When the going gets Tufte

Kirk Wells
January 9, 2018
Three things I learned from an information graphics pioneer that you don’t have to be a designer to truly appreciate.

After sitting through a six-hour presentation from world-renown visualizer of data and admitted skeptic of consistency, Edward Tufte, there was a lot of information to process. But he planned it that way.

One of the principles of delivering content that he explained as 200 intrigued faces gaped at him in the conference room of the Buckhead Westin that morning was to allow your audience to edit. You give them the data, but then let them decide what’s important or relevant. And that’s what we all did. And that’s what I’m still doing.

Sure, there was the occasional graphic design nerd-out moment that I was expecting and looking forward to. But the majority of his presentation was actually not design-related at all — or really even business-related.

All of what he said was in context of content; arranging it in a way that tells a story and then presenting it as effectively as possible. But if you take things down another level, the principles he shared were simply good rules to follow in general for everyday life.

Here are a few of the pointers from Mr. Tufte that I found most interesting and relatable. They have absolutely nothing to do with design, and everything to do with being understood — so hopefully they’ll intrigue you a little bit, too.

If you show up early, good things will happen.

Having grown up in a household where test runs to unfamiliar addresses and clocks set five minutes fast were the norm, this is a principle that literally hit close to home for me. Aside from the typically all-around good etiquette of arriving places early, Mr. Tufte kindly points out that it also allows room for problem solving — should the need arise.

Being on-time won’t help you if you forgot your wallet on the night stand or if you realize you’ve got your dress on backwards. Arriving early, even just a little bit, could save your bacon, and it costs nothing but a little extra time. And even if nothing goes wrong, you now have a few minutes to find a good seat, enjoy your coffee, or text your mom to tell her you love her.

Respect the people around you. They’re likely not as disengaged as you think.

While we’re in an age where everyone has their heads buried in their phones, and television and film have surrendered to the six-second attention span theory, it would be in error to think people can’t handle complicated information. We are all guilty of over-simplification. But when it counts, you can trust people to be engaged in longer conversations more than you might think.

If your story is complicated, let it be complicated. After all, that’s the story. Tufte believes his audiences have the ability to edit, and you can, too. Be concise, but relate the information. Your audience will let you know if they want more — or if they are bored or don’t understand. Get out of the way of the content, and it will make communicating much easier and more rewarding. 

Whenever possible, end things early.

With a few exceptions, it’s always a good idea to finish early. This may sound arbitrary, but when you think about it, it’s as fundamental as showing up early. Plus, how else are you going to be early to your next engagement if you don’t finish the current one early?

Everyone appreciates getting a few minutes back into their day. I have never met anyone who complains about a dentist appointment wrapping up sooner than expected, or an elementary school recital ending in time to catch the game. So, it stands to reason that if you are afforded the opportunity to wrap up early, you should definitely do so.

For example, there was more I planned to write on this subject, but I think I’ve made my point. End post; you’re welcome.