3 Things I Learned from Edward Tufte

Important Takeaways for Interpretive Developers and Exhibit Designers

Brianna Cutts, Design Principal

I jumped at the opportunity to attend Edward Tufte's one-day course on Presenting Data and Information. As a statistician and artist, Tufte has written four books detailing his extensive research and insightful recommendations.

I took away three lessons from this course, lessons that will help in the development of our work as interpretive developers and exhibit designers.

Lesson 1: Encourage Analytical Thinking with Analytical Design Principles

“Have an open mind, but not an empty head.” Tufte shared this sketch by Austin Kleon who I met during my talk for UX Week 2012. The sketch introduced Tufte's main idea: use design principles to develop, support and promote analytical thinking. Using maps to illustrate his first six principles, Tufte shared the following six principles, with a seventh added at the end.

Tufte's book, Beautiful Evidence, describes and illustrates these principles in wonderful detail. Here's a recap:

1) Comparison
2) Causality, Mechanism, Structure, Explanation
3) Multivariate Analysis
4) Integration of Evidence
5) Documentation
6) Content Counts Most of All

Tufte used maps to help illustrate the first six principles, including this map that illustrates the staggering loss of life during Napoleon's march through Russia in 1812, beginning with 423,000 service members and ending with 10,000.

Tufte also sang the praises of Inge Druckery and her documentary, Teaching to See, highlighting her focus on Swiss survey maps. Tufte played a looping film scrolling across the maps, which was absolutely mesmerizing.

Lesson 2: "Don't sit around in the dark" or How to Make a Presentation ... without a Slide Deck.

Tufte is no fan of PowerPoint, so it's no surprise that he recommends presentations without slides. Instead, he recommends developing Content and Credibility with these tips:

- Document and provide access to data. Show your own work and its relevance to your content. 

- Incorporate quotes from experts to support your content.

- Practice your presentation. Ask a colleague for constructive criticism, and film yourself to watch your mannerisms and listen to your speaking.

- Respect your audience. Avoid jargon.

- SHOW UP EARLY to your presentation (CAPS added for my benefit, as I tend to run late). Showing up early gives you time to troubleshoot any problems, and chat with attendees for an opportunity to learn new things.

- And here's the zinger: Prepare a detailed handout for attendees to read for 10-15 minute, in silence, before the meeting begins. By incorporating this "study hall" method, meetings will be stronger and shorter. If someone looks at their phone or laptop, you should glare at them. Tufte shared stories from companies that use this technique, including Apple and Amazon. 

- And finally, aim to finish the meeting 20% early.

Lesson 3) Escape Flatland or "At a presentation, bring a 3D model with you and wave it around."

This is the seventh principle, shared at the end of the course with two very cool examples from Tufte’s rare book collection. First, Tufte shared the book Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, original published circa 300 BC, which features pop-up diagrams of geometric shapes, encouraging us all to use three-dimensional models to illustrate ideas. The second example featured Galileo’s simple illustrations within the text of his book of the rings of Saturn, a discovery he made in 1613.

Tufte ended the course by circling back to the concept of analytical thinking, and the relationship between information and conclusions. He left us with these questions: “How do I know that?” “How do you know that?” “What were the filters to arrive at your conclusion?” The filters are evidence.

And finally, we all need more self-awareness about what we see. After all, even though we think of medieval castles as being built of stone, they were actually mostly constructed of wood. The only problem is that we lack the evidence of the burned castles.

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