Category Archives: Edward Tufte

The PowerPoint slide that brought down a Space Shuttle


This is a story about the evils of PowerPoint. It was first told by Edward Tufte, the most brilliant mind alive on information design, whom a friend of mine once described as “the voice of God criticizing mankind.” Tufte wrote the book on graphics theory, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information — and in one of his most intriguing side riffs has lambasted PowerPoint for being a boil on human communication.

Tufte has explained how one horrible PowerPoint slide led to the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia explosion — or more accurately, the horrible bullet structure PowerPoint gives us caused the disaster. The problem is PowerPoint encourages writers to use clipped jargon that is hard to understand — and if the point fails, bad decisions get made. As you likely recall, Columbia did blow up on re-entry, after a large piece of foam broke off during launch and damaged the edge of a wing. Before the Columbia accident, foam had crumbled off of many other shuttles during launches, so an internal report was crucial in determining how much risk the foam presented. Would it be a lot of foam? And could it hit the shuttle elsewhere with a lot of force?

Alas, the internal NASA report was presented in PowerPoint.

The NASA slide below has a series of nested bullet points that start out with a blase headline about “conservatism” — sounds OK, right? — overuses the word “significantly” until it doesn’t mean much, and then at the very bottom buries the main point that foam debris that falls off and could hit the shuttle on launch is, ahem, 640 times larger than previously estimated. If the truncated phrase “Volume of ramp” had been expanded to read “estimated volume of foam debris that hit wing,” and the headline made punchier saying “risk is 640 times greater than predicted in prior safety estimates!”, executives in the room might have sat up and gone, holy shit, this entire shuttle could blow if we don’t fix this.

They didn’t, because the risk was a fourth-level sub-bullet in PowerPoint.

Tufte’s point is that PowerPoint mimics the hierarchical structure of big business organizations, which is a bad way to communicate. Information is sliced into logical bits and truncated to the point of unclarity; as the information is passed up through an org structure, slides are deleted until only a brief summary remains. Context is lost; key points disappear; the narrative is destroyed. Or in this case, the astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia died.

What does Tufte recommend? Give people in meetings a short written report, that they digest as the meeting begins. Then talk, talk, about the real issues.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

Originally posted on Google+.

Confusion as a design feature

Ever wonder why Facebook redesigns its interface every six months, often adding more complexity?

Deliberate confusion can be a positive design strategy. We’ve been thinking of this for several years now, tipped off by the annoyingly elaborate user interfaces at weather web sites (where you must click through three pages of busy links to find a simple forecast). Today’s most promising portals often require users to work hard to understand how to use them. Twitter? Yes, it’s only 140 characters, but try explaining retweets and @’s and DM’s and search and lists to a new user, and you realize the microblogging service has cleverly ensnared you in a complex learning curve. Facebook is even more confusing, yet consumers have responded in droves. The SharesPost marketplace, which places valuations on startup firms, recently suggested ubersillynetwork Facebook is now worth $11.5 billion due to its vast lattice of people poking and tossing Farmville updates at each other.

Part of this is psychological — humans feel rewarded when they solve puzzles or score points (um, Twitter follower counts anyone?) — and so complexity in design can make each experience feel novel again; the charm of Facebook, after all, is never knowing exactly what the hell you’ll find when you show up. Another rationale for complex designs is business strategy; if you force a user to spend more time on pages solving the puzzling interface, like on a weather site, you can sell more ad inventory. But the deepest driver of design confusion is human desire to make anything complex. We want more information built into human conversations or our physical space, which is why when you log in to work on a Monday morning you must now check work email, voicemail, Gmail, Google chat, cell phone messages, Facebook, Twitter, the physical mail and the fax just to make sure you didn’t miss anything.

Confusing interfaces might drive the great visual thinker Edward Tufte nuts (he called superfluous design “chart junk“). Yet as the world of knowledge evolves, we hunger for more nuance to allow us to dive deeper into information. It will only get worse as data begins flowing into the real view of the surroundings around us. See the video above, a graduate thesis project by Julia Yu Tsao at Art Center College of Design.

Chart junk, we may hate you, but you are here to stay.

Inspired by Len Kendall.

Influencing consumers with chartjunk


Edward Tufte is the most brilliant American mind on visual information. He’s a design guy with a Ph.D. in political science from Yale, wrote the landmark books on graphics, has shown how the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster may have been caused by a bad PowerPoint presentation, and lives in our home town in Connecticut. Our friend Andy Jukes said once that Edward Tufte writes like the voice of God commenting on the works of humankind.

