The personal brain-dump of Garrett Coakley

Edward Tufte at The Royal Geographic Society

Yesterday I was lucky enough to see Edward Tufte speak in the gorgeous surroundings of the Royal Geographic Society in London.

The talk was based around his most recent work Beautiful Evidence and his theories around information presentation, including of course an examination of Charles Joseph Minard’s famous flow map of Napoleon’s Russian campaign (of which we all got a free copy) and his own invention of sparklines, harking back to Galileo’s observations of Saturn.

There were a lot of nuggets to take away, but I’m going to share just a few of my favourites.

He made the observation that there are only two industries that refer to “users”. The chuckle from the audience, meant that he didn’t have to elucidate any further. I’ve wrestled with this issue myself, but having experimented I’ve found that words like “visitors” and “viewers” don’t capture the interactive nature of the web, they’re too passive. I think this is a discussion that is going to run and run.

He outlined some of the work he’s been doing for the Obama administration. Citing news sites such as the New York Times and the Sunday Times (here in the U.K.) and examples of what he likes in current web design. He’s aiming for 91% content in the sites he’s currently advising on, and as he said himself: “navigation is not content”.

91%! It’s an interesting target to aim for, and I’m tempted to go for it in the upcoming redesign of this place.

Whilst musing on the topic of news sites, he pointed out that these sites had hundreds of outgoing links and got tens of millions of hits a day, in his opinion disproving the “seven, plus or minus two” rule of thumb when it comes to navigation schemes.

I’m not sure whether that’s entirely true. I do agree that it’s a rough guideline and very much depends on your audience (there I go, trying to avoid the word “users”), their technical abilities and familiarity with your site, but even those big news sites have their hundreds of links chunked together in easier to digest subsets.

Another observation he made at this point was between good and bad copy writing for the web and how he disliked it when content went from reporting to pitching, and all of the tricks of the marketing trade that that entailed. I liked this point, don’t we just want our clients to tell the truth about what they do instead of pitching all the time and getting mired in sales speak?

It’s not often you get to see someone of Tufte’s stature speak in person, especially this side of the pond, all in all a great night which supplied a much needed recharge of the grey cells.