Militant arm of the infoviz movement gets serious about PowerPoint

By Mark Goetz. (Thanks, PeaceLove)



    1. Now, now. Surely you can do better than “save tons of time”. Let’s see a graphic display of that quantity along with at least two other variable factors. The dead kittens deserve as much consideration, don’t you agree?

  1. Oh, the irony of transforming such a nice piece of vector graphics about information visualisation to jpg. Mmm, artifacts.

    1. No kidding, you’d save a crapload(hound?) of bandwidth by hosting this as a .png or even a .gif, while eliminating the compression artifacts at the same time.

      You might have some youtube embedding ninjas, but your image compression-fu is weak.

      1. Hehe. In theory, you’re right. In practice, the JPG is 6 times smaller than the PNG. 120kb vs. 20kb. Nice try, though!

        1. Yeah I crunched it myself later to see how much you save, and was hoping nobody noticed that :) However a GIF is only 26KB and is lossless. You could probably use a utility like PNGcrush to get the lossless PNG file under 26KB, which their imagehost probably does inline anyways.

    1. Especially if you prefer to say that than to just Google him (or Google “tufte powerpoint”).

    2. He’s famous in certain circles for his writings on how to present information clearly.

      More directly relevant, he’s also the author of The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint , an essay on the evils of PP. There’s a short summary in the wikipedia article on him.

    3. Edward Tufte speaks and writes on presenting information clearly. Naturally, his website looks like it was designed by a four year old:

      At the end of his cult recruitment seminars he likes to show photos of his sculpture garden to his fawning disciples.

    4. Ed Tufte “The graphical display of quantitative information” et al. and a wonderful takedown of PP by presenting the Gettysburg address in PP!

  2. If I modify an existing powerpoint file, and save it with a new name, does he kill the same kitten again. Or does he lone it first.

  3. You know, the funny thing is, I’ve seen many slides designed by Tufte, and I think a lot of them are entirely too convoluted to be at all useful. Basically, they’re the best possible way to display information… if you’re E. Tufte, or an initiate to the E. Tufte school of information trasmission.

    Powerpoint isn’t inherently evil. People used to use slides all the time – they were merely handwritten on transparencies, or drawn up in a wordprocessor, or whatever. Yeah, a lot of people are terrible at getting information across, but that’s not a powerpoint problem.

    If anything, the slide being shot at looks pretty good, design wise. 3 single line semi-sentences summarizing the slide and two large graphics taking up half the total space. If they guy was pointing to a figure, rather than a word, one could argue he was even presenting it reasonably well, too.

  4. Can we just get to the kitten killing? Only reason I’m here. All this power point smower point stuff doesn’t mean a hill of beans to me. So, where are the kittens?!?

    1. Is that flowingdata blog intentionally just a cloud of same-sized text? Am I missing the irony, or is that layout actually supposed to be informative?

      His title & abstract are top right with no hierarchy whatsoever. If I opened 10 data visualization websites, I’d close that one without reading a single word of it.

  5. I’ve been trying to get a proposal into a few VC companies. They mostly want PP files. I think I’ll add this slide.

  6. Remember, in Redmond they have a big factory that kills a kitten every time you chose not to use PowerPoint. Told your spouse about a weird dream last night? Didn’t use powerpoint? BLAM! Another cute pile of gore.

  7. Wow, Tufte again! This is the third time in a week… first I was reminiscing at work about the time my college spent nearly the entire budget of the senior graphic design dpt to send ten students to a Tufte lecture. Then I heard the man himself on NPR yesterday, talking about the Federal Stimulus webstite. And now this.

    1. Yes, that’s a commonplace complaint – that it was bad information design that killed the Challenger crew.

      It’s also false.

      What killed the Challenger crew was the desire by the higher-ups to launch despite being told of the dangers. Responsibility means you make the decision favoring crew safety irrespective of the visual form in which the information is presented, to prevent those unnecessary deaths.

      I don’t care how well or poorly anyone presents something, if they tell me someone’s likely to be in mortal danger if I do something I am not going to do it.

          1. “Evidence” wasn’t your requirement.

            The whole point of Tufte’s chapter on this matter was, that the slides did not present evidence.

            While I agree that he downplays what he describes as “cultural issues”, I can see what he was getting it.

            I only skimmed the chapter again yesterday – it’s quite dense in information and he makes quite a few valid point beyond “It was a bad powerpoint sildes” .

