Dont get it original get it right
by Shayne Bowman (as told to Chris Willis)
Thoughts from a one-day course "Presenting
Data and Information" by Edward Tufte at the Hyatt Regency
in Dallas, March 8, 2001
After three years working as a designer on the web, I had become
Paging through countless screenfuls of blinking banner ads and
bitmapped type had bled me more than I had realized. I had seen
endless PowerPoint presentations sprinkled with bulleted action
items that went nowhere.
What was worse, I suspected, is that I had become an accomplice
to this confusion by way of my tacit approval. Everywhere I looked
it seemed good design was dead. My resolve had worn thin. I needed
to get religion.
By chance, I had received a notice of a seminar to be given by
Edward Tufte. Tufte, Yales high priest of information design,
was just whom I needed. Tufte had saved me 10 years ago. Could he
do it again?
My first real job interview at a newspaper was for a new position
called an infographics artist. It was 1992 and the graphics craze
was in full swing, fed by the brightly-colored confections of USA
Today. Each day that paper reserved a spot for its Snapshot, a small
but highly metaphoric graphic illustrating some statistic of American
USA Today had been designed to appeal to a TV generation. That
its distinctive newsboxes mimiced a Zenith rather than the traditional
news rack was no accident.
But it didnt matter. Newspapers were losing readers. And
soon, nearly every editor in the country wanted colorful graphics
to spunk up their front page. Even ones in Monroe, LA.
Thus, I was summoned to the Deep South. But being a journalism
major, I didnt have the artistic skills to match my words.
So when the editor asked me to make a bar chart out of eight large
pencils, I thought it best to object on philosophical grounds rather
than reveal my incompetency.
Tuftes teachings helped me mask my lack of natural ability
by inadvertantly doing the right thing. I would not become a chartoonist
because I could not draw but because these superfluous graphic elements
were inappropriate. Problem solved. Carreer launched.
In the newsroom there were battles. I would not take information
for granted. I would source and verify. I would become the purveyor
of not only what was appropriate but anoint what was authentic.
Eventually I moved out of print design and, like many others, applied
my skills to the Web. While I started out with the same approach
that had served me well in the newsroom, several years working the
web left me feeling that no one was truly taking responsibility
There were no names, no sources, there were no traces left, no
consequences to be had except for broken hypertext links and unverified
tidbits. When Tufte stepped to the front of the audience, I was
looking for validation.
Please, tell me, Father Ed, I was doing the right thing
or meant to most of the time.
Tufte responded with a revelation: Do no harm, he said.
Dont get it original get it right. There
it was the Hypocratic oath of design. It hit me hard because
it had been staring me in the face all those years.
Design is not about vanity, its about responsibility, integrity.
Its self-effacing and at its best invisible. Good
information displays get people thinking about the information not
the design, Tufte said.
Deep down I knew design wasnt about looking good or advancing
ones career. But I had never considered my profession a vocation.
Certainly not a higher calling?
But it is. Information design requires both faith and commitment.
Faith that strong, clear thinking made visible can induce the same
in your readers.
And commitment to defend your content from those who tempt with
laziness, chart junk and pointless bullet items. Galileos
books still teach us 400 years later. Will your website?
So go forth. The best designs are the ones that honor content and
get out of the way. But Im preaching to the choir.
Over the past ten years, Shayne
Bowman has worked as an information designer for organizations
such as The Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, HOUR Detroit Magazine
and Belo Interactive.