Friday, February 02, 2007

On the Transparency of Good Design

When I was almost ready to write my thesis, my adviser told me that I needed to read two more books. He explained that the wisdom contained in The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte would save me many a rewrite. The former didn't leave much of an impression on me but the latter transformed the way I looked at data display. I have been a fan of ET, as he calls himself, ever since.

I had the opportunity to a class from him in downtown LA on Wednesday. The ballroom was packed with people from as far away as Miami. I had expected to sit in a room with a bunch of rocket scientists. Instead, I was amazed at the broad mix of people and disciplines. The need to clearly show quantitative information and to explain its meaning is universal.

Every class participant received a boxed set of his four hardcover books. Our corporate library has multiple copies of the first three books; I have read and learned from them. I am looking forward to reading the most recent book, Beautiful Evidence. I have heard so much of his tract against PowerPoint. Now, I can read it firsthand in the book.

I had never heard of the term, sparklines, before Wednesday. I had been employing them (badly) for the last couple of years. I can already see how to improve some of the figures in my reports.

ET's central point that he drove home repeatedly was that good design should be transparent. You want the audience to concentrate on your content, not your design. He further added that we should copy the professionals. Sports statistics, the weather section and financial market tables have undergone much human factors testing; copy those well-tested designs.

I read the latter two sections in my capacity as a meteorologist and chief household portfolio manager. The sports pages usually go right into the recycling bin with the advertising circulars. From now on, I will peruse the sports pages to study how to better report statistics.

I already learned something useful from perusing the sports pages this morning. I didn't know that the outdoors column of the LA Times was buried at the back of the sports section.
The gray whale migration, which is slowly getting later because of climatic changes, is beginning to peak off Southern California. The Point Vicente volunteers this week have been posting daily counts in the 20s and 30s.
Read the whole column about climate change and how it affects marine life here. We last visited Point Vicente in Tie-Dye Family. Sunday, we hope to ride our family bike out to Point Vicente for a picnic and whale watching. If Palos Verdes Peninsula is too far away, you might consider watching from a pier. People have reported good whale viewing from the Manhattan Beach Pier. Additionally, the Roundhouse aquarium at the end of the pier is always fun for kids.

What about knitting?
Science and art have in common intense seeing, the wide-eyed observing that generates empirical information. --Edward Tufte in the introduction to Beautiful Evidence.
Norah Gaughan was questioned about the incongruity between her current work as a designer and her academic training as a scientist by the interviewer for Vogue Knitting magazine. Norah very graciously replied that it was not such an odd juxtaposition. Good for her. I knew there was reason why I am attracted to her work.

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