1 July 2009 • 7:00 am

Divorce Rates, Voting Patterns, and Graphic Design

A Facebook post from an old friend over the weekend reminded me of the immense power of graphics to convey information. Most of those reading this are likely to use PowerPoint or other presentation software regularly; it has become a basic tool of communication in organizations everywhere. I am convinced of a universal truth; we can all stand to improve the way we communicate graphically.

But few of us have the benefit of formal training in art and design, and many rely on default settings in such programs as Excel and PowerPoint to determine how our charts and graphs appear. We simply think far less about the grammar and construction of our data than we do about our words.

The Facebook post pointed to an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Charles M. Blow and accompanying graphic. The graphic powerfully (and some might argue unfairly) presents a lot of information in little space to illustrate Mr. Blow’s point. My aim in including the graphic here is not to get into the politics, but to illustrate the power of graphics to communicate.

The graphic reminded me of an experience I had around 10 years ago that profoundly improved my graphical communication skill and mindset, and it all happened in one day. I am referring to my attendance at a one-day seminar conducted by a brilliant scholar in the field, Edward Tufte. Tufte is Professor Emeritus of statistics, information design, interface design and political economy at Yale University, and author of a series of stunning books on graphic design: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative, and Beautiful Evidence.

He has also been a vocal critic of PowerPoint, a sample of which can be found in his article PowerPoint is Evil a few years ago in Wired Magazine. Here’s a taste (emphasis added):

“…slideware – computer programs for presentations – is everywhere: in corporate America, in government bureaucracies, even in our schools. Several hundred million copies of Microsoft PowerPoint are churning out trillions of slides each year. Slideware may help speakers outline their talks, but convenience for the speaker can be punishing to both content and audience. The standard PowerPoint presentation elevates format over content, betraying an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.”

Disciples of Tufte are thoughtful and considerate of choices in how to present data – far beyond the insight needed to choose between a pie chart and a bar graph. His thinking doesn’t provide absolute answers about right and wrong, but a way of thinking about conveying information that will make you (and ideally your change program reports) more effective.

Balanced scorecard (BSC) reports of performance measures are notoriously data rich and information poor. Most of the available software for BSC reporting acts to constrain rather than broaden the user’s choices for presenting data, and to segregate and subordinate any added contextual prose. In their passion for simply getting the numbers into the report, contributors spend little time considering choices for how to present the information. But effective reporting content enables effective strategic decision making, and the reverse is always true.

Those serious about effective communication are well advised to attend one of Tufte’s one day seminars, which are offered at locations around the U.S. at the very modest cost of $380 (currently), a bargain that includes copies of all four of the books listed above. I strongly recommend this experience to all visitors to the Tenacious Blog. 

Have you attended Tufte’s seminar? Do you have examples of particularly effective or poor graphics? Please share them below. (If you need help including a graphic, drop it in an e-mail, and I’ll figure out a way to include it).

New York Times chart


New York Times Correction: June 30, 2009

The chart accompanying the Charles Blow column on Saturday incorrectly identified which presidential candidates won Maine and Tennessee in 2008 in a list of states ranked by subscriptions to online pornographic sites. Maine voted for Barack Obama, not John McCain. Tennessee favored Mr. McCain, not Mr. Obama.