Why Edward Tufte is Wrong

October 18th, 2013

“I think what I say here is true, both of the government and many big companies. The average… technical presentation involves a Dell laptop screen, showing a powerpoint slide, designed by focus groups, to accommodate the disabled, and the PR staff, which wants 3 logos on each slide, and no more than 20 words per each slide, and it has 42% administrative debris, 10 mysterious features, and uses proprietary formats, that are proprietary, even to themselves. What have you all gotten yourselves into?”

This anecdotal observation may well be correct. We’ve all attended boring meetings with boring presentations, but Tufte needs to cover more ground if he wants to indict Microsoft PowerPoint. Blaming PowerPoint for a bad presentation is only semantically different than blaming the bad coffee served or the bland furniture. Although Tufte points out many legitimate problems with certain, perhaps even most, presentations, his accusation is spurious.

Death by PowerPoint? Unlikely.

Sometimes the content is incomplete. Sometimes the equipment is faulty. Sometimes the presenter is inexperienced. But often, the design itself is bad. On this topic, Tufte is 100% correct.

This image was taken from Tufte’s polemic, “PowerPoint Does Rocket Science.” In it, he asserts that the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster was, in part, due to NASA’s use of PowerPoint.

There are several large logical jumps which Tufte makes here. Assuming NASA could accurately identify the extent of the damage, and could eliminate all other errors in communication, decision-making, and time or technological limitations— that’s a lot of assuming, mind you— why blame the presentation software? Do you blame canvas for bad paintings? If anything, the takeaway from this tragedy at NASA, on the presentation level, is that effective presentation skills, especially design, are essential to communication.

His criticisms of the presentation itself are accurate. Inconsistent units of measurement, pronoun-antecedent conflict, or confusing hierarchies are neither new problems, nor PowerPoint-specific problems.

Let the data speak for themselves

“This is a big idea in all my work, which is basically trying to zero-out the interface, and have full data screens as much as possible.”

Tufte encourages designers to get rid of administrative debris, and put the information in the hands of the user. Although he seems to quote Jonathan Ive quite often, he had much to say about iOS’s “PowerPoint-like” appearance.

Really, either of these images could easily be part of a PowerPoint.

PowerPoint isn’t the problem, but it might be the solution

As I watch his Data Visualization keynote from Tech@State, I’m struck by how many of Tufte’s criticisms are easily addressed in well designed PowerPoints.

For instance, he stresses that the data should determine it’s own medium. A process, he argues, which is much more natural than an arbitrary system of apps to open and close. Different programs to individually address and categorize images, spreadsheets, maps, text, charts, or graphs only complicates the process of understanding the underlying information. Tufte calls this “segregating information by means of production.”

Ironically, PowerPoint doesn’t segregate information by means of production— that’s its’ beauty. A slide may feature an image, or text, or a spreadsheet, or a topographical map, or a video— it could even be completely blank. The program itself doesn’t require three logos on every slide. PowerPoint’s strength is that it allows you to convey any assortment of audio or visual material, depending on what’s needed.

Want an image with no frame? Fine. A slide with only one image? Great. We encourage presenters to communicate effectively, and we’re glad PowerPoint provides such a flexible platform.

Tufte, in context.

Photo by Phil Hawksworth

Of course, the ultimate irony is that Edward Tufte’s presentations are basically slideshows— because slideshows work. Because Powerpoint adds life to data.

He may capitalize on his audience’s frustration with bad design, or boring meetings, but that doesn’t mean that Powerpoint can’t be extremely effective. He certainly grabs attention with his condemnation of the world’s most common presentation software, and sells a lot of books (I personally have 4 of them— great works of art in themselves).

However, his vitriolic marketing campaign against PowerPoint is, simply put, misplaced. For presenters, who may already be overstressed, the stigma of using this program is strange and counterintuitive. PowerPoint is installed on one billion desktops around the globe, and is probably being used in almost every hotel conference room, every day.

Stop blaming PowerPoint

Don’t throw out PowerPoint with the bathwater, Tufte. Stop using your efforts to bash it and focus on bringing us great new visualization tools (like Sparklines, a Tufte creation, which is now available in PowerPoint).

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