Edward Tufte: The AdAgeStat Q&A

In Which We Discuss the Role of Data in Presentations, How Media Underestimates Its Audience, and How to Create Trust in the Agency Pitch Process

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Last month I joined 500 or so people who paid $380 a head to sit in a packed New York ballroom and … read.

Edward Tufte
Edward Tufte

Edward Tufte, the current dean of all things information design, considers reading to be a "high-resolution data dump" -- after all, people can typically read faster than a speaker can talk. Mr. Tufte, a professor emeritus at Yale, is perhaps PowerPoint's most famous critic. He prefers a more academic and lecture-oriented format to his talks. Before he says a word, he expects you to spend some time reading selections from the nicely boxed set of four of his books included in his lecture price. "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information" is one of the most successful self-published books in history. (Mr. Tufte owns his own publishing company.) Nearly a quarter million have taken one of these sessions, offered many times a year throughout the U.S., including this sold-out three-day stint in Manhattan. He even has his own gallery, ET Modern in New York's Chelsea art district, which exhibits his sculptures and prints. Mr. Tufte had a personal brand before the there was such a thing. When even Seth Godin is in awe of your marketing ability, you clearly understand how to sell.

The audience at the New York event was a mix of designers, journalists, architects, marketers and people who clearly spend a lot of time on both sides of the PowerPoint projector. They had come to hear the man generally considered to the biggest thinker in the uber-trendy field of data visualization. Mr. Tufte has testified before Congress, advised presidents and coined terms such as "chartjunk" and "chartoons" to mock cutesy clutter thrown into presentations. He has created high-density graphic elements such as Sparklines, which are now built into Excel (Microsoft doesn't hold a grudge about the PowerPoint thing, it seems).

We chatted briefly before his talk and he agreed to field some questions to kick off an AdAgeStat Q&A series with visualization experts. His emailed responses came from his iPad.

AdAgeStat: Data reporting and visualization is all the rage in (print and online) news media these days. This is good in many ways, but often leads to a lot of malpractice. What news organizations do you think are doing it well, and are there some that you feel are overdoing it?

Mr. Tufte: On the interwebs, I think The Guardian is the best-designed newspaper and that The New York Times does the best visualizations by far.

AdAgeStat: Can visualizations make it easier for journalists/pundits/advertisers, etc. to "lie with numbers?"

Mr. Tufte: No, lying comes from the producer of the content, not the mode of production. Also highly produced visualizations look like marketing, movie trailers, and video games and so have little inherent credibility for already skeptical viewers, who have learned by their bruising experiences in the marketplace about the discrepancy between ads and reality (think phone companies). AdAgeStat: In journalism, there's now a lot of pressure to wear many hats in budget-strapped newsrooms. Many writer-type folks are working on their own graphics. Is that a bad idea? Should we leave it to the pros or are there some simple rules that can keep us in line?

Mr. Tufte: Better to let the content people do the design than commercial artists. That is the secret of The New York Times' work: their visualization people are called "Graphics News Reporters" and they gather their own information as reporters. At a minimum, the content person should fully guide the hands of a designer and get design out of the way. Good content reasoners and presenters are rare, designers are not.

AdAgeStat: Can a good speaker make up for bad PowerPoint with what he/she actually says?

Mr. Tufte: PowerPoint benefits the bottom 10% of presenters by forcing them to have points, some points ... any points at all. And the best 10% of presenters have such good content, style and self-awareness that PowerPoint does little damage. PowerPoint should be used solely as a projector operating system to show 100% content, without the bullet grunts, logos and the formatting nonsense from the Strategic Communications Department, and the $20 million Pentagram corporate format guidelines. Such formats are about their precious turf-possessed selves and are the enemy of information and often truth.

AdAgeStat: You seem generally fond of Apple products. Is Keynote any better than PowerPoint or is the entire slide-like presentation format flawed?

