Nerd Love, Day 7: I {heart} Edward Tufte

tufte books When normal people play hooky, they go to the movies or the beach or Vegas.

When nerds take the day off, they go to see this guy, and come home 8 hours later, drunk with possibility, clutching a set of books so beautiful in both thought and execution, you get a little dizzy just opening one up.

I took a ton of notes, which I'll share with the class at a later date, but the topline is this:

Edward Tufte really is "the Leonardo da Vinci of information" (New York Times quote, not mine), and seeing him in person really is worth every penny of the not inconsiderable sum it costs to do so.

You get all of his books, he's up to four, which are impossibly priced at the low, low figure of $40 apiece. I say "low, low" because from the little I know about book production, there's no way you could print these conventionally for that price. (Tufte has his own publishing company, Graphics Press.) They are exquisitely produced works of art so full of wonderful information it will take me months, nay, years to absorb it all. And if you go to the lecture, he uses them as the support material! Makes those crappy PowerPoint leave-behinds looks pretty lame. Which is, of course, the entire point.

Edward Tufte is not as anti-PowerPoint as even he says he is.

The essay that put Tufte on the map with the hoi polloi (he'd been rockstar-popular with the geniuses for far longer) was, predictably enough, the one where he tells everyone's favorite meeting crutch where to get off.

He hates PowerPoint, to be sure, but he was careful to qualify his hatred:

  1. ET says that PowerPoint does not ensure sloppy thinking, it just makes it more likely
  2. ET reserves the bulk of his wrath for those who misapply PowerPoint in "serious" presentations, people who are cutting off feet to fit bodies in beds, either unintentionally (well-meaning scientists who abandon their language of notation and explanation to fit PowerPoint's low-resolution, limited character set world) or intentionally (evil people obfuscating or outright fudging data with visual double-speak, and he hates those people no matter what medium they're using towards their nefarious ends)

If you wanna do a PowerPoint about kitties, I don't think ET is gonna have a problem with it. PowerPoint as infotainment is relatively benign. So my work as a presentation designer is not moral compromise, provided NASA or the Federal Reserve don't engage my services. As if.

Watching Edward Tufte is an exercise in head-exploding newness and, simultaneously, a joyous feeling of coming home.

My brain is still reeling from playing catch-up with some of the finer technical points, but the rest of my body is still vibrating with the shock of recognition. Over and over in my notes, I have little asides with stars and underscores where I realized his points were essentially the credos I've been living with for the past 10 years or so: "Tell the Truth" and "Form Follow Function" and, less pithily, "Figure Out How to Say It So People Will Get It, Asshole."

It's the content, stupid.

'Nuff said.

Now, back to the business of delivering information in an elegant, useful fashion...

xxx c

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the work of Edward Tufte, here are some good places to start:

  • Edward Tufte's website (link)
  • Salon review of Tufte's book, Visual Explanations (link)
  • Jason Carr's notes on a Tufte speech several years ago (link)
  • A brief post by a software engineer on Tufte's relevance in new media (link)
  • Wikipedia entry (link)

Image by unertlkm via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license