The course content was skewed towards making presentations (as one would expect from a course entitled ”Presenting Data and Information”) but there were some excellent ideas for those of us who design software.
Here are some of the highlights and my thoughts on how they apply to the design of touch software.
“The information is the interface.”
Alternatively, the content is the interface. Tufte repeated this emphatically many times throughout the day. He gleefully quantifies how much screen real estate is taken up by “computer administrative debris,” e.g., “The scroll bars take up fully 8% of the available real estate and convey no information!” (See his video on iPhone Resolution for an example at 3:55.)
The idea that the interface should fade away and let users directly manipulate their content echoes the iOS Human