Edward Tufte and classical intellectual inquiry

Near the begin­ning of Edward Tufte’s Beau­ti­ful Evi­dence, he writes “My books are self-exemplifying: the objects them­selves embody the ideas writ­ten about.” The same could be true of his presentations.

On a recent Tues­day, Friends Jour­nal spon­sored me to attend one of Tufte’s one-day work­shops. He’s most well-known for his beau­ti­ful books on data visu­al­iza­tions but his work­shop touched on a num­ber of fas­ci­nat­ing top­ics. “The world is way too inter­est­ing to have dis­ci­pli­nary bound­aries,” he said at one point as he took us from music to maps to space shut­tles to magi­cians. The range was pur­pose­ful. He was teach­ing us how to think.

I esti­mat­ed a crowd of maybe 450. A large per­cent­age were low-level cor­po­rate types (I over­heard one say “I was not expect­ing that he’d bash Pow­er­Point so much”; this slack­er obvi­ous­ly hadn’t even tak­en five min­utes to skim Tufte’s Wikipedia page). There were small­er mix­es of techie, cre­atives, and design pro­fes­sion­als, some of whom were there after fawn­ing over his books for years. Bonus if you go: part of the work­shop reg­is­tra­tion fee is gratis copies of his books!

I have 13 pages of notes. Some high­lights for me:

  • The heart of much of the work­shop was crit­i­cal think­ing. Tufte dis­sect­ed var­i­ous news web­sites to take us through the ways they gave attri­bu­tion and pre­sent­ed data. He also went through stud­ies and gave var­i­ous point­ers to sniff out when ver­i­fy­ing data was being withheld.
  • “Pro­duc­ing a good pre­sen­ta­tion is a moral and eth­i­cal act.” (dit­to for being an good audi­ence mem­ber). There is a form of civic respon­si­bil­i­ty to inquiry.
  • Tufte is a big believ­er in meet­ings that begin with read­ing. The highest-resolution device most of us have is paper. Peo­ple can read 2 – 3 times faster than a pre­sen­ter can talk. By let­ting peo­ple go at their own pace they can tai­lor the pre­sen­ta­tion to their own needs.
  • Data pre­sen­ta­tion: A theme through­out the work­shop was “doc­u­ments not decks,” an empha­sis on flat, web-like pre­sen­ta­tions that allow read­ers to con­trol scrolling. He con­tin­u­al­ly called out “flat sur­faces” and mate­r­i­al that is “adja­cent in space” to give an almost the­o­log­i­cal argu­ment for their supe­ri­or­i­ty over deck-like pre­sen­ta­tions (think Pow­er­Point) that can obscure impor­tant data.
  • He urged us not to pan­der to our audi­ence: Con­sumer sites show that data can be pop­u­lar: the New York Times’s web­site has 450 links; ESPN’s has tables atop tables and yet peo­ple read these sites every day. Why can’t we have the same lev­el of data-rich acces­si­bil­i­ty in our work lives? “Have we sud­den­ly becomes stu­pid just because we’ve comes to work?” He urged the mid-level execs in the audi­ence to demand good pre­sen­ta­tions. We should push back against the low-expectations of their boss­es to ask “Why can’t we live up to ESPN?”
  • Data as beau­ty. From gor­geous maps to graph­i­cal music nota­tion (below), Tufte loves design and data that come togeth­er in beau­ty. It is amazing.

One of my favorite parts of the work­shop was an after­noon digres­sion from strict data that he intro­duced by say­ing, “It’s time for a heart to heart.” It began with a ser­mon­ette on cred­i­bil­i­ty: how to make your­self account­able and just other’s arguments.

Then he talked about how to respond when some­one chal­lenges your work. I could tell there must be a long list of per­son­al sto­ries inform­ing this part of the work­shop – lessons learned, yes, but sure­ly oppor­tu­ni­ties lost too. Tufte told us it was only nat­ur­al to respond in defen­sive­ness and anger and coun­seled us to not be too quick to dis­miss cri­tique. You’ve got to do the hard work to see whether your chal­lenger might be correct.

