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.