  8. As bad as people might think powerpoint is, I was just at an animators convention where they were reading crap from papers, boring, dull crap, ( “what questions have we got from the study, x, y, z, and now..huuuh lets talk about the questions”) where a powerpoint presentation would have been heaps better than that. ( they were animators goddamnit, I was expecting at least something visual going on)

  9. One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following devices (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): a PC or similar computer running Powerpoint, a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small that perhaps in the course of the hour, one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, a counter tube discharges, and through a relay releases a hammer that hits the keys for “new file”. Also in the box is E Tufte. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.

    To explain this further, I have prepared a powe… ach, scheisse!!

    1. I agree. What else are we supposed to do for visual presentations, go back to old school slide projectors? Screw that, I can’t spend 40 bucks every time I need to put together a lecture on graphic design.

      (I’m assuming “PowerPoint” is being used as a generic term for all digital presentation software such as Impress and Keynote since they can all be equally offensive in the wrong hands.)

  10. I hadn’t heard of Edward Tufte before, so I looked him up.

    It’s probably just because what I read about him was short and summarized, but it sounds like it’s not powerpoint that’s the problem, it’s people who don’t know what they’re doing. It doesn’t sound like any of his criticisms are inherent in the powerpoint format, just that they’re common practice among presentation designers.

  11. Just a general note on the graphic: it’s not about PowerPoint as such, but about the stupid use of slide-based presentations in general. The original reference to this is the Tufte book on the subject:

    (Really, I’ve seen this re-posted on another blog and it has people commenting on how superior Keynote is. Words fail me.)

    1. Really, I’ve seen this re-posted on another blog and it has people commenting on how superior Keynote is. Words fail me.

      The it’s a good thing you can say it with animated graphics! ;)

  12. This argument fails to convince at exactly the point where it says “a powerpoint.” This illustration is more about the fastest way to present a losing argument than it is about something being wrong with presentation software.

  13. I’ve actually been to a Tufte seminar, which was not egregiously expensive for students (it was $200, a price which included copies of his four major books), nor was it culty. He actually uses Keynote himself in those seminars — as a convenient method of projecting photos and videos. Keynote and Powerpoint are great for that.

    What’s crappy about them is the extremely low resolution of data you can put on them. You can’t put more than a few words on a slide. You can’t show a table with much more than 4 cells on a PP or Keynote slide. And you can’t show a graph with more than maybe 10 data points. People just won’t be able to read it. And of course, for any kind of really useful analysis (as opposed to fluffy crap), you need more data than that.

    The way to get around this, of course, is by just using them as a handy slide projector. Make a graphic in some better program, and just put it onto a blank PP slide for projecting it. But don’t generate any graphics at all in PP.

    If you prepare slides to visually accompany a talk, they should illustrate what you’re talking about, not be redundant with what you’re saying. You really don’t need to summarize your words in bullet point form. If you do, your talk is poorly written and poorly organized — or the information is better presented in written form in the first place.

    Of course, I once gave a presentation like this. I didn’t use any bullet points or clip art — just plots from the relevant scientific papers on otherwise blank PP slides, which I explained and discussed verbally.

    Afterwards, as required by the professor, I posted the PP slides to the class website for others’ later reference. And my classmates threw a royal shitfit when they saw the slides were just graphs with no bullet points. They’d cut class, expecting the posted presentation to spoonfeed everything to them in bullet-point form. They’d expected that actually listening to the presentation would be redundant, a waste of their time. And to be fair, that’s true of most PowerPoint presentations. Which raises the question: Why have the damn things in the first place?

  14. Here’s an anecdote of the evils of Power Point. Some time ago I took a prerequisite Psych 101 course. The Professor had a booklet of “notes” which was required for the course, and on sale at the university bookstore for about 30 bucks. In it there was nothing but the printout of every PP slide that he used in the course. There were up to 120 students in the lecture per section taught, and up to three sections a semester. Do the math. Oh yeah, dude was a total B.F. Skinner style behaviorist too, go figure.

  15. I used to shun PPT for the written report as well. Then I started working in a job that required decks. So I read Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds and was a changed man.

    If you don’t know how and when to use a tool, don’t blame the tool.

  16. Scott McCloud already solved this problem; powerpoint should be the pictures to your words, enabling people to see things words can’t easily describe (size variance, for example), or augmenting the words in ways that only pictures can do.

    Tufte is probably quite smart, but the short version of his ideas as encapsulated here don’t do that intelligence much justice, since the real problem with most powerpoints (at least the ones I’ve seen/done) is that the user hasn’t thought through whether he needs the powerpoint, or how to use it in order maximize its usefulness if he does need it.

