and infamously and permanently landed him in hot water with the Catholic Church).

Some important points on making presentations:
1) Perform analytical design: Go for right, not original,
2) Generate performance data: Use tables and not overproduced graphics, e.g. sports sections stats instead of cluttered, flashing images and pie charts,
3) Make a supergraphic: Hand this in or out in place of an annual report,
4) Have an intellectual model: Do what science journalists or serious reporters do, and
5) Be credible: Don’t lie to your audience, master details and get the endorsements of outside, independent evaluators.

Furthermore, go past the spatial triplet and treat all problems as multi-variate (or multi-attribute, as I call it), increase information resolution, i.e. maximize useful bits per unit area and unit time, make wise comparisons, show causality, use whatever it takes to get the message across (“never segregate evidence by mode of production“), document and disclose everything and Do No Harm. “It’s about what happened to the soldiers.” It all comes back to the content.

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Summary supergraphic I created during the lecture (click to enlarge)

Without further ado, here is my 10-minute audio interview with Edward Tufte.

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For more information and the current tour schedule, please visit edwardtufte.com.











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