Bucket List Item: Edward Tufte course

A few months back, I finally had a chance to take the Edward Tufte course.  Edward Tufte Envisioning InformationTufte is an academic, well-known for his work on how information is visually presented.  You may be familiar with one of his books, like Envisioning Information.   I went into the course thinking I’d learn about how to draw better diagrams and make slides more consumable.  But the point of view presented was much more sophisticated than that.

All day, he kept saying “the information is the interface,” but it wasn’t until towards the end of the day that I understood what he meant.

He gave the example of a touch-screen guide to the National Gallery about which he proposed a major overhaul.  You can see the two versions here.  Rather than using a lot of screen real estate for menus and have multiple layers of menus to get to a particular piece of information, he let “the information be the interface.”  His argument is that information comes with its own hierarchy, and technology’s capabilities have encouraged us to make unnecessary complex architectures in how we access it.

An even more striking example was this one.  It’s an image of different styles of music along with representative artists, and links artists who influenced or were influenced by one another. It’s a beautiful chart.  When Tufte projected it in class, he had a version of it where when you touched an artist’s name, it played a song of theirs. I was struck by the magnitude and variation of information that could be accessed with nearly no overhead of menus, labels, or orientation.

It would be incomplete to describe the content of the course without also describing Tufte and the setting itself.  The course was held in a giant room, with at least 500 attendees, significantly larger than any course I ever took in college.  Interestingly, it was one of the only professional environments I’ve been in that didn’t skew to one gender or another – like pure tech or marketing – the mix was pretty even.

Tufte is obviously accomplished: Obama appointed him to the independent panel reviewing how the funds from the 2009 Stimulus Package were allocated, and his analysis of the presentation of information about the Space Shuttle Columbia’s readiness for flight was included in NASA’s official report of the crash.  Many of his ideas are important counter-cultural recommendations in the face of technology. And he knows it.

However he lacked two major qualities – one was his lecture style was disorganized – he seemed to jump from topic to topic, meandering for different amounts of time on different topics, without a clear agenda.  I don’t think I left the course feeling like, “OK, these were the topics he wanted to cover today.”

The other criticism I had was that he gave the audience no real tools to implement any of the things he suggested.  For example, he had several recommendations that would require massive organizational change, such as providing reading material at the beginning of a meeting and dedicating the first 10-20 minutes of a 60-minute meeting to quiet time where participants could read the content.  A good idea (maybe) but pretty impossible for most people to bring back and implement.

Some of what he reviewed with us was too basic for my taste.  One example is when he brought up various images of graphs used in New York Times articles and other publications.  He encouraged us to do things like look at the scale and consider who authored the graph.

All of that said, I was happy to have taken the course.  It got me out of “the everyday”, and makes me think more critically about how I present information in my daily work.


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