Lessons learned from a course with Edward Tufte

Ever since I became interested in data representation and visualization a few months, I’ve been actively trying to seek out interesting people in the fields so that I can learn directly from them. A few weeks ago I had a chance to meet and talk to Loren Madsen

who’s done some really interesting data-driven art pieces. Yesterday I went down to Philadelphia to attend a one-day course taught by Edward Tufte: an Emeritus Professor at Stanford and author of four great books on data analysis, presentation and visualization. He’s also a great observer of user interfaces and presentations and a sworn enemy of PowerPoint, Excel and the “lowest common denominator” school of design. The course is a bit pricey ($200 for students and $380 for everyone else) but you get all four of his books and you get to attend one of the best presentations you’ve attended. Here are some of the things that I learned (to learn everything, you really need to take the course).

If you’re going to a course taught by a famous person, get there early

I was under the impression that the course would be a fairly small affair, say 50 to 100 people. Blame it on going to a liberal arts school with very small class sizes.  There turned out to be more like 400 people there and I happened to arrive just as the thing was getting started. I ended up getting a seat right at the back, though I quickly made it up to the middle. Edward Tufte is a great presenter and the way he conducts the course means that it doesn’t matter very much where you sit, but it’s nice to actually see the man as he talks. Also take something to write with.

Keep your ears, eyes and mind open

The course is presented in a rather informal way. It’s not disorganized, but there’s no simple outline either. He says a lot of simple but important things, and if you try to write down everything, you’ll be writing a lot and not really taking in what’s being talked about. Write down the important things but also pay attention. Open the books and look at the examples he points at. There’s a lot you can learn by just following along. Since you’ll have all the books you can pop them open later and refresh your memory later.

Leave your preconceptions at the door

The course teaches you a lot of things about how to think about and visualize data that go contrary to what the popular opinions. You’re not going to get much out of the course unless you go in open to give other ideas a try. Also don’t worry immediately about how you are going to apply what you learned to your problem. This will probably prevent you from getting the most out of the general principles taught. Think about and absorb the principles first and then think about the specifics. If you’re someone who keeps an eye on the internet, especially in the web and interface design worlds, you’ll also find some of his advice conflicting with what you read online (such as emphasizing content over design). Do be your own judge, but make sure you’ll judging on the basis of actual merits as opposed to hearsay and group-think.

You’ll need to deal with your problems yourself

This course isn’t about giving out prepackaged solutions. Like many high-level thinkers, Tufte is more concerned about identifying the overarching principles and then applying them, rather than focusing myopically on niche issues. He will give you some solutions (especially on regarding preparing and giving presentations) with some specifics (like how to use paper and avoid Powerpoint) but they’re templates that certainly need to be filled in with information specialized to the task. I also think that it’s important that you think about your own problem and bring your sense of creativity to the issue (without which you’ll be cloning someone else’s stuff).

Read, read, read and think. A lot.

Edward Tufte is a very well read and very intelligent man. He draws on examples from people all in all sort of fields through history (from Euclid to Feynman people you’ve probably never heard of). It’s not expected that you know everything about all the things he shows you (if you did you wouldn’t be going to the course). But if you want to understand things the way he does and come up with new ideas of your own, you’re going to want to keep reading about the things he refers to. It’s also important to keep exploring other things and actively playing around with and implementing the things you learn. And that means going out there and actually giving presentations and creating graphics based on what you’ve learned.

I’m at the stage where I can understand most of the principles that he’s talked about, but I’m not sure about how to apply them to the problems I have at hand. Some of the issues he talked about are similar to ones that I’ve had myself (and some I haven’t encountered at all). I love all the great historical examples he used and I intend to read up on them more. What I need to do now is to look harder at my own problems with Tufte’s examples as a guideline. As he said, it’s generally a good idea to take a strong model and copy it for your own purposes.

One thought on “Lessons learned from a course with Edward Tufte

  1. Nice one, Basu! Apart from the comments applying to specifically to a one day course with a famous person, I learned the same things from one of my courses in London, where most of the lecturers were famous in their fields. Their presentations just flow so nicely and at first you think everything is important and try to write everything down, then you realize that it’s pointless and just enjoy it and try to gulp it down 🙂

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