Thursday, October 22, 2009

Beautiful Evidence

I don't remember when or how, exactly, I became a fan of the work of Edward Tufte. But as a former statistician and someone who has always appreciated good design, he's certainly the guy to turn to in terms of what he calls "analytical design".

Tufte strives to make information usable. Most people have become so indoctrinated into the standard pie charts and bar graphs that really innovative and useful graphical presentations such as those Tufte exemplifies in his books can be both exhilarating and frightening. E.T. (as he likes to go by) also is very much against the usage of Microsoft PowerPoint for displaying data. PP is presentation software, not graphical software. The amount of content that is displayed on a typical PP slide is very small, especially when you consider that we regularly absorb multitudes of data in a small place on a daily basis (box scores, stock quotes, etc.). PP constrains us and forces us to dumb down our information to fit the slide methodology.

Even before I learned of Tufte, I was against PP. When working on my MPA, I would create websites for presentations. Same screen size, just lots more info, lots more control over presentation, and most importantly, no lame clip art.

At my previous job, I finagled my employer into sending me to a lecture in D.C. that E.T was holding. I didn't realize the magnitude and cultish behavior of his following. I thought it might be like some SAS classes I had taken where it would be about 20 people and a nice hands-on instructional. Sold out session of 700 people. Third day in a row. Wow. There are people who consider themselves "Tuftians" (my favorite MLS professor is one) their passion for his work is so great.

I might take a swig of the Kool-Aid but I don't swallow. His work is impressive but I think he topped out a little while ago. Beautiful Evidence is, well, evidence of that. I believe most of this book is compilations of material in his previous books. I think there was one new chapter of information. That's all well and good. It makes for a great primer to his work. But as someone who has read and learned much from his other books, it would have been nice to have more new material. Even so, as a refresher, it was good.

I opted to read it because I have some ideas on a website I want to do which will be data-intensive and I'm trying to think of innovative ways to present it. It definitely helped to read this book. If you work with numerical information and the graphical presentation of said info, you MUST check out Tufte.

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