Edward Tufte: “Good Information Design Comes from Analytical Thinking”


Edward Tufte, the “Galileo of graphics” or “Leonardo of Data,” is continuing his series of day-long lectures on the basic tenets of information design, one of which is PowerPoint is authoritarian. Tufte is well-known for his beautifully-crafted books including: “Envisioning Information,” which he says is about “pictures of nouns” or maps and aerial photographs; “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information,” which is about “pictures of numbers” or how to depict data and statistics with integrity; and “Visual Explanation,” which is about “pictures as verbs” or the representation of causes and effects, process and dynamics. He is touring to ensure analytical thinking pervades all designed graphics, tables, charts, figures, and presentations, particularly those coming from the government and business worlds where, he argues, PowerPoint has done major damage to the presentation of information, with often deadly effects.

In one example, he points to NASA’s culture of “hierarchical, authoritarian” PowerPoint presentations, with their “relentless sequentiality” as particularly problematic. Tufte argues that PowerPoint’s “cognitive style” is unsuited to the presentation of the complex engineering data needed to make quick, life-or-death decisions. The 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster was in part due to the mix of dumbed-down PowerPoint slides and reports produced by Boeing for NASA, which “provided mixed readings of the threat to the spacecraft; the lower-level bullets often mentioned doubts and uncertainties, but the highlighted executive summaries and big-bullet conclusions were quite optimistic.” In other words, NASA decision-makers didn’t have access to accurate presentations of the data, which could have led them to decide to hold-off on the launch.

Instead, graphic representations of data should be taken out of PowerPoint and included in brief hand-outs to show “causality thinking,” or the cause and effect in the data. Presentations should be “content-driven” (not format-driven), and void of “chart junk,” which just confuse readers. “Presentations should be 100 percent content — content comes first.” To create credible presentations that decision-makers can act on, graphics should include labels, linking lines, sources, lots of detail, and function like maps. “Maps have been around for 6,000 years. Detail clarifies.” Furthermore, it’s on the onus for the presenter to “provide reasons to believe the presentation.” (In fact, as the NASA case demonstrates, presenters also have a moral obligation to be very clear and accurate).


Enabling people to use their own cognitive style when reading and interacting with information is the best way to go. “This interactivity is the genuine form of personalization, it’s real personalization.” While some may think the graphic (above) leads to “information overload,” in reality, it’s bad design or clutter that causes those issues. Eyes, which are a powerful “information through-put,” can download about 20 MB of content per second. As a result, “content is what is intriguing” and presenters should “maximize content exploring and reasoning time.” High-resolution graphics are about “finding patterns. Virtually no design is visible.” Tufte say if lots of information can’t be processed via a graphic, it’s not because there’s too much content: “Fix your design, don’t blame your audience.”

Tufte said high-resolution graphics are especially needed now because the world is “rich, complex, multi-variate.” He added that “the world’s serious problems all have three variates.” In turn, presenters need to turn all this complicated and important information into “simple flatlands,” or take something three-dimensional and make it two-dimensional. Improving the resolution by bits of time or area is the way to do accomplish this. “Science is really all about improvements in resolution.”

The guru of information design guards against summarizing other’s information and data and potentially missing key arguments, but a few of his last points on presentations included:

1) Get good examples in the wild. “Copy, don’t create anew.” Look around for other excellent charts, graphics, presentations of data.
2) Find a good table format. Reports are usually about performance data. “Don’t use grids, but do use a decent typography.”
3) Create a powerful, interactive “supergraphic.” (see image above).
4) Use intellectual models that work — reports should read like reporting from The New York Times or Google News. The science journal Nature has “cutting-edge visualizations.” Any newspaper’s sports section is good model to use for the presentation of lots of data.
5) A story needs to be believable. “Don’t talk like an MBA.”

On Web design, he added that icons for Facebook, Twitter, etc are “not content,” but “administrative junk” that should be minimized. He pointed to the home page of The New York Times, which he said has “over 400 links” and gets millions of page views per day. Also, he added that 92 percent of any Web site should be content, leaving just 8 percent for navigation and “Web administrative tools.” For mobile design, he pointed to Apple’s iPhone, calling it a model of “content or user-centered design.” Lastly, if people must use PowerPoint, just “use it as an operating system only — no logos or boilerplate templates.”

Check out Tufte’s free online tutorials on a range of subjects as well as his books. Interestingly, Tufte is increasingly focused on land art and landscape design — his most recent book heads off in this direction. Also, see him live in New York City, Philadephia, San Francisco, and San Jose later this fall.

Image credits: (1) “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint,” Edward Tufte. (2) How to Look at Modern Art in America, Ad Reinhart / Comicsmag.com

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