He remind­ed us that when we’re in a room full of peers, every­one present has been fil­tered and select­ed over the years. You should assume the room will be just as smart as you are. “How dare you think your motives are bet­ter than those of your col­leagues!” he thun­dered at an emo­tion­al crescen­do. He admit­ted that this self-doubt is a hard pos­ture to adopt. He’s polled pub­lic fig­ures he respects and even the thickest-skinned are stung by challenge.

He said he had learned to back off, go slow, and con­tem­plate when he’s chal­lenged. Just when I thought he had found some super-human abil­i­ty to ratio­nal­ly con­sid­er things, he told us it could took him three to five years to real­ly accept the valid­i­ty of dis­sent­ing views.

This was a much-needed ser­mon for me and I nod­ded along along. As some­one who pro­fes­sion­al­ly ampli­fies opin­ion, I’m often in the mid­dle of peo­ple in debate (I’ve been an actor in these con­flicts in the past, though these days I gen­er­al­ly play a role some­where between an agent and medi­a­tor). It’s good to see intel­lec­tu­al debate as a process and to remem­ber that it can take years. “This con­cludes the ther­a­peu­tic por­tion of today’s course”, he con­clud­ed, before going back to visualizations.

He end­ed by show­ing us time­less first-editions of beau­ti­ful sci­en­tif­ic works by Galileo and Euclid. He felt a gen­uine appre­ci­a­tion of being part of an intel­lec­tu­al tra­di­tion. He was a mas­ter and for this day we in the audi­ence were his appren­tices. “In life we need tools that last for­ev­er and give us clear lever­age in clear thinking.”

 

Update: appar­ent­ly some num­ber of data visu­al­iza­tion peo­ple have dis­liked his work­shops. What I found fas­ci­nat­ing­ly wide-ranging they found ram­bling. Per­haps Tufte has tight­ened his pre­sen­ta­tion or I caught him on a good day. More like­ly, I think they came look­ing for a more tech­ni­cal dis­cus­sion of data visu­al­iza­tion and was sur­prised that Tufte focused so much on crit­i­cal think­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills. I have a par­tic­u­lar soft spot for quirky and opin­ion­at­ed peo­ple who don’t fol­low scripts and Tufte’s detours all made a cer­tain sense to me. But then I’m a phi­los­o­phy major turned do-gooder writer/publisher. Your mileage may vary.

You go to a book club for one book, learn of a dozen more…

Jane-JacobsI’m just com­ing back from a book club (adult con­ver­sa­tion? But… but… I’m a par­ent… Real­ly?). The top­ic was Jane Jacob’s 1961 clas­sic, The Death and Life of Great Amer­i­can Cities. The six of us gath­ered in a Collingswood, N.J., cof­fee shop were all city design geeks and I could bare­ly keep up with the ideas and books that had influ­enced every­one. Here is a very incom­plete list:

Update: And also, from Genevieve’s list:

  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Dou­glas Adams, for its absur­dist humor around the bureau­cra­cies of planning
  • Green Metrop­o­lis. David Owen,
  • What’s Up With That: Build­ing Big­ger Roads Actu­al­ly Makes Traf­fic Worse,” an arti­cle by Adam Mann in Wired on the phe­nom­e­non of induced demand.
  • Vision Zero Initiative
  • The Pine Bar­rens. John McPhee, the clas­sic which I brought up.
  • The Pow­er Bro­ker. Robert Caro.
  • The Ecol­o­gy of Com­merce. Paul Hawken
  • Orga­niz­ing in the South Bronx. Jim Rooney
  • Re: race: Dal­ton Conley’s Being Black, Liv­ing in the Red and When Work Dis­ap­pears by William Julius Wilson.
  • Re: bicy­cles: Urban Bik­ers’ Tricks & Tips. Dave Glowacz

