1. Reaction from Tufte's Boston class

    brian on 2007.02.24
    at 12:47 pm

    {Greetings BrainSparks readers, had I known you were coming I might have edited this text that I wrote, stream-of-consciousness from a bagel shop. I hope you enjoy it despite!}

    I had the good fortune to attend Edward Tufte‘s roadshow in Boston this past Thursday.

    Edward Tufte Presents

    I enjoyed the class immensely. I didn’t even get drowsy. Now, why would I ever endorse anything by saying I didn’t get drowsy? Well, first thing to know is that I have a predilection for sleep. Even if I’m doing something that interests me, if I’m sitting still long enough, especially if the room is darkened, I start to yawn and my eyelids start to droop. It’s not a reflection of the content, just the way I’m wired.

    This might seem somewhat off topic, but I contend it’s not. An understanding of Edward Tufte’s topic is necessary. One of ET’s favorite topics is how PowerPoint is not a good way of expressing content (or Evidence, as he usually calls information). So this means from 10am to 4:30pm he pretty much just talked. Nothing projected behind him, except five images, and one 10 second (slow-motion) video. And those took up maybe (generously) 1% of the time. So for the most part I sat at a table behind about 500 other people about 50 yards from ET, in a grand ballroom at the Park Plaza. Sounds awful. I even had my nose in a book much of the time.

    However, that’s where ET asked us to place our noses. He gave us his four books and that’s where most of his content was. It’s was just like high school, “Please turn to page to 102-103 in Beautiful Evidence“ and we’d look at something Gallieo made, hundreds of years ago. Of course, his coup de grace was that he would then send someone around with Gallieo’s actual first edition of the book — that was pretty incredible.

    Also handed out to all participants was an 11“x17” hand out. It was folded to make 4 pages, and was choked full of information, including passages in the books which relate to special interest topics: “web site design,” “financial data,” etc. It also had a reading list of great works of the 20th century on information architecture (term used in a slightly different tone than the “profession” information architecture”), as well as suggested readings on analytical design.

    This was a theory of his — right down to the size of the paper and how much info to put on it. Also, he suggests you hand this out at the beginning of your presentation, not to be afraid of your audience reading ahead, or not focusing solely on you. Humans can absorb info faster than you can vocally deliver it. And you shouldn’t be afraid of them reading your stuff, because you’re not there to perform, but to express some information, and that purpose is higher than it’s delivery vehicle. Also, this allows people to utilize the power of their own learning style (esp if it differs from your presenting style) to absorb your point more efficiently.

    So now, with the criticisms. I know I haven’t written much about the great points, but they are widely covered. Here’s what struck me during the presentation as things that could have improved the experience for me.

    He’s against PowerPoint in general. But I think he underused his large projection screen. He says PowerPoint (et al) isn’t inherently evil, but that it is inherently low-resolution, and he holds that you shouldn’t dumb down your presentations in either the content sense or the visual sense, since humans can absorb 500 times the info a computer projection screen can express. But in my opinion, there were times where the screen, low-res and all, could have served as a visual bookmark as to what we were discussing. The format of the talk would be that ET would have us turn to a page in our book collection and we would examine a high-res piece of information. Here I would have projected the image on the screen, so that someone would have some reference with their heads up as well as their heads down.

    A good amount of the time ET was speaking, I was not reading, or examining the books, but I was trying to watch him speak. His voice, although distinguished, is a bit monotone. Watching him would help me pull more from his speech than his words could express. Having watched people speak now for over 28 years, I feel I can pull more context from someone based on their physical movements, like facial expressions and hand movements. But being in the back of a large room, it was hard to pick up on these cues.

    If ET wasn’t going to use the projector for but 1% if the time, why not project video of him moving about? Granted, this would add great expense, but if he wanted to be all out, this would have assisted.

    Now, I’ll just briefly touch upon a few things I found interesting in his talk.

    Newspapers: they can stave off irrelevancy because their resolution, their capacity for information density is much higher than a computer screen. He didn’t mention anything about their content, just the capacity for it. He mentioned the New York Times and Wall Street Journal as shining stars in information graphics. One thing he pointed out that I didn’t expect was the sports section of the newspaper.

    Millions of people read the sports pages, which is very dense with charts, numbers and statistics, and people lap it up. They’re not the least bit scared of a box score, standings or batting average arrays. Thus, humans are very comfortable absorbing really dense, statistical analysis. In fact, many are enthusiastic about it, since the numbers have meaning to them.

    His argument is that you too should not be afraid of presenting such dense info, but PowerPoint won’t be able to render it very densely, so use hand outs to your advantage.

    This post is getting somewhat long, so look for me to continue from my notes in a future post. I apologize for the lack of a proper closing.

    Posted in: Books · Design · Web


    Comments (1)

    1. Jesse Legg said on 2007.02.25 at 01:28 pm

      Great post!

      I would like to hear more if you get the chance to write up your notes.

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