Mr. Tufte: The inherent defect is the low resolution of materials that must be legible at 30 feet. But if the full screen is 100% content, then both PowerPoint and Keynote are fine. Keynote has a greater elegance than PowerPoint. The point is to avoid the PowerPoint cognitive style: hierarchical, bullets grunts, low resolution, and often about PowerPoint rather than the content. I found this to be even the case at NASA, where PowerPoint trumped rocket science -- and the Columbia Accident Investigation Board agreed with and published my analysis in their final Report.

AdAgeStat: In our industry, marketers (clients) often feel overwhelmed with the data available to them. Agencies love to churn out data, or as they say "actionable intelligence." So for the two sides of the agency/client relationship: If I'm a client getting pitched by a potential new agency, or an agency offering some new creative work, what should I watch out for? And if I'm an agency how can I make my case more credibly and honestly?

Mr. Tufte: First: "overwhelming data" is a bit of a hoax. Many of the time measurements have enormous serial correlation (just because you can measure to the millisecond doesn't mean you've learned anything about a process that moves to a monthly rhythm) and extreme high collinearities in the things measured (as in the endless web metrics, many of which are measuring the same thing over and over). Finally, most website data bizarrely and deliberately overstates the extent and intensity of website activity.

Second: overload, clutter, and confusion are not attributes of information, they are failures of design. So if something is cluttered, fix your design, don't throw out information. If something is confusing, don't blame your victim -- the audience -- instead, fix the design. And if the numbers are boring, get better numbers. Chartoons can't add interest, which is a content property. Chartoons are disinformation design, designed to distract rather than inform. Thus they reduce the credibility of your presentation. To distract, hire a magician instead of a chartoonist, for magicians are honest liars.

Third: the way to reason about what appear to be complex information spaces is to develop a sense of the relevant, of being able to identify crucial issues and interventions in complex information spaces. Steve Jobs had a great sense of the relevant.

Presenters need (1) to tell a coherent story and (2) to convince their audience of their credibility. A good way to gain credibility is not to have lied to the same audience last month. Another is to demonstrate that you are not a cherry picker, basing your case on evidence selection rather that on evidence. Another necessity is to demonstrate your mastery of detail. And, an important secret of good presenting is to finish early. Your audience will be thrilled and delighted.

AdAgeStat: While a well-crafted table might be the best way to convey a set of data properly, can there be value to creating a visualization that 's eye-catching as a design element? In other words, as journalists, we often hear that our readers don't want just a big table, they want to be able to quickly visualize things in an eye-catching, unique way. Is that a fallacy?

Mr. Tufte: Graphics are at their best for really large data sets, as in sparklines for time series and NASA's photographs of the Earth. Sensibly-designed tables usually outperform graphics for data sets under 100 numbers. The average numbers of numbers in a sports or weather or financial table is 120 numbers (which hundreds of million people read daily); the average number of numbers in a PowerPoint table is 12 (which no one can make sense of because the ability to make smart multiple comparisons is lost). Few commercial artists can count and many merely put lipstick on a tiny pig. They have done enormous harm to data reasoning, thankfully partially compensated for by data in sports and weather reports. The metaphor for most data reporting should be the tables on ESPN.com. Why can't our corporate reports be as smart as the sports and weather reports, or have we suddenly gotten stupid just because we've come to work?

AdAgeStat: What are some tips for telling a story visually to an audience that 's less data-inclined than say, you or I are?

Mr. Tufte: I think designers and marketers greatly underestimate their audiences.

This is the 11th in a series of AdAgeStat Q&As with researchers who have extensively studied pieces of the demographic puzzle, and the first in a series of discussions with visual designers. Earlier we spoke to OMD's Erin Bilezikjian-Johnson about Millennials, Edward Glaeser about the Triumph of Cities, Leo Burnett's Carol Foley about drivers of human behavior, The Patchwork Nation's Dante Chinni about the role of geography in segmentation, Joel Kotkin about suburbs and immigration, Richard Florida about mega-cities, Paco Underhill about women, Euro RSCG's Rose Cameron about men, Tammy Erickson about Generation X, and behavioral economist Dan Ariely about how to use everyone's irrationality to your advantage.

Follow @AdAgeStat on Twitter for constant updates.

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