Review of Tufte course

August 8, 2012  |  News

Thousands of people have attended Edward Tufte's one-day course on data graphics. Robert Kosara did not like it.

My advice? Buy his books. Read them. They're good. Just realize that you're getting a historical perspective on data visualization, not the cutting edge. Understand that Tufte's ideas are a good starting point, not a religion. There are many things that Tufte doesn't know, including pretty much anything related to visual perception and cognition, recent work (less than 30 years old), and interaction.

I've never been, but that's sort of what I expected. Has anyone had a different experience with the course?

Update: Lots of good stuff in the comments. The consensus seems to be good/great for beginners, and others should stick to the books for refreshers.

29 Comments

  • Wouldn’t it be silly to expect too much from a one day course?

  • He remains concerned about the type of paper a book is printed on, when so much of the world has moved to digital. When the books were first printed, they were inspirational. Now, it’s more difficult to find value as there are so many other great resources available, like your website. I haven’t cracked them open in years. (I went to his course a few years ago).

  • I liked it. Yes the criticisms are true – it could be better. But it’s still great if the alternative is only reading books or not going. But when else do you get a chance to switch off from work and to just listen and think about this kind of thing? In this environment the stories from the book come alive so much more than they do when you read by yourself. And you have the chance to think much more clearly about the principles and practice than you would otherwise. Ignore the crap bits, enjoy the great bits and use the stimulus of the discussion to let your mind wander and explore what it all means to you. I loved it.

  • I attended the course two years ago, after having known about it and put it off for a long time.

    It was one of the very best one day seminars I have ever been in, on any topic, if not the best.

    It was professionally conducted. Working with a very dense audio, visual and tactile presentation,Tufte and his team of headset-wearing assistants hit every slide, every note, and every statement with flawless timing and not a single technical glitch.

    I had read (but not studied) Tufte’s work and already owned two of his books, but I was very happy to receive, as part of the course fee, not only one book, but all four (4), with an autograph from the author. This alone is nearly worth the price of the course.

    Ah, the content. Tufte was a masterful presenter. It was a delight to sit in one place in a large hotel presentation room for hours and listen to well-crafted ideas elegantly presented by someone who deeply cared about them — Not about selling them. Not about having you agree. Not about ‘looking good’. Just simple, raw caring about ideas, their beauty, their value and their possible utility. It was refreshing.

    I, too, wish he’d update his seminar, because I am in danger of attending again, even if for the identical content and for the simple joy of it, but I’d much rather hear his new ideas.

    (I suppose a reader of such a gushing review is due some information on the nature of the source. I am a 50 something IT ‘architect’, under/post-graduate background in Math/Physics, current interests in statistics and a veteran of many, many corporate trainings and presentations. )

    If it weren’t evident already, I heartily recommend this course to virtually anyone — from CEOs of software companies to corporate presentation teams to computer art students in high school. It is a real joy.

  • I attended his class. He seemed extremely pompous about everything. It was a major letdown, as all he did was point out examples in the books (which were included in registration fee). My work paid for it, but aside from getting all the books I wouldn’t recommend it.

    • this, exactly.

    • Pompous indeed. But it’s not a bad place to send people who can’t be bothered to read the books and need to be force-fed.

    • I agree with the above posts as well. Besides being pompous, he can be pretty nasty with his attendees – not cool! Stuff he covers in the lecture is all in his books or is, by now, common sense in vis community.

    • I attended his one-day class couple months ago. It was the most boring lecture I’ve attended in a long time. Not worth your money and time. I wouldn’t recommend to anyone.

  • I went a few years back. I would say that comment is very accurate. Something I have always thought but not sure if I was missing something.

  • Andrew Howe August 9, 2012 at 6:34 am

    If you’re going to buy the books, you might as well attend the course, the price includes the books. If you are someone who has invested enough in data visualization to have a blog about it, it should be worth it to you to listen to this guy for a day. He has some really important points.

    I think the reviewer in this case is totally missing the point of Tufte’s ethos, and it actually really concerns me. Tufte finds great art in the purpose-built visualization techniques that some very old books use. And it turns out that the way that those books present information is much, much better than most of the infographics that are out there. Some points to take from Tufte are: When it is actually appropriate to use graphing instead of just presenting raw numbers, how to get your point across without using your visualization to mislead people on the evidence, where current visualization trends miss out on generations of improvements in information design. It is not flash-bang theatrics to look at centuries-old books, but it is remarkable that they are BETTER at displaying information in a way that it can really be interpreted than all of our modern visualization tools, with only a few minor exceptions.

    I don’t think his perspectives are really all that different from many others’, but he is very clear and purposeful about what he writes, and that deserves commendation.

    I’d agree the narcissistic tendencies are a bit much, and that not all of the details he includes in the presentation are important… but his ability to engage the audience for an entire day without pulling in the useless theatrics usually involved in one-day courses should be commended. To be fair, the price of the course includes a copy of all of his books, so the sales pitch isn’t really that bad. I highly doubt it was 15 minutes worth.

