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Tufte Visualizes Data

Edward Tufte’s day-long course on Data Visualization teaches that visualizing data allows audiences to interpret it at their own time and more quickly than through a simple verbal explanation.  Accompanying text further enhances the visuals, providing detailed explanation complimenting the image, like this infographic depicting the history of political parties:


Much of the course focused on the importance of content when visualizing data – you should know what the data shows before you visualize it. These visualizations, when presented as supergraphics, are particularly effective.  Supergraphics allow others to interpret the data using their own cognitive style – everyone will interpret the data in a unique way, and have more toadd to the discussion.

Supergraphics also engage people far more than PowerPoint presentations, which dually rely on repetitive, mundane formats and fail to use complete sentences. Tufte’s two metaphors for data visualization were to compare the level of detail necessary to a map:

And to present data and data analysis like sports page journalists do:

His mantra is to assume the intelligence (and attention span) of the audience.  If given more detailed material, people will focus on what you have to say.  Using clean charts and full sentences to illustrate data assumes a higher intelligence level, and inspires people to be more involved with what you say.  Be smart, however, about the charts and text, as the “real estate” of paper and screens is limited.

People are impressed more quickly by images than by words.  With the advent of iPhones, iPads, and other touch screen technology, we rely on visual communication in our daily lives.  We are reaching a precipice where interactive computer screens will have resolutions rivaling that of paper, enabling supergraphics and the like to become the norm of future presentations and communications efforts.

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