Tag Archives: Tufte

Never Enough Tufte

29 Nov

Edward Tufte is the guru of info design…I published this three years ago but unearthing from the vault for a redux.


I highly recommend the works of Edward Tufte to anyone who (1) likes diagrams of any sort, (2) enjoys communications about data, and/or (3) gets personal satisfaction from bridging the gap between a highly technical topic and an extremely non-technical audience.

Tufte is a Yale professor emeritus probably best known among statisticians, engineers and designers. These audiences tend to appreciate diagrams, and developing a meaningful, clean and well organized visual explanation is not easy. Edward Tufte explains how using pictures to convey information is both an art and a science. His works provide case studies of well-done and poorly executed diagrams, both of which are well worth studying. It’s good for anyone to learn how best to handle these matters and how to avoid others’ mistakes. Buying Tufte’s books is recommended for those (like me) who are tactile. The paper quality and fold-out sections deliver the adult version of a pop-up book.

Writers of any sort should better get to know Tufte. Probably the biggest reason is that many writers do not have a natural affinity for data. By nature, most people either “do” words or numbers. Some juggle both well, and those sorts will lap up Tufte like a cat with a bowl of milk. Those writers who do not take well to numbers can learn how to integrate data into copy in an engaging way, by using accurate and interesting narrative descriptions and visuals that help to tell the story.

Edward Tufte is a revolutionary communicator, in a practical way. His Powerpoint essay explains why. This is a must-read for anyone as an introduction to his approach. The Gettysburg address a la Powerpoint will make you laugh. The NASA Columbia engineers’ plight when forced to grapple with the inadequacies of Powerpoint will make you cry. Tufte’s post mortem lays out how a seemingly helpful tool such as Powerpoint contributed to the Columbia disaster. He explains, blow by blow, the right way to share highly important technical information with a business audience. Powerpoint is not the tool to use. At its best, it’s a sales tool. At its worst, it squeezes important information into a hierarchical outline format that requires a very small amount of information per slide, when it’s a proven point that people in general can absorb so much more. The comparisons to Pravda are revealing. Everything that we’ve been taught about what’s “proper” to include on a given slide in terms of information volume is sorely lacking, and Tufte explains why in his Powerpoint essay.

There are larger issues beyond Powerpoint. At the heart of Tufte’s method is a lesson for every writer willing to grow in his or her chosen field. We all know that feeling when we “nail it”–when the audience reads or hears what we are writing or presenting about, and they absorb it and take it to the next level for their own purposes. We also know when we are not able to make a meaningful translation–when the information just doesn’t stick. This is a bad feeling for us and for the reader/audience, because it wastes time. Why burn time when it could be used to communicate more productively?

In our information-rich world, it’s critical for any writer to understand how best to separate the wheat from the chaff, and Edward Tufte pioneers a quality approach. Prioritizing critical information from non-critical “phluff” is what it’s all about. If you are a writer, Tufte is worth your time.