    Was I totally floored by his presentation? No. Is the work that I do every day informed by his perspective? I’d say most of the time, yes. Did I need to see him speak to get it? No, but it did help.

    • Interesting points. One comment though – re. “it is remarkable that they are BETTER at displaying information in a way that it can really be interpreted than [modern stuff]“.

      I wish there was a name for this logical fallacy, because I see it all the time in everything from music and literature review to philosophy and history. Essentially, it’s “Why is the very best of every generation before mine combined so much better than the work I’ve seen produced by my generation over the course of the last year or two?”

      It’s important to note that people have been visualising information for hundreds of years, and to remind people who get caught up with fashions and fads that the best of the last 300 years is better than the best of the last 3 years. But maybe not so surprising…

  • I’ll let you know! I signed up for the August course in Chicago.

  • I have been to this seminar three times (separated by years) and have learned new concepts every time I went, as it has never been exactly the same. Edward Tufte speaks on information display principles. While his books are very academic, his principles have been extremely helpful in both my data presentation and in web and mobile app UI design.

    While he uses historic (print) examples, most iterative changes in the mobile OS and hardware world are directly traceable back to Tufte’s principles, that far predate their implementation.

    I find it hard to believe that any of the above folks actually went to the seminar, because Tufte is one of the most polished speakers I have ever experienced, and the seminars are extremely organized. Additionally, as an attendee, you will receive a copy of all of his books.

    @mikev: As long as you are aware that he is not going to talk about specific design mechanisms and will lean toward principles, you will have a marvelous time!

  • Charles Lambdin August 9, 2012 at 8:13 am

    Overall I liked it a great deal. One comment I would make though is that when I took it in Portland several years ago, it was, by and large, a prolonged rant against the evils of PowerPoint.

  • I enjoyed his speaking. This isn’t a lecture on all the material – rather it is a colorful introduction. If you want to learn, you should read the books or look elsewhere.

  • I have been, about 6 years ago. I worked in a team of analysts and statisticians, as the resident designer to translate their data into visual communications (mostly reports, but other stuff too). We (the analysts, too) and I went to the TWO day course. I didn’t know what to expect so was not disappointed. From the workshop we felt more confident in trying “new” ways to communicate data, and the knowledge gave us a soap box to support our points to stakeholders (“No, a massive gridded table is NOT the best way to show this data). The workshop was a jumping off place for a lot of independent research we did on eye studies, how the brain reads tables and graphs, and other stuff like that.

    When I left the position of designer to analysts, we had an exceptionally high standard for reporting design, as well as processes in place to maintain and build it.

    I thank Tufte’s course for being the ignition to that corporate movement.

  • I attended Tufte’s course a few years ago. He’s a character: academic for sure (prefers multi-syllabic words to their more concise counterparts), but if you can get past the personality (or find entertainment in it), he has some good concepts. The missing link for me was between the theoretical and practical application (little time is spent on the latter). I agree with the point made that, if you’re going to buy the books, you might as well attend the course since you get all along with it.

  • I think Kosara is being unfair here, since he’s treating it like a graduate seminar when it is clearly something for sophomores. I attended the course sometime around 2000-2001, as a figurative sophomore. I did not find the presentation loose or Tufte to be a poor speaker. Quite the opposite, in fact. I thought he was erudite, charming, and persuasive, if irascible. He’s no more egotistical than most professors. I have to admit, though, that by the end of the day I was somewhat underwhelmed.

    He showed off some first editions of 500 year old books with nifty examples, spent a lot of time talking about Powerpoint, and had a few cute interactive examples. He hammered home a few basic rules about being truthful in presentation. There was very little that isn’t in the three main texts.

    I took the class in the DC area, and it seemed geared to an audience of government analysts, folks who present data all the time and who should probably do so more thoughtfully. Did they get something out of it? I’d guess so, since they schedule these things annually and they seem always to be fairly well-attended.

    If you’ve spent really any time at all thinking about conveying data visually, you’re not going to get much out of it from an educational standpoint. Even so, you still might be entertained. Or infotained. Or whatever.

  • I went to his two day course years ago and my experience was much like the review. I was looking forward to the experience and I learned a couple of things but considered much of the time wasted. Too much focused on him or his hatred of PowerPoint.

    If he asked me for my feedback I would recommend cutting out the slideshow of the sculptures in the backyard and the white gloved display of the ancient books and condense the half-day rant about PowerPoint to an hour or two.

    My coworker, who went to Tuffte’s workshop the year before I went, has an even less generous opinion of how useful the workshop was.

  • I was interested to read the review of the course. I read all 3 Tufte books several years ago (borrowed from a colleague). Just recently I decided to buy his first 3 books 2nd hand from abebooks.com at a total cost of around $US60. His principles are great, but now there are many wonderful books I am reading with great examples – Visualize This (or course!), Information is Beautiful (David McCandless), Information Graphics (Sandra Rendken), and several books on learning R.