But we like Tufte best because he coined the term chartjunk.

Chartjunk is all the stuff you see in graphics that distracts you, either sloppily or deliberately, from the real data. The most common use is to present elements slightly out of scale to create a misleading point — as in the example above, in an airport sign conveying that the vast majority of Americans are in favor of an energy issue. If you really look closely at the piechart, the advocates are a slight majority — perhaps 57% to 43% — but the visual heft feels more like 3 to 1.

Advertisers of course do this all the time with other coding, such as photos showing too much sex or copy showing too much joy over products that are really commodities. You could say most humans engage in exaggeration to be more charming at parties or more employable at work. If all language is stretched, the question then is how much is too much — and if it really is an effective tool in manipulating your audience’s reaction.

Tufte, the iPhone, and the shrinking space for advertisers


A new video by information display guru Edward Tufte offers a fascinating look at how Apple got mobile interface right by putting information on one plane, instead of nested menus, and how Apple often got it wrong by not adding enough detail. We always were frustrated by the limited weather info.

Tufte hints that putting information on one level is ideal, vs. the horrible deep call-center-type-push-one-then-two navigation mazes on most cell phones. As mobile screens become hi-resolution, it will be easier to lay it all on one plane. The challenge will then be how advertisers will fit into the small space — in other words, if finding what you want becomes easier, there are fewer “inventory options” for advertisers to intercept you as you search around different pages.

For a good example, go to accuweather.com or weather.com and try to find your local five-day forecast. You typically have to navigate to at least three pages to get the information. It could be easier, but we suspect weather sites structure multiple layers of information deliberately to have more real estate to sell banner ads. If it takes three clicks, and if each page has room for 12 ads, then a web site can sell 36 impressions for a single search. The future of small screens and flat information will tighten the inventory.

Tx Andy, who writes a nice paean on Tufte.

PowerPoint is finished when there is nothing left to remove


Inspiration for your 2008 board presentations: The Minard Map shows the attack of Napoleon’s army, from 1812-1813, as the defending Russians scorched the earth and anything else that might feed or shelter the French. Edward Tufte lionized this graphic for its use of six different dimensions: the width of the line shows the number of French remaining as they march into and out of Russia; color of line shows direction in and out; the line itself shows the course of the march; the underlying map shows geography; and the scale at bottom shows both the frigid winter temperatures and time of the return trip.

Here’s a New Year’s challenge: Make at least one 30-minute PowerPoint presentation with only 1 slide, make the slide this beautiful, and see how it improves your story.

The strange case of Jacob Freeze (or why most PowerPoint sucks)


How can any of us be brilliant at everything? The revolution of computer technology is that now all of us can dabble in art, communication, arithmetic and business planning. Most of us aren’t very good in our best category and we usually stink in our worst. This is why most PowerPoint is so awful, because the format encourages business authors to try to postulate, evince, sketch, write, lay out, calculate, organize and conclude at the same moment of creation. Edward Tufte, the noted visual-display-of-information author, goes so far as to blame the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster on one poorly conceived PowerPoint slide.

Which brings us to the brilliant exception of Jacob Freeze. Freeze is an intense author/artist/analyst whose most recent post on Daily Kos dissects how Atlanta and its conservative politics are shriveling as the result of drought.

Considering the fantastic cloud of ambiguity that the petroleum industry and its friends throw over every environmental issue, it’s probably a good idea to be explicit about the sort of thing that you would normally expect any idiot to understand. So… when Atlanta runs out of water, Atlanta will die.

Whatever your politics, you have to admire the attack, a verbal equivalent of a boxer in a bad street fight. Which brings us to our next investigation of Jacob Freeze. He’s actually an artist producing work such as this:


And this:


While writing this:

The United States is happy to reserve the privilege of ‘humanitarian war’ for itself and Israel, preserving ‘universal human rights’ against the threat of terrorism, but now that Turkey is claiming the same privilege to defend itself against Kurdish terrorists, ‘the community of civilized nations’ has undergone a strange contraction.

A few years ago, souls like Jacob Freeze would have been confined to a news room, or an art gallery, or a photo studio shooting newlyweds — but only one of them. Now, thanks to connections and computers, he can move from media to media.

Professor Tufte missed the point. Sure, PowerPoint may have messed the shuttle planning logic. But the problem wasn’t software; it’s just we all can’t communicate on every level as well as Jacob Freeze.