The Perils of “Glitz” in Information Design

by Nic Smith

Last week Edward Tufte, a professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale University, visited Portland to give one of his storied courses – Presenting Data and Information. I had the opportunity to take this six-hour course, absorbing all I could from this legend of information design.

The take home message, as old as time itself: Content is key.

Tufte preaches the moral and intellectual responsibility of the data presenter: Information transfer and audience retention – in the most efficient way – should be the ultimate goal of your presentation.

Tufte describes Charles Joseph Minard’s map of Napoleon’s March to Moscow – War of 1812 as probably the best statistical graphic ever created. The very simple map portrays the losses suffered by Napoleon’s army in the Russian campaign of 1812. Beginning at the Polish-Russian border, the thick band shows the size of the army at each position. The path of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in the bitterly cold winter is depicted by the dark lower band, which is tied to temperature and time scales.

Minard

Napoleon’s March to Moscow – War of 1812, by Charles Joesph Minard, 1869.

According to Tufte, to get to the point where content rules, you must strip away any “flash.” Fades, dissolves, and meaningless animations draw attention to the presentation methodology, at best – but more likely to the presenter’s lack of content or subject matter knowledge. Tufte notes that removal of the visual interface, which we are beginning to see with the proliferation of touch screen displays, creates the appearance (presumably a good one) that the focus is on content design rather than interface design. In 1993 – years before most of you dreamed of the mystical powers of PowerPoint – to demonstrate the ills of “glitziness,” Wayne Lytle of the Cornell Theory Center created a parody of not only the over-the-top presentations to date, but millions of information graphics to come (a la Spinal Tap, yes it goes to 11). Take a look:

Moral of the story: When presenting information and data: Be clear, be concise, be knowledgeable.

And the next time Edward Tufte is in your town, take his course; or at the very least, check out his books. And never, ever (according to Tufte) use a medical doctor’s pen.

 

Top Photo: The Wormhole by Trey Ratcliff, from Flickr Creative Commons

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