  • I had a very similar experience. The workshop felt like it was catered towards presentation makers and I didn’t glean as much from it as I would have liked. That said, the four books are still a great resource and wonderful to flip through!

  • I attended Tufte’s lecture at his Chelsea gallery in June or July of this year.

    My experience was incredibly worthwhile. So much so that I wonder whether any of those above who didn’t find it useful even saw the same thing I did.

    A few things that I think made my experience worthwhile:

    1) Tufte has opinions and he expresses them without reservation. The vast majority of his opinions are are based in actual data. I like data so his opinions don’t bother me.

    2) Tufte has a wicked understated sense of humor. If your humor-sensing organs are impaired or if you’re intimidated by data or humor or the mixing thereof then you might feel that he’s “arrogant.” but that would only be because you don’t get the jokes.

    3) Tufte had an entire segment covering Big Data in the workshop I attended. I work with big data and predictive analytics. Tufte’s comments were spot on and the sort of truth you won’t hear at a vendor-sponsored conference.

    4) Tufte demands that you work as hard as he does. If you’re prone to blaming your tools, your corporate culture, you access to data or any other such thing then you’ll feel bad. He expects data vis people to do whatever is necessary to understand and communicate their ideas–not just whatever matches buttons in their software or what fits on a presentation slide. If you’re not ready to perform at that level then his advice will be intimidating.

    5) People easily fall into the cult of Tufte. Avoid those people (even though they are right about pie charts as about PowerPoint). The real lessons embedded throughout the workshop are about maintaining humility–especially with data about people. If you cannot maintain or understand how or why to remain humble in the face of data about constantly changing phenomena then you’ll either end up in the cult (parroting without understanding) or you’ll be upset because somone suggested your data taken out to the 19th decimal might be bullshit.

    Tufte embodies a sort of reasoned, rational and human approach that can often be at odds with contemporary art school culture (data focused), business culture (communicate well vs easily), science culture (the squishing of human data).

    Is Tufte old? Yes.

    Is the clarity of his thinking and presentation superior? Yes. Yes it is.

    Don’t confuse new or novel with innovative or meaningful.

  • I attended the course several years ago and thought it was great. It was extremely professional, had great content, and I got a bunch of books for the price. Most of the audience were not statisticians or experts in visualization. Personally, I think it’s great to have an original Galileo to show…talk about interesting content! My question to the folks who didn’t like the course: What would your one day course on visualization to an extraordinarily varied audience (marketing folks, scientists, statisticians, etc) look like? My guess is that even though many of us might find gripes concerning the sculpture, his humility, etc that we would have a hard time putting together a course like that and not sending half the people running for the aisles.

  • I went to his course in 2005 as a figurative freshman, to use the analogy above. No experience with data visualization, despite working in Excel and Powerpoint almost full time. That day was one of the most eye opening experiences of my life. I suddenly felt as if I had been given a rule book, or a map, for all this stuff I thought was just made up.
    I’ll admit to having joined the cult of Tufte for several years. I’ve developed a more nuanced appreciation for the strengths and weaknesses of his approach over time, but I think it’s important for people to realize the value he provides: Tufte is the Art History 101, the Intro to Economics, of data visualization. He’s giving you the fundamentals, the principles, the context in which to understand how visualization should work. For people who’ve been at this for years, it seems ancient and impractical. And it is. But just like art history, economics, philosophy, even computer science, one needs to understand what came before in order to innovate.
    I read this site because of Edward Tufte. I think about how to present information in a clear and compelling way every day, in large part because of Edward Tufte. He’s medicine. Very worth taking, even if it isn’t sweet.

  • It was inspiration. Nothing from skill set point of view.

  • The Tufte course was enjoyable – very well executed and thought-provoking. I attended it about eight years ago. He definitely changed the way I think about data and presentation. I particularly liked his takedown of PowerPoint. In some ways though, his influence has not been positive. He is in love with multi-dimensional vizualization, hence the Minard graph on Napolean’s invasion of Russia, which tracks 7 factors. For a long time I really tried to follow this approach and kept getting these looks of confusion from people when they viewed my graphics. It took me a while to overcome that bias and come to realize the power of aggregating simple charts that process precognitively. Tufte is a pioneer and has some great thoughtful things to say but the discipline of graphical presentation has come a long way since he was on the cutting edge of it.

  • I attended the course today. I felt at times I was learning something new, and at other times it was targeted more to junior people. Those times bored me to tears. However, having said that, I must say I am a strong supporter of his anti-PowerPoint stance. I have developed those same conclusions several years back, and am glad I am not alone. Unfortunately in my institution PowerPoint marches on. I am glad he presented an alternative.

    In terms of the other comments above from older session, in today’s session (June 18 2013) he was very much focused on the abilities of the latest technology, and looking forward. I think he’s updated his curriculum.

    I did not find him pompous at all. I found him rather personable. My only issue is that at times he rambles on about things that are just plain obvious. This happened especially during the period after lunch. And during those times I just shut down. I think 1/3 of the time was productive to me. The books, though, are great.

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