Presenting Data and Information: A One-Day Course Taught by Edward Tufte

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Review by Robin Hilp

This seminar covers material from Edward Tufte’s books The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, and Visual Explanations.

The seminar both highlights and expands upon information presented in the books The books contain additional topics not covered in the seminar.

Tufte offers two fundamental aspects and five grand principles, or rules of thumb, for information design. He uses several examples of both good and bad presentation, using publications ranging from the first English translation of Euclid’s Geometry to modern multimedia shows. He also gives a quick lesson on how to teach a seminar.

The two fundamental problems to be solved by good presentation are:

  • Most real-world information is useful only as a combination of multiple variables or dimensions. Our means of displaying information is limited to two or occasionally three dimensions.
  • Ease-of-use is improved by increased resolution in space (how the variables are differentiated and correlated) and time (how much cross-referencing and page-flipping the reader is asked to do).

The six rules to solve these problems are:

  1. Provide context for quantitative information by showing comparison and causality. A good display answers the three questions, “Compared to what?” “What is the cause?” “What is the effect?” Good principles of design come from asking, “In what way are you trying to assist thinking? What is the thinking task?” Tufte gave examples in which poor context can be a matter of life and death:
    • The information to predict the O-ring failure was known before the Challenger explosion, but the rocket designer’s presentation of the data was not clear enough to persuade NASA to cancel the launch. Tufte showed the original presentation, and then rearranged the data in accordance with his principles of design. His changes included redrawing the graphics, using a different selection of data, and highlighting causal comparisons instead of relying on the audience to make an intuitive leap.
    • In London in 1854, John Snow mapped cholera deaths in London and thereby was able to have the infected wells shut down, halting the spread of the disease. The map correlated the locations of deaths to the locations of water wells, demonstrating the causal relationship.
  2. Show information adjacent in space (more variables on a single illustration) instead of “stacked” in time (a series of related or sequential illustrations on successive pages). Use “small multiples” to:
    • Help the user become familiar with the terms and dimensions.
    • Enhance your credibility, showing mastery of the data.
    • Include as much data and details as possible. Use the smallest possible distinctive markings — small but effective; minimal but clear. Differentiate the figure from the ground and the dimensions from each other. Tufte gives a couple of examples:
      • The shining example, which Tufte includes as a poster that seminar attendees receive in addition to his books, is the 19th-century engineer Charles Minard’s depiction of Napoleon’s 1812 march into Russia. Minard’s design shows six dimensions on the two-dimensional map: latitude, longitude, direction of march, size of the army, date, and temperature. A line on the map traces the path of the army, showing the march into Russia by one color, the retreat by a different color, and the number of soldiers by the thickness of the line. Along the bottom is an axis showing the dates and temperatures corresponding to the specific locations and directions above. “On a single sheet of paper with nary a paragraph, Minard simply and eloquently tells the history of Napoleon’s failed march to take Russia.”
      • Another example is how various presenters have displayed Galileo’s sunspot data. Galileo drew his data on successive pages. A contemporary of his redrew the same data on a single page, making the sun’s rotation and the sunspot development easier to see at a glance.
  3. Avoid “chart junque” — integrate information and codes within a display. Codes (A = plastic, B = wood) impede learning. “Chart junque” can also produce disinformation, as for example a magic show. Magic shows and puzzle solving may be fun but is counterproductive when you’re trying to convey information efficiently. If you must use a legend or code, use one that is intuitive or conventional, and use it frequently to promote reader familiarity. Tufte gives several examples:
    • A bad example is in the first English translation of Euclid’s Geometry: the Pythagorean theorem is illustrated with an intimidating array of labels on the figure referencing steps in the text.
    • A better example is from the Chinese mathematician who first published this theorem did so with a figure and one word: “Behold”. Introduce a third dimension:
      • Use pop-ups or paper models instead of flat illustrations.
      • Use the appropriate medium. For example, a student put Galileo’s sunspot drawings into a slide show; the animated version clearly shows the sun’s rotation and the sunspot development over time.
  4. Don’t let production technology interfere with the usability of your final product. (Tufte cites what he calls the “Lucas Principle”: First design the user interface, then develop the technology.) This applies both to the structure of the presentation and to the physical publication. Use sidebars; flow the tables and figures with the text rather than sending the reader on a cross-reference chase to the end of the publication. Use colors, line styles, and typefaces that are easy on the eyes, and paper that takes print clearly and has the right opacity.
  5. Content is paramount. The effectiveness and usefulness of the presentation depends on the quality, relevance and integrity of the content. Tufte notes that this is the most important principle of good presentation design. No matter what techniques you use in the design, avoid harming the content. Encourage good content by giving credit and identifying sources:
    • Putting people’s names on information design is the best way to increase the quality of information.
    • Footnotes indicate care, craft, and respect for the data.
  6. Besides his five “grand” principles, Tufte teaches the following design techniques:
    1. Use repetition for insight & understanding. Tufte calls this the PGP rule (Particular, General, Particular). Begin with a particular, end with another particular, and put the general observation between them.
    2. Context influences interpretation.
      • The zero point may be irrelevant to your content. Showing an absolute baseline may only add useless white space.
      • Which influences are more important to your data? For example, does intervention mean more than cycles?
      • Adjust for long-term influences (for example, inflation) or other predictable, external influences (for example, cycles or trends).
      • Scale correctly. For example, an ill-advised decision in scaling gave the impression that Venus has high, steep mountains; whereas the terrain is actually relatively flat.
      • Use more data, to provide more information for comparison.
    3. Balance the summary or overview with the details:
      • Present the overview for rapid comprehension.
      • Present the details for credibility.
    4. Use standard material. Do exactly what the information design leaders do (for example, the Wall Street Journal). Don’t get it original; get it right. Use the good, well-tested examples. “Talent imitates; genius steals.”
    5. When collaborating, the following will help you and your co-authors work well together:
      • Use paper to communicate data and use talk to reason together.
      • Identify what you really need to know. Find a neutral, uncluttered environment for this exercise.

