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Graphs and the Cognitive Style of Powerpoint

I’m sure it will soon be obvious that I’m a big fan of Edward Tufte, so I might as well admit it now. Presentation Zen, in: Is it Broken? posted a video of Seth Godin at the Gel 2006 conference (a "good experience" conference. Or something.) His topic: things (signs and user interfaces, mostly) that are broken. Curiously, [to me at least (my fondness for parentheticals is also obvious)] he uses Charles Joseph Minard’s map of Napolean’s march on Moscow as an example of something "broken on purpose."


Towards the end Godin says: "I think they’re (graphs) trying to make a point in two seconds for people who are too lazy to read the forty words underneath."

Huh? Maybe if you're trying to sell something that’s what a graph is for, but that's a pretty debased way of looking at visualization. [Which is where Tufte’s critique of PowerPoint comes in. PowerPoint is designed to aid a presenter to make a sales pitch (just like a multiple-choice test is designed for ease of administration). It's not designed to aid decision making, present quantitative data, or encourage discussion. For sales, it’s fine. For serious content PowerPoint should be subverted.]

Minard’s map of Napolean’s march isn't a summary: it’s a narrative: it tells a detailed story with the theme "war sucks". At the very least the map replaces an essay—possibly an entire book—on a single page. And that's only one application of visualization. Off the top of my head graphics can: tell a story, show cause and effect, reveal patterns not discernable in raw data, aid discovery, summarize, teach, inform efficiently, and make the invisible visible. I'll try to show examples of each of these applications soon.


Hi Rob,

Just wanted to say that your mississippi entry and this latest one are really wonderfull! I'm really enjoying these post on information visualization. Keep them comming!