The Oaks Ignore Their Pleas

Information Design Matters!

Posted in General by Jeff Graves on November 19, 2009

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a day-long seminar presented by Edward Tufte, Professor Emeritus at Yale University (, and one of the leading thinkers in the space of information design in the world.  Tufte spent the day taking the participants through a fascinating journey of landmark data graphics ranging from Galileo to NASA.  The content of the session was, for me, incredibly valuable and interesting, and a big part of that was the way Tufte ran the day.

Every participant in the session received all four of Tufte’s self-published books dedicated to information design. (insert book links here)  Tufte self-published these books, because in his words (more or less) he wanted to control not only the content of the finished product, but the presentation.  And it’s clear that he pays serious attention to detail.  Each book is well constructed, laid-out, with an incredible attention to detail.  For example, during the day, ET (as he refers to himself on his website), showed an example of an original book by (xxx), describing Euclidean geometry.  In order to demonstrate the properties of a pyramid, the book included a small fold-out triangle made of small leaflets of paper that the reader could fold, stand up, and have a 3 dimensional representation of a pyramid to examine.  Tufte showed us the original book from his collection, then directed us to page (xx) where he provides the reader of his book with the same feature.  He confided that each triangle cost him 32 cents per book, but that he felt the message that the object provided was worth the cost.

While the class was run as a traditional lecture, even held in a lecture amphitheatre at Boston’s Seaport World Trade Center, Tufte conducted the session in an interesting way.  The pre-session literature announced that the hour preceding the start of the lecture would be devoted to “pre-reading”, which consisted of selected passages from each of his books.  Once the lecture began, he repeatedly used specific examples from his books, citing each one by name and cover art, and directing the class to specific pages within that contained illustrations of the examples.  He did make use of the overhead projector, but mainly to tell us all which book to open, and which page to go to.  Then the projector screen went dark, leaving the class to focus on his words, and on the printed work in front of us.  For me, this did two things – first,  it kept me incredibly focused all day, and I think the physical act of reaching for a new book every 20 minutes or so was a part of that.  It also enabled me to study and really get engaged with the example in a much more intense way than if I were looking at something on a screen 40 feet away.  Tufte made the point several times during the day that the resolution of the printed page is still 20 -30 times better than the best computer monitor out there, and made it clear that he prefers paper as a communication medium in many cases as a result.  It was a message that he really hammered home in word and by example in the lecture.

Although spending 7 hours in a lecture hall listening to someone go on about charts and graphs might probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I really enjoyed the day, and found myself not only looking at the graphics in the newspaper differently, but also thinking differently about how I present information.  I’ve made it through Tufte’s first book “The Visual Display of Quantiative Information”, and it’s given me all kinds of ideas on how I can improve what I do when presenting to others.

Anyone who works with data, and has to explain that data to others should take a look at Tufte’s work, and consider going to see him if they have the chance.  His next lecture series is scheduled for early December in San Francisco – check his website for details.


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