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Today's Reading: An Interview with Edward R. Tufte

thu17aug2006—33w229d62%— 06h16m00s—0utc

A 16-page meaty interview with Edward R. Tufte from the Technical Communication Quarterly.

A big intellectual move in my work and my teaching came together in Envisioning Information, which I think is the most original of the books, the most theoretical. It essentially opened the entire world of visual evidence up so evidence was no longer statistical graphics — it was the whole world of seeing and thinking, bringing together how seeing and therefore thinking could be intensified.

Excellence in visual design is largely realized through the creation of graphics that correspond with the mental tasks they are meant to support.

The commonality between science and art is in trying to see profoundly — to develop strategies of seeing and showing. This seeing is not about “Aren’t these pictures of molecules beautiful?” Rather, the point is to recognize the tightness between seeing and thinking on an intellectual level not just a metaphorical level. That tightness is expressed in the very physiology of the eye: the retina is made from brain cells; the brain begins at the back of the eye. Seeing turns into thinking right there.

The purpose of analytical displays of evidence is to assist thinking. Consequently, in constructing displays of evidence, the first question is, “What are the thinking tasks that these displays are supposed to serve?”

My wife and I took our extended honeymoon in Japan in 1985 and lived there for a little while. The intellectual idea was to go to the farthest away, highest resolution, technically advanced culture — that is, to increase the variance of our seeing.

My view on self-publishing was to go all out, to make the best and most elegant and wonderful book possible, without compromise. Otherwise, why do it?

Robert Merton, the great sociologist,.. taught me a great deal about scholarship. It began when he looked over a manuscript of what ultimately became my book on political economy, Political Control of the Economy. Bob did a lot of editorial commenting and was a wonderful editor and kind critic, one-on-one. Near a completely undistinguished paragraph I had written, Bob wrote “an echo of Veblen,” a distinguished social theorist. What this said to me was not that the paragraph was good, but rather “Why don’t you try playing in the ”blue">big leagues?" — that is, to do work that might last for a long time.

I like to give every student every day lots of pieces of paper, many handouts. For years I had a Xerox machine in my living room, running away the night before my lecture.

Along with thirty-two years of being a professor at Princeton and Yale, I also greatly enjoy teaching out on the road. I go about one week a month on tour and give a one-day course. This has been going on now for twelve years; 120,000 people have attended the one-day course. This does get the word out.

When most people begin their advice about communication, their first grand principle is “know your audience.” In practice, that statement too often leads toward underestimating the quality and interests of the audience. The know-your-audience philosophy can be a big step down the road to pandering to the audience. I think sometimes if we anticipate too much the characteristics of the reader, we are going to censor ourselves or change our work — and I think all too often wrongly.

Having grown up a bit, I try to get out of first-person singular when giving advice. It can be dangerous to listen to authors about how to write or establish communication; they can only say what has worked for them or how they work. With an N of 1, a sample size of 1, the variance is infinite.

In my work, there is an effort to raise standards — -by admiring excellence, saying that there are things that are good and there are things that are bad, so get out and tell the world about it.

A curious consequence [of my work] is that I have become a minor celebrity. I have a hint of what a real celebrity must go through every day — a flood of interesting, encouraging, importuning, angry, weird, scary communications. I am not sure quite how to respond to all this. Now and then I ungratefully mutter Bob Dylan’s remark: “Just because you like my stuff doesn’t mean I owe you anything.”

For those going into the corporate world, the key choice point is where you go to work. You had better, for example, see what clients the company has. Once you start working for the company it is probably too late. The socialization is strong, and the masking of responsibility is strong, so that it is probably a little bit late and a bit hard to ask people to change jobs because we don’t think the companies they work for are doing the right thing.

It is straightforward for me to be ethical, responsible, and kind-hearted because I have the resources to support that. I have a lot of privilege and plenty of resources that enable me to try to do good. I admire President Kennedy’s thought: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

Probably the only generalization about the Internet is that there is none, which is to say that users can have nearly any experience they desire. Internet users are not prisoners — they are responsible for their experience since they can generate nearly any experience they wish (other than an in-depth historical analysis).

One problem from the user’s point of view is that any given manual may be perfectly fine, but most of us are confronted with a multiplicity of interfaces. Just start to add up all the interfaces: that stove, this dishwasher, that microwave, those cameras, that cell phone, this and that computer, and so on. All the differences among those interfaces make a difference. While all the interfaces can be perfectly good when viewed individually, in aggregate it is hard to have much retained learning. For example, when I get a new camera, I take it with me on a trip and dutifully work through the manual. I am the master of that camera in two to three hours and take a few good pictures. I put the camera down and come back a month later, and there is little that has been retained. Somehow we need to have interfaces and explanatory explanations of interfaces that lead to retention and avoid interference from the multiplicity of interfaces.

The top level of most product interfaces is quite good these days. The lower-down levels, where the featuritis fungus thrives, are too often jungles.

I’m trying a different style of highlighting here, sticking to blue and white, and remarking the key word of each paragraph/fragment. What do you think of it? Is it helpful?

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