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Yesterday, I attended Edward Tufte‘s Presenting Data and Information, a one-day course on information design and display, in Raleigh. Tufte, a professor emeritus at Yale University, is a master of data presentation and information display; his books – Beautiful evidence, Visual explanations, Envisioning information, and The Visual display of quantitative information – are impressive and instructive. He is also known for his critique of PowerPoint.

The course, which was very heavily attended (overflow parking in an adjacent field was insufficient), ranged from an examination of Charles Joseph Minard‘s depiction of Napoleon’s march to Moscow to an assessment of the iPhone. Tufte discussed:

  • high resolution versus low resolution display
  • the centrality of content
  • the human eye-brain system and the poverty of information
  • cognition and information density
  • small multiples
  • image annotation and numerical language
  • how design mimics bureaucracy
  • flat interfaces
  • the popularization of personalization
  • and many other things

In his discussion of interface design, he focused on several main points. He lamented the prominent inclusion of what he called ‘computer administration functions’, that is, instructions on how to interact with the interface. He sees the necessity of these instructions as a failure of design; the goal should be to eliminate all of the administration functions and fill the screen with content. Of course, too much content often feels cluttered, crowded, and chaotic; clutter and confusion, he replied, exist not because of complexity of information but, again, because of failures of design. According to Tufte, the answer is not to remove or otherwise attenuate the information; the answer is to redesign, annotating and labeling, enhancing the multivariate and removing the redundant.

Another key point in his discussion of interfaces was the importance of flattening hierarchies. Hierarchies are too bureaucratic, inefficient, and influence a poverty of information throughout a site or organization. Navigating by hierarchies is equally inefficient. He recommended creating a flat interface, providing full choices and full content, and not underestimating users’ cognitive abilities.

It was an exceptional course, a compact yet rigorous sketch of a critical topic.