    If you wish to see what PP can do in the hands of someone who knows what it’s for, view the PP here:



  17. You can’t judge Tufte’s arguments based on internet comments, because most internet comment threads are very similar to powerpoint in resolution. However, here are some of his own words in response to a common question:

    Q: PowerPoint is just a tool; why blame the software for lousy presentations? Just because some people do silly things with PP doesn’t mean that PP has a problem; people do silly things in written reports also.

    ET: “This makes one good point: responsibility for poor presentations rests with the presenter. But it is more complicated than that. PP has a distinctive, definite, well-enforced, and widely practiced cognitive style that is contrary to serious thinking. PP actively facilitates the making of lightweight presentations.

    [My essay] reports evidence that is based on several thousand slides, five case studies, and extensive quantitative comparisons between PowerPoint and other methods of communicating information. The results are clear: some methods of presentation are better than others. And PowerPoint is rarely a good method.

    Nearly all the evidence of the essay suggests that there is an inherent defect in PowerPoint, unless one advances the entertaining alternative hypothesis that nearly all PP users are lightweights and nearly all users of other methods are not. This is not the case; PP has inherent defect.”

  18. If you click on the image above it takes you to Mark Goetz’s blog. Then if you click on the thumbnail in that you get a large png that you can use as wallpaper. Anyone worried about jpg artifacts should get that one.

  19. PowerPoint sucks but spare the kittens. The only thing PowerPoint is good for is creating gainful employment for people who make PowerPoint presentations. The training materials for my job are done in PowerPoint and it takes twice as long to get through the stupid presentations as it would to just read the information. It wastes so much of my time.

  20. Is this supposed to be ironic? The image looks like a powerpoint slide to me. I could make that slide just as quickly in powerpoint as I could in omnigraffle.

  21. So, if I create a PowerPoint presentation in a virtual machine, will Tufte kill Schrödinger’s cat?

  22. I stopped taking Tufte seriously once I read his thoughts on figures. He believes, among other ideas, that they should never be numbered, since you could always imply what figure is being referred to by layout. In serious publications, the author is rarely responsible for layout; and also it is often essential to be able to refer to a figure with a simple label like “Figure 1″ rather than “that graph under the paragraph about the…”. Tufte is a bright, creative guy, with a lot of unconventional ideas; however where communication is the goal, relentless conventionality allows your audience to focus on the content itself.

    1. Seems to me that his point is „serious publications are broken, if they do not allow an author to layout his paper to the best effect“, not „figures should not be numbered.“

  23. I admire Tufte and Few for their ‘take no prisoners’ attitude on information visualization. I think anyone seeking to change something has to make a stand. It is within that context that I chuckle at some of the attacks on PowerPoint. I have used PowerPoint to communicate an idea just as I have used ‘bad English’ to communicate an idea. It all depends on the context of the situation what your CUSTOMER needs in the moment. I do strive to ensure my foundational knowledge is built upon the masters and in the case of information visualization, Tufte is one. But, not to a fault.

  24. Powerpoint is mostly a bad thing when people use it to cover up their inability to marshal facts properly in a clear, logical manner. I’ve seen many presentations that were bad in Powerpoint and would still have been bad had the content been given to a designer to make pretty or had it been put in a more sophisticated presentation medium. Too many people fail to plan before embarking on shoving their thoughts into the PC. This is aggravated by the limitations of powerpoint as a program, the way it seems to impose a particular way of thinking on the user and the unwillingness of anyone to learn the program.

    It’s not just Powerpoint that suffers from this. People seem to be encouraged to think that they can do a decent job on many programs without investing time in getting past the basic user stage. Hence a proliferation of graphic designs that are easy to do in illustrator or photoshop. (But neither original nor appropriate). Products with shapes that are easier in SolidWorks. Templated Dreamweaver sites. Rubbish Powerpoints. If the fundamental thinking hasn’t been done, it’s no good expecting the result to be good just because it’s been easy to do and you haven’t learned more than the basics.

    If you take the time to learn powerpoint, it’s quite surprising what can actually be achieved, especially on Mac OS, which has better numerical control than Vista. The typography is nearly always poor, but in presenting an argument, the content is what counts and there are intelligent ways to use these basic tools to get clear, cogent and understandable information across.

    The worst thing about MS program is the way there’s so much crap on screen helping you, thinking for you, making it “easy” when it’s doing quite the opposite. But a clean powerpoint, well expressed and devoid of effects can be appropriate, intelligent and easy to understand.

  25. Bahahaha – I like how the kittens are in a line like slides ready to be killed when the presenter hits ‘next.’

    Check out for an alternative to powerpoint – no slides, just one big canvas you can zoom around on.

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