Tufte also includes in his seminar the following rules for delivering a presentation to a live audience:

  • Write out your own introduction.
  • Show up early, so you can:
    • Head off disaster.
    • Greet your assistants, your hosts, and early arrivals in your audience.
  • Get your audience’s attention. One good method is “the Stumblebum technique” — make an obvious error right away. Your audience will then be watching for more errors. Correct yourself in a way that endears you to them, and they will have an attitude of helping and co-operating with you rather than heckling or being combative.
  • Tell them the following early in the presentation:
    • The problem
    • The evidence
    • The solution
  • Never apologize.
  • Avoid the first person singular:
  • Focus your subject/verb patterns of speech on the content, to get the audience focused on the content.
  • “I” implies opinion rather than fact.
  • PGP (particular-general-particular)
    • Offer an immediate payoff for listening.
    • Generalize.
    • Give an informative example.
  • Give everybody in the audience at least one piece of paper.
  • Listening to a TV anchor for 21 minutes is equivalent to reading aloud half of the New York Times front page.
  • Use recognized industry references.
  • Always supplement overheads with both verbal content and handouts.
  • Audiences are automatically precious and deserving of respect:
    • Start from the opposite of KISS — never assume your audience is either stupid or that they require simplicity for understanding.
    • Attendees have already come through a screening process: Interest in what you are presenting, and readiness to learn.
    • Speak at a “colleague” level of intelligence.
    • Be frank, although tactful.
    • Treat questions carefully and considerately.
  • Use humor
    • To reinforce and make memorable what you’re saying.
    • To provide a break in tension or intensity.
    • Avoid gratuitous, generalized, or insulting humor.
  • Avoid masculine pronouns for universals. Use the plural. In speech, this has been proper for 250 years now (according to the Oxford English Dictionary).
  • Your affect is carried by nonverbals. Communicate enthusiasm and develop rapport. Enthusiasm leads to credibility.
  • Finish early.
  • Practice, practice, practice!
    • Rehearse in solitude.
    • Ask a friend to be your audience.
    • Use a video camera. Review on regular, fast, and slow speeds to pick up quirks. Review audio and video together and separately.
  • Content is paramount. Always try to get better content.

For additional reviews and summaries by Tufte seminar attendees, see the following sites:

For supplementary information, see the following:

Robin Hilp is a Senior Documentation Engineer for Sharp Microelectronics and an active member of STC and ASI (American Society of Indexers). She can be reached at