Edward Tufte and the Triumph of Good Design: Another Case Study

Photo: Courtesy of Graphics Press

Edward TuftePhoto: Kyoko Hamada

This week's New York piece by Christopher Bonanos, "The Minister of Information," was the most unlikely spellbinder we've seen in our magazine in quite some time. Three big pages on a semi-obscure graphic designer best known to us for all the copies of his books we sold in the university bookstore we used to work in? Yikes! But it turns out that the story of Edward Tufte is a fascinating one, full of vivid examples of the way technology delivers information confusingly, and how Tufte leads the charge for simplification. (We'd like to see Tufte, for example, take a crack at the interface for our clunky blogging software.)

Tufte's harshest words are reserved for that nightmare of modern office life, Microsoft PowerPoint. "It's a low-resolution screw-up, like voice-mail menu systems," he gripes. Here, exclusive to Vulture, is another excerpt from Tufte's new book that explains precisely why PowerPoint doesn't work.

Fig.1: The bad, via PowerPoint.

The six PowerPoint slides above and the table below are presentations of the same data: a set of survival rates by disease. These slides were produced using the software package’s standard templates; they would appear onscreen one at a time, so viewers would need to flip back and forth to understand the series. A freshly diagnosed patient (or a harried doctor) would find such clutter impossible to navigate.

Courtesy of Graphics Press

Fig. 2: The good, via Tufte. Same data, way less ink. The eye immediately goes to the left-hand column of type, where the patient can quickly locate his or her illness; since the prognoses are arrayed from top to bottom, best to worst, one can immediately size up the situation. Moreover, the meaning of the lines connecting the numbers is immediately graspable, even without an index or key: Steep slopes mean trouble, shallow ones are better. There is as much information here as on those six slides, and it will fit on an index card. It is also comprehensible without a minute’s medical training.

Related: The Minister of Information [NYM]