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strategy and business
 / Autumn 2008 / Issue 52(originally published by Booz & Company)


Managing to See

Ultimately, Roam doesn’t convince us that his methodology is the best tool for the job. That said, his approach can help managers facing a complex problem discover the most important elements to act on. I for one hope Roam takes on an­other book to translate these smart ideas into a simpler guide.

A Mission of Elegance
In all fairness, few visual language gurus share their ideas with simple elegance. This can be said even of Edward Tufte, the best-known figure in information design. The celebrated Tufte was anointed as “the Leonardo da Vinci of data” by the New York Times. He gives roughly 35 sold-out talks per year to audiences of up to 500 individuals, with whom he shares his thoughts on excellent graphic design.

Tufte’s ideas have certainly struck a chord. For the past 20 years he’s been on a crusade to help people clean up and fundamentally improve the charts and graphs they produce to share information. Far too many graphics end up as missed opportunities, says Tufte, who revels in pointing out charts that are misleading, confusing, or purposeless.

“At their best,” writes Tufte, “graphics are instruments for reasoning about quantitative information.” He focuses on how individuals can create charts and graphs that are powerful, clear, and effective. Like Roam, Tufte sees the final chart on paper as a building front rather than a Hollywood set: The communicator sifts through data, derives meaningful conclusions, and then presents those conclusions with techniques that fit the message.

Tufte also argues that graphic excellence can be boiled down to a handful of essential principles that enable anyone to use charts, graphs, and the like to make sense of data to communicate a powerful message with clarity and elegance. “The principles of information design are universal — like mathematics,” he states.

In his book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (now in its second edition), Tufte draws from a wealth of examples to illustrate how masters of this craft reveal data through artful design. His “principles of graphical excellence” are compelling in themselves; for example:

  • Graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in he shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.
  • Graphical excellence is nearly always multivariate.
  • And graphical excellence requires telling the truth about the data.

From such simple principles Tufte has been able to build a vast following. Over the last 25 years, he has self-published four books, which altogether have sold more than 1.5 million copies.

Part of his broad appeal rests in his ability to create great heroes, and villains, in the world of information design. One of his vilest enemies is PowerPoint, which he cites as an evil, authoritarian form of communication that elevates format over content, prevents rich data analysis, and essentially turns every presentation into a sales pitch. In his essay “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within,” which he has published as a small book and sells on his Web site, Tufte says PowerPoint’s process of squeezing data into a series of prefabricated slides invariably degrades the information. “The rigid slide-by-slide hierarchies, indifferent to content, slice and dice the evidence into arbitrary compartments, producing an anti-narrative with choppy continuity,” he writes. Tufte shows how blind obedience to this format produced, in the case of NASA engineers studying data on the space shuttle Columbia, a failure to read the looming danger sug­gested by the data. (The shuttle disintegrated in flight in 2003, killing seven crew members.)

Tufte’s books, especially the first two (the second is Envisioning Information), are recommended to managers who care to learn the principles of excellent graphic de­sign by example. His books contain powerful illustrations of terrific graphics — charts and maps and graphs for which the designer se­lected the right data and presented it in a way that elegantly made a point that could not otherwise be made (in much the same way that a great painting or song expresses an idea or emotion in a way that nothing else can).

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Visual Management Resources
Works mentioned in this review.

  1. Gwendolyn D. Galsworth, Visual Workplace, Visual Thinking: Creating Enterprise Excellence through the Technologies of the Visual Workplace (Visual-Lean Enterprise Press, 2005), 244 pages
  2. Jessica Hagy, Indexed (Viking Studio, 2008), 96 pages
  3. Matthew E. May, The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation (Free Press, 2007), 256 pages
  4. Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (HarperPerennial, 1994), 216 pages
  5. Daniel H. Pink, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future (Riverhead Books, 2006), 276 pages; The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need (Riverhead Books, 2008), 160 pages
  6. Dan Roam, The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures (Portfolio, 2008), 288 pages
  7. Mike Rother and John Shook, Learning to See: Value-Stream Mapping to Create Value and Eliminate Muda, Version 1.3 (Lean Enterprise Institute, 2003), 112 pages
  8. Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2nd ed. (Graphics Press, 2001), 200 pages; Envisioning Information (Graphics Press, 1990), 128 pages; The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within (Graphics Press, 2006), 32 pages
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