Q+A – Edward Tufte

Several months ago I found myself in a foreign country subjected to PowerPoint presentations by industrial design firms for five straight days. It was rough. There were slides whose sole content was the word innovation. By day three I was drinking beer at lunch. By day five, I’m told, I unconsciously groaned in the middle of a talk on new carpet fibers.

When I arrived home to find an ad for Edward Tufte’s treatise The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, I knew there was sweet vindication. Tufte believes that PowerPoint encourages lazy, surface-level thinking among presenters and audience members alike. He should know. He’s the author of three cult books about information design: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, and Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. Now retired from teaching political science and statistics at Yale, Tufte lives in Connecticut, where he writes with exquisite slowness and publishes through his own Graphics Press. He whipped up (in relative terms) this pamphlet while working on his next book, Beautiful Evidence, due out in a couple of years (he’s been writing it for the past six). Beautiful Evidence will cover PowerPoint as part of a larger discussion of statistical evidence that is both visually stunning and intellectually elegant: a meeting of art and science arranged by an author committed to rigor in both areas.

What prompted you to write The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint?

Part of it was searching Google for people who were teaching my work and learning that many thousands used the PowerPoint format. It was horrifying because these lectures were so contrary to my work on analytical design-they seemed like parodies rather than good summaries.

Is it impossible to teach in PowerPoint?

There are many true statements about complex topics that are too long to fit on a PowerPoint slide. And for some complex topics, there’s no true statement that will fit. What this means is that we shouldn’t abbreviate the truth but rather get a new method of presentation.

You point out that a simplified format is nothing new…

Many years ago, when I consulted on information design for IBM, presentations were done with overhead projections and transparencies, using a bullet list, of course. I was struck that many of these presentations left no traces. I came away too often wondering why we had a meeting, the rate of information transfer was so low. The bullet-list format seemed contrary to the complexity of the matters discussed. What gets left out is the narrative between the bullets, which would tell us who’s going to do what and how we’re going to achieve the generic goals on the list.

We haven’t come very far, have we?

If you like overheads, you’ll love PowerPoint. I think this is a serious problem. The minimum we should hope for with any display technology is that it should do no harm. At least don’t mess up my content. My research indicates that for maybe 10 or 20 percent of users, PowerPoint improves the presentation, because the users are so disorganized or inept it forces them to have points. But for the other 80 percent there’s some significant degree of intellectual corruption. For statistical data, the damage approaches dementia. And many serious presentations, particularly in business and government, do involve quantitative material.

In your treatise you make what some might consider a leap from Stalinism to PowerPoint. How did you get there?

I was writing a chapter of Beautiful Evidence on the subject of the sculptural pedestal, which led to my thinking about what’s up on the pedestal-the great leader. I did a few pages on a statue of Stalin in Budapest, which was gradually torn down; all that’s left is this flat rectangle on the ground. I thought, “Great leader up on a pedestal, talking; that’s like PowerPoint.” And then the Columbia went down. I looked at the slides Boeing did during the flight, which indicated no danger from foam hitting the wing. NASA believed it, and we’ve seen what happened. Those were in PowerPoint. It’s not that PowerPoint brought the Columbia down, but the method of presentation broke up the argument into tiny fragments, and it’s intensely hierarchical-no sentences, just little phrases.

What about your own presentation? A booklet is something of a departure for you.

I wanted to get it out fast and have an effect-the ideas are too long for an article, too short for a book, so this seemed like a good format. We printed 20,000, and we’re going to do a second printing. They’ve sold mostly through my Web site (www.edwardtufte.com; $7). It’s really come alive. It’s the only success story in e-commerce!

Are you surprised? You must have hit a nerve.

The point of the essay is to change things. There’s certainly been a wonderful response, but the real consequences we’ll know in five years. I’d posted parts of it in my Web site forum, as answers to questions.

“The minimum we should hope for with any display technology is that it should do no harm.” What has the reaction been, for the most part?

I get a lot of postings saying, “I’d wondered why these presentations are so bad.” Another is, “I’m trapped at this company using this stuff, what do I do?” The answer is, do something different, but don’t announce it. Second, simply use PowerPoint as a slide projector rather than an information tool. And third, give everyone in the audience a printed and folded 11 x 17-inch piece of paper, which, according to my data, holds the equivalent of at least 200 to 250 PowerPoint slides. That piece of paper is the one thing an audience can view at its own pace. And paper is also a document, it leaves traces. People can make copies and show it to others, which every presenter should want.

So how did we wind up here, anyhow?

We’ve drifted into this presentation mode without realizing the cost to the content and the audience in the process. It’s widely used because it’s simple and fits into a bureaucratic mode. And, also, simply because it’s widely used. It has momentum.

Is there an alternative tool that you like?

Yeah, well, P-A-P-E-R technology. Paper. It’s very high-resolution.

Dan Nadel, a partner in Monday Morning in New York City (www.onmondaymorning.com), interviewed Douglas Coupland for the September/October I.D.