If the Edward Tufte course Presenting Data and Information were a rock concert, I’d imagine the review would read something like this, “Greatest Hits Shine While New Material Mostly Misses”. And in many ways, Tufte’s 1 day event is more concert than course. Or maybe something between a lecture and a storytelling event, but in the end, while I enjoyed the day, I walked away both satisfied and disappointed, glad that I attended but deep down thinking that I could have just “read the books”.

Speaking of Tufte’s books, and each of the 400+ “students” received a box set of them yesterday, they are GORGEOUS, BEAUTIFUL pieces of work with amazing content, stunning visuals and represent a career of work that truly demonstrates why Tufte is the world’s expert on the topic Presenting Data and Information.

Tufte was magnificent and at his best when he was critiquing visuals. From the:

  • Tour and discussion of what makes the National Weather Service Forecast Webpage so great to
  • How he uses Minard’s map of Napoleon’s (Disastrous) March to and Retreat from Moscow to unpack his Fundamental Principles of Analytical Design (See Tufte, Beautiful Evidence, pages 122-139) to
  • His brutal take down of a data chart in a news article to
  • His very pointed (pun intended) critique of how Powerpoint’s “cognitive style” contributed to the total mis-understanding and mis-communication of the risk that the ill-fated Columbia Space shuttle was flying under (Beautiful Evidence, pages, 164-165)
  • To his discussion of the visual map he had created to help visitors navigate his 234 acre “artfarm” in Connecticut

Tufte’s critiques were entertaining, compelling, informative and instructional.

Tufte also has a great skill for memorable quotes and advice and here are a few of my favorites from the day, at least as best I scribbled them down:

“Visualizations are needed when there is so much data the only way to see it is to see it…. “

“Let the information be the interface”

“Use visualizations that are conventional. Make you contribution your content, not design of it, rich, luscious, compelling content”

“R (the statistical computing program) can count but can’t see. Illustrator can see but can’t count. Use statistical programs to analyze your data but use graphics programs to make it beautiful and concise”

On Analytical design you want “complete integration of words, numbers,images and diagrams”

“Everything you put in your presentation should include reasons (for your audience) to believe it” (think documentation, links, sourcing…)

“serious problems are multi-variant and multi-modal and do not belong in a single domain”

“You never learn more than when you actually observe data collection”

Edward Tufte, San Jose Ca 12/15/19

and my all time favorite:

“For smart people, good ideas are a dime a dozen. The difference between good ideas and great ones is implementation!

That’s the shine and it was really good stuff.

But I do have a few rather large critiques of my own. Tufte referred often to his “new book” but it was not clear until after the lunch break that he was reference a TO BE PUBLISHED new book. And much of this new material was quite rough.

Just prior to the lunch break, Tufte went on a 20 minute riff about how to best be a patient (bring in a printed list of issues to every appointment) which seemed disconnected from the day, not very well organized and lacked any real relevant take aways to the day. There were several other times in the day where Tufte put up a word slide book excerpt from the new book, and then struggled to present it and make any real connected points. While this was kinda frustrating, I could both understand it and excuse it as I am also a speaker and trainer, and know that the only real way to make content work is to try, fail and adjust. I’m sure next year much of this new content will either disappear or get really good like the rest of it.

But my BIGGEST critique is that the day failed me as a learner. And that failure was due to something that Tufte should never have failed at. Tufte failed to present a clear map of the day, what I could expect to learn, and the context of the entire presentation. For a thought leader who is rightly known as a genius in presentation, I found this flaw as confounding as it was inexcusable. Tufte never discussed learning objectives, Tufte never connected the individual critiques into a whole, and Tufte failed to communicate any big point or points.

In some ways, this is understandable. Tufte’s entire approach is “Thick information” and as he says, “to let the viewer do the editing.” The day with Tufte was thick with information and advise. BUT it lacked coherence and structure and as a learner I found that highly frustrating and annoying. I expected more from the author of “Beautiful Evidence” and “Visual Explanations” .

Tufte has a bias against summary and editing, but he is a champion of data driven navigation and loves maps. Unfortunately for most of the day, I felt a bit disoriented, lost and confused as to where I was, where I had been, and where I was going and when I got to the end of the journey, I honestly did not know what I has really learned. There was NO MAP TO THE DAY.

I enjoyed the hits, and will value the books, but the day was much less than it frankly could have and should have been.

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