A Workshop with Edward Tufte


“Most design today is impoverished. . . . If your display of information looks like a knockoff or a left over from a PowerPoint pitch, start over.”

tufte21.jpegThese words from Edward Tufte begin to capture the essence of his current seminar series, being offered across the United States. Tufte, a professor emeritus at Yale University, is serving as an ambassador for effective information design, and I was fortunate to attend his seminar, entitled “Presenting Data and Information,” in Atlanta on March 24, 2008.

Tufte addressed his claims about information design using excerpts and examples from his four self-published texts, which were included in thetufte1.jpeg registration for every participant. These texts are packed with images of information design. Often, he would simply reference a page number and allow the participants to simply look at the display. In most cases, the design of these displays made me interested in the content of the display and not its design. This, says Tufte, is the point.

Displays, he says, should escape the flatland of their 2-dimensional territory by providing excellent content. Tufte addressed each of his fundamental principles of analytical design which are also explained in his most recent text, Beautiful Evidence: (1) show comparisons, (2) show causality, (3) show multivariate data; (4) integrate modes of information; (5) document everything and tell people about it; and (6) focus on content.

To address his approach to information design, Tufte brought examples of the earliest information design that escaped flatland: first editions of both Euclid’s (1570) Elements of Geometry and Galileo’s (1613) History and Demonstrations concerning Sunspots and Opinions of Galileo. These two texts were intriguing to see for the sheer experience, but amazing to comprehend the level of information design these two promoted in their own work. Galileo’s study of sunspots interpreted the rotation of the sun to marvelous detail through detailed engravings.

In addition, Tufte addressed interface design using the iPhone, museum wayfinding, and webpage design as examples of using an interface to display content. I enjoyed meeting Professor Tufte and learning directly from one of the current leading scholars in information design. Like his texts, his presentations are full of compelling content, and his personal charisma and humor made this content come alive, in support of his main idea: “If you are presenting and people stop listening to you and start looking at your information, celebrate. You have done it.”


~ Mac McArthur


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