Saturday, January 28, 2012

We Think, Therefore, We Design

On Sunday we had the privilege of spending the day with Edward Tufte. At his ET Modern studio in Chelsea, New York, the pioneer in data visualization walked us through the best practices in presenting ideas and creating graphics.

Source: Edward Tufte
Modest and shrewd, Tufte shared a panoply of images during the far-reaching session. Our initial impression was that Tufte's depth of scholarship is unmatched. His no-nonsense critiques and depth of scientific knowledge certainly validated his status as the guru of information design.

Source: Edward Tufte
Our even larger take-away was that good design carries an inherent logic. The content is key. It determines the visual display. As we tell our students, "content first, pretty second."

As K-12 educators, we recognized several valuable teaching concepts. First, any lesson or student tool should be constructed to enable understanding. The standards of design should proceed directly from thinking. As Tufte stressed, "the thinking directs the showing, and the showing supports the thinking."

Source: Edward Tufte

In addition, Tufte emphasized several criteria to guide the visualization of data. These Fundamental Principles of Analytical Design can be applied to any presentation, project, or visual aid. They reinforce critical thinking. The six principles are also good ground rules for us as teachers. When we create lessons or materials for class, we should keep in mind these benchmarks (quoted from Beautiful Evidence, by Edward Tufte, Graphics Press, 2006):
  1. "Show comparisons, contrasts, differences." (p.127)
  2. "Show causality, mechanism, explanation, systematic structure." (p.128) 
  3. "Show multivariate data; that is, show more than 1 or 2 variables." (p.130) 
  4. "Completely integrate words, numbers, images, diagrams." (p.131) 
  5. "Thoroughly describe the evidence, provide a detailed title, indicate the authors and sponsors, document the data sources, show complete measurement scales, point out relevant issues." (p.133)
  6. "Analytical presentations ultimately stand or fall depending on the quality, relevance, and integrity of their content." (p.134)
Source: Edward Tufte
If you have the opportunity to take one of Tufte's courses as he travels the country, we recommend that you take the plunge. We also encourage you to investigate any of Tufte's four seminal books on information analytics. They are each worth the price, and they will inform even the most well-informed mind with their keen insights and stunning visuals.

For information about Tufte's personal design studio in Manhattan, check out his ET Modern homepage. For discussion boards about artistic and scientific imaging, check out his ET Notebooks.

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