Sometimes it is the wrong battle

I spent yesterday in class.

It went like this.

“Take this time to read these pages. I will then talk to you about what you read.” 

“Evangelize” would be more accurate than “talk.”

For a class on data visualization, there were very long periods of talking with no visualization. A large chunk of his talking is about how to do meetings and dump PowerPoint presentations following Amazon’s model of using a six-page narrative memo that is read at the beginning of the meeting and then discussed.

Laura Gogia attended the same event the day before. Her cogent analysis is here. You should read it as I can’t top it. I can only add a another dimension.

Tufte has clearly thought long and hard about presenting data and information. There is a lot to learn from him. However, his focus on paper as the ideal medium for presentation simply doesn’t fit my concept of the dynamic nature of the Web. Many of his ideas I would love to implement overnight, but the current technologies simply don’t offer it. For example, placing text and labels appropriately within a graphic to move away from the use of legends and have a more map-like graphic (his ideal model for us to follow is Google Maps) can easily be done with static presentation graphics. Doing the same where a different institution or student group or state is selected is next to impossible when the images within the chart are now of different size and shape. How does a piece of software know where to place text so that is easily readable in relation to all other objects and pieces of text? How does it do so aesthetically?

His basic complaint he describes as “going into one room to make a table of numbers, going into another room to make text, and yet another room for graphics.” Using “room” as a metaphor for “apps.” I totally get this. I have had the same complaint for years – I want to work on one canvas where I can do everything. Photoshop, Illustrator, and a host of other tools allow me to do this for static designs. Nothing really allows me to do it dynamically.

I love having a big canvas where I can place things where I want them. I can create the message and content to match my vision of what I need to convey. But it is static and I work with lots and lots and lots and increasingly lots more data. When I create a data display that has to provide the same information on a small junior college as it does for a large research university, things change. In order to place objects on a digital canvas for the Web, every pixel has to be mapped and every item anchored according to a grid, with a combination of absolute and relative positions. I can do much of this with our current BI tool, but it has limits. There are simply a fundamental differences between digital and paper tools. One of which is that paper does not allow hyperlinking – save through footnotes, endnotes, and directives (e.g. see pp x-xx).

I would pay good money for a digital platform that allows me to create dynamic content that follows Tufte’s design principles.

It seems to me that this is the solution to Tufte’s complaint. It also seems to me that he can can solve this himself. After all, he created and owns his own publishing house to meet his standards for printing. So why not work with venture capitalist or two to develop a startup company to build such an app?

The more I think about this idea, the more doable I think it is. It simply needs a rethinking of what the underlying mapping strategy of content objects looks like. It would be a radical departure from current apps. If a VC wants to fund this, I’ll pull a team together.

That’s the battle to fight to win the war against bad data visualizations and bad presentations.

I’ve followed Tufte’s work for at least 20 years. It has been a key part of my thinking and design practices, as best as I can implement with the available tools. I have also followed my own muse, my own analysis of users interests and behaviors. I do plan to implement some modifications based on yesterday’s class because we can always do better.

Be nice. It won't hurt either of us.

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