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Three Excellent Books on Informational Design

And an example drawn out of one of them to demonstrate how high the price of bad presentation of information can be.

Analytical design is a content driven business
Edward Tufte

By Edward Tufte (www.edwardtufte.com), a famous expert in informational graphics, consultant with NASA and the IBM Co., and a Yale University professor. Published by Graphics Press. In English. You can order the books at Amazon.com.

  1. Visual Explanations is a book on visual explanations, proofs, and researches of cause-and-effect relations.
  2. Envisioning Informaton is a direct study of graphical techniques for information representation. According to the popular vote held at Amazon.com, this book is on the 20th century top-100 books list.
  3. The visual display of Quantitive Information is a book on graphical methods to treat statistical and numerical information.

Visual Explanations
Visual Explanations
Envisioning Information
Envisioning Information
The Visual Display of Quantative Information
The Visual Display of Quantative Information

I will now quote an example supplied in Visual Explanations (it is a brief summary rather than a precise quotation).

... The U.S. Space Shuttle Challenger met its disastrous end on 28 January, 1986. The vessel exploded 73 seconds after the ignition startup.

The investigation could establish the precise cause of the accident: destruction of rubber seals, which lost their elasticity due to the low ambient air temperature at the moment of the launch (about 29F or -2C.)

The most surprising fact is that exactly this cause was mentioned before the launch; what is more, it was mentioned by the company supplying the rocket. This information was duly sent to NASA. Amazing as it may seem, NASA experts did not find it convincing, and a postponement of the launch was overruled.

Tufte provides a detailed analysis of the drawbacks of the 13-page report faxed to NASA by the rocket supplier company (it looked similar to a modern PowerPoint presentation). In particular, the report lacked a signature of its author, and only contained some general recommendations. What is more important, however, is what Tufte suggests as an alternative.

As an alternative, Edward Tufte provides an example of a graph. It was plotted by the author using a collected statistics on the number and the gravity of known problems with rubber seals at various temperatures. To be able to produce a complex assessment, he introduces a 'damage index', which takes into account both the number of accidents and their gravity. At temperatures above 75F (+24C), there occurred no accidents at all, while three launches at temperatures below 60F (+13C) were accompanied by accidents, two of them involving serious damage to the seals. The graph shows clearly that all launches taken at temperatures below 65F (+18C) had some problems, and the colder it was, the more often these problems were encountered, and the graver were the consequences!

Edward Tufte, Visual Explanations
Edward Tufte, Visual Explanations

Temperature forecast for the day in question was 25-30F (-3 to -2C). One glance at the graph is enough to see that some very grave problems with the seals were simply unavoidable.

In this case, the price of the difference between a good presentation and a bad one was seven human lives, a spaceship, and a tremendous damage to the whole U.S space program.

________

Now it's time to recall the Tufte's quotation taken here as an epigraph: "Analytical design is a content driven business".

Analytical and informational design (of which presentation production also makes part) is, first of all, a process of adequately organizing information. Then follow the arguments selection, and the choice of representation media and the carrier. Then the visual solutions are produced, and it is only afterwards that comes the stage of graphical implementation and design. It is therefore very hard (if at all possible) to 'save' a bad presentation with a good-looking design alone. The whole thing is to be started all over again.

P.S.
It only remains us to boast that our Group's library now has all the three books autographed by the author.

P.P.S.
Tufte's fourth book entitled Beautiful Evidences is to be published soon.

Andrey Skvortsov
CEO, Mercator group


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