Sunday, June 27, 2010

Minard, Tufte, Zelazny et al

An interesting discussion for information and presentation design geeks going on around Andrew Arbela’s recent post highlighting Gene Zelazny’s commentary on the Tufte favorite chart by Charles Joseph Minard documenting Napoleon’s march on Russia.

For those unfamiliar with the players:
  • Andrew Arbela, author of The Extreme Presentation Method, created a very good framework for the two fundamentally different styles of presentations: ballroom style vs. conference room style. He has plenty of research to back-up his ideas, and doesn’t get caught up in the quasi-religious debate around Powerpoint. 
  • Gene Zelazny is the Director of Visual Communications for McKinsey & Company and has written two presentation-related books. Up until now, his advice has usually been pretty good, especially as related to professional service firms, even if his graphic style has been underwhelming at times.
  • Edward Tufte is the eclectic statistician and Professor Emeritus at Yale who has written and self-published several seminal books on information design. It is difficult to overstate his influence on information design and the visual display of data (he teaches a one-day course, highly recommended). He is famously critical of Powerpoint.
  • Charles Joseph Minard was an obscure French civil engineer (1781–1870) who was one of the pioneers of information graphics. The particular diagram in question is an 1861 drawing that Tufte noted “may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn.” Over time, the amount of energy spent discussing this one graphic and Tufte’s original comment is amazing (read: silly).
Anyway, Mr. Zelazny wrote an essay (3.6MB pdf) to “concentrate on the virtues of PowerPoint as a tool,” presumably leaving the philosophical debate to others. He correctly points out how quickly one can create reasonably good graphics with the tools in PP, and reminisces about how labor-intensive creating these sorts of things used to be. So far, so good. He then poses an interesting question (essentially): how would one translate the chart into a presentation today (sort of what would Minard do?). Then things get weird:
  1. Mr. Z seems to fall into the all presentations are the same false logic that Arbela argues against. I find this strange as I’ll bet most of McKinsey’s own presentations and deliverables are much more like conference room style presentations (or what we used to call documents) than the examples that follow in the essay.
  2. The example slides in the essay are the very sort of thing that anti-Powerpoint zealots (like Tufte) point to as illustrations of what is so wrong with the state of presentations today (with the possible exception of the cartoons by the Archie Comics’ AD, which are at least humorous if not necessarily effective).
To me, the irony in much of the discussion, opinion, and alternatives about the original Minard graphic is that in his original 1983 book, Tufte discusses this graphic in the context of graphic excellence. The idea that graphical displays should reveal information clearly, precisely, and efficiently. They should start with good information and be well-designed, and they should avoid falsehoods (e.g. graphical distortions) and meaningless distractions (e.g., clip art).

I have a small poster of this on my wall. When people comment on it I remind them that it is essentially an anti-war poster. Napoleon left Poland with 422,000 men and returned six months later with 10,000. Is any treasure worth 412,000 souls? Isn’t that the story Minard was telling?

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