Excuse me for the next six months while I read. 🙂

Official Google Reader Blog: New in Reader: a fresh design, and Google+ sharing

http://​googleread​er​.blogspot​.com/​2​0​1​1​/​1​0​/​n​e​w​-​i​n​-​r​e​a​d​e​r​-​f​r​e​s​h​-​d​e​s​i​g​n​-​a​n​d​-​g​o​o​g​l​e​.​h​tml

Google+: View post on Google+

Discover Thyself / Earlham College

Discover Thyself featuring the Discern-o-Matic QuizDis­cov­er Thy­self is a “dis­cern­ment” site for Quak­er teens. Spon­sored by Earl­ham Col­lege, it fea­tures resources, videos and the all-new “Discer-o-Matic Quiz.” 

The design is all orig­i­nal. We went through six rounds of the con­cept design mock­ups made up on Adobe Fire­works. Because the site is built on Word­Press used as a CMS, Earl­ham Col­lege staff was able to add and arrange con­tent even before the design cod­ing began. The site uses the excel­lent The­mat­ic theme, a blank tem­plate that allows for quite sophis­ti­cat­ed designs using Action Hooks and com­plete CSS markup.

The most excit­ing ele­ment of the site is the “Discern-o-Matic” quiz, which takes users through a series of ques­tions. At the end the ques­tions are reor­ga­nized and pre­sent­ed to the user to help them under­stand what it is they want to do. The quiz is pow­ered using the open-source LimeSur­vey. Results are out­putted via a cus­tom PHP script that polls the LimeSur­vey data­base and out­puts in a nicely-worded and for­mat­ted Word­Press results page. The tem­plates for Lime Sur­vey were altered to mim­ick the look of the rest of the site; the aver­age user won’t notice the pass-off from Word­Press to Lime Sur­vey and back to WordPress.

In hopes the quiz might go viral, indi­vid­ual results are saved on a unique URL. Users are invit­ed to share their results page via Facebook.

Vis­it Site: http://​www​.dis​cover​thy​self​.org

Catherine Lockwood MFT

Catherine Lockwood, MFTCather­ine Lock­wood is a ther­a­pist in the Los Ange­les area who had built a site in the since-discontinued Google Page Cre­ator ser­vice. It had a nice design but she could nev­er get her domain point­ing to it and she was frus­trat­ed that Google had closed the ser­vice. She wrote me say­ing “I would like to have a web­site address that WORKS. I have nev­er been able to give any­one my address because appar­ent­ly the address is not con­nect­ed to my web­site. So instead I have to tell peo­ple to google me!” 

We rebuilt Catherine’s site using the ever-trusty Word­Press. The col­ors and con­tent were brought over into a fair­ly stan­dard design. And now Cather­ine can print Cather​ine​Lock​woodMFT​.com on her busi­ness cards!

Mike’s Precision Carpentry

Mike's Precision CarpentryMichael Oliv­eras is a long-time union car­pen­ter mak­ing the entre­pre­neur­ial jump and start­ing his own busi­ness: Mike’s Pre­ci­sion Car­pen­try, serv­ing the New Jer­sey, Penn­syl­va­nia and Delaware from his shop in Ham­mon­ton, NJ. He came to me look­ing for a web­page to adver­tise his new enterprise.
It’s a sim­ple design, a typ­i­cal small-business site of half-a-dozen pages. The col­or scheme match­es his busi­ness cards for a bit of brand­ing. Oliv­eras faced a prob­lem typ­i­cal for new busi­ness­es: a lack of good pho­tos. The work he’s done for many years is not tech­ni­cal­ly his own (per the employ­ment con­tracts) so for now the pic­tures are a mix of the few jobs he has done on his own and a few stock images. I’m sure he’ll have a well-rounded port­fo­lio before long and we’ll be able to fill out the site with his own work. In the mean­times, he added a cou­ple of great pic­tures of him and his fam­i­ly on the “About Us” page to give it that per­son­al touch.
See it live: www​.mike​s​pre​ci​sion​car​pen​try​.com