Sarah Hodges

The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Data

In Data Visualization on March 26, 2011 at 6:20 pm


I recently had the pleasure of attending one of Edward Tufte‘s workshops here in Boston. To my shock and awe, the master of data visualization commanded a crowd of the size you’d expect for Charlie Sheen’s new traveling road show. I had no idea there were so many data geeks in my ‘hood!

Tufte is The Man

Can I tell you a secret? Tufte is the man; he doesn’t disappoint. Along with whipping out one of Galileo’s original observation books (baller!), he kicked off the morning with one of the most stunning sites I have ever seen- Steven Malinowski’s Music Animation Machine. Suddenly, the hills were alive with the sound of data.

You must watch this video. It’s required viewing.

Totally bananas to see the visual depiction of a beautiful piece of music, and through the simplicity of an intuitive map of colorful chords, be able to anticipate each subsequent note.

The Verdict: Go Get Your Tufte On

I’m not a big fan of throwing down $ for conferences and seminars, but this was totally worth it. Just the experience of setting aside time to contemplate Tufte’s impressive books was worth it. I’ve had The Visual Display of Quantitative Data sitting on my coffee table for months, and have barely cracked it open. Aside from giving me a few moments to indulge in his work, Tufte’s guidance truly changed the way I approach data visualization. Sign up. Do it.


  1. No matter how beautiful your interface is, it would better if there was less of it.
  2. On sparklines: It’s better to be approximately right rather than exactly wrong.
  3. As a presenter, provide intellectual leadership.
  4. Use all information necessary to convey your message and don’t predetermined the means by which you convey it.
  5. Illustrate causality; annotate causal relationships and be consistent in describing connections.
  6. Don’t dumb down data with distracting visuals.
  7. Refine information into core data points and causal relationships; establish credibility through mastering detail and incorporating independent data.
  8. Celebrate that people have been kind enough to look at your material; you don’t have to be present in that transaction. Your audience can read selectively what’s relevant to their own interests.
  9. Let people use their own cognitive style instead of Microsoft’s (i.e. PowerPoint) to evaluate the material.
  10. Never put data in alphabetical order. Order by performance.
  11. Talent imitates, but genius steals. (interpretation of T.S. Eliot’s quote)
  1. I have been to the Tufte training in Seattle and read 4 of his books to the point where within my company I now “coach” people on design principles for Business Intelligence data vizualisation.

    Interesting character E.T, isn’t he? When I attended it, I loved the content and design principles of data visualization he taught. I felt he was a very smart guy, a deep expert and genius in the field of data visualization.

    He came across quite arrogant, a bit of a show-off like a Tony Robbins show: packing a room as much as he can to get a reasonable amount of money from each single one of them. Volume of attendees that somehow defies the purpose of a meaningful learning experience . I also smiled at his (rightfully) quite critical and cynical view of Microsoft PowerPoint templates. To sum it up: Poor point!

    I sent several people to his training and all of them found him fascinating, particularly his concepts which they loved. At the same time, they were a bit put off by his arrogance too. He seemed more interested in signing autographs at “office hour” during lunch break than engaging in a discussion. When a few tried to approach him after the event was done, his guy quickly headed them off saying “Professor Tufte is done. He is done!” as Tufte literally ran out of the side door. Like a rockstar. I wonder if he does sex and drugs too after the show.

    They too noticed the massive audience – a quick count yielded about 400 people that day. I figured he does about 25 such events. At $380 a pop, assuming an average crowd of 400 (since he only seems to do large cities), I figured his events alone pull in in the region of $4M annual. Not bad! Good racket indeed. The longest and hardest part is to write the best seller books. Then you “just” need to build a presentation roadshow in a few cities every year around them and just read with passion and colorful sound bites some chapters of your books and sell some posters.

    And by the way number 11 quote above is “Talent creates, Genius Steals”.

    Here is my summary of his day training using his quotes:

    How do I explain quantitative data?
    First rule: Whatever it takes! No such thing as overload, just bad design.
    Second rule: Nothing is ever for sure till better evidence and explanations come along.
    Graphics are here to show causality. Correlation is no causelation.
    Any display should explain (tell a story), show reasons to believe (credibility).
    A diagram should be close to a map. The map is the metaphor.

    How do I get there?
    You need to put people in a state where they think only about the content and not the display.
    Emphasize prior Reading instead of pitching with PowerPoint. Ok to read during the meeting instead of pitching.
    Rely on the power of the eye to: scan, scroll, dig and search.
    Let then the human brain do the work.

    2 issues in display of information:
    Anything interesting has 3 or more factors to display.
    High dimensional questions needs to be explained on 2 dimensional paper or screen.
    Information resolution: Time and Space.

    Ok so how do you do that again?
    Supergraphics: simplicity of design, complexity of content, texture of multiple details to let the eye scan it all and find their own info. Bring real things into the room, something physical, like an architecture model and add explanatory annotations.
    Make small differences and then make more.
    Play on contrast to avoid optical clutter.
    Presentation Software = Word, not PowerPoint
    Books, Papers have 10 times the resolution of a computer screen
    24’’ to 30’’ = smart distance from a screen to display data. The further, the more stupid, like scratching on walls of a cave.
    When in need to make a BIG decision, more visual real estate is needed: Wall chart.
    Direct Labeling not in legends but on the side.
    Maximize content reasoning and minimize cosmetics understanding. Strip out impediments to learning.

    Principles of Design:
    Presentations are here to assist in teaching information.
    Show comparisons, show causality, show multivariate dimensions (space and time)
    Document all of the above.
    Whatever it takes (words, graphics, numbers…) Human mind will sort it out.
    Content matters. It is all about it.

    PowerPoint is only a projector operating system.
    Do not let PowerPoint format anything
    Best HD display: 1 piece of A3 paper folded in half holds 50 to 60 ppt slides.
    Begin with a summary of what the problem is, who cares, solutions and next steps (200 words total).
    Use word as a report.
    Most of the meetings: read and ask questions.
    No pitching, no rushing, read and learn for 5’ silently.
    Do not start by saying “ I am not going to use ppt”, Never mention the methodology
    Ground principle about content: Improve it, Practice it.
    Teaching: show up early, give hand-outs, finish early.

    My BI team and I successfully created digital Supergraphics when E.T believes Paper is the best support. I had to create a very different process to design, program/project manage, develop and test these BI reporting/analytical tools than what many companies BI agencies in general are used to.

    And guess what? It works. Some are still trying and are failing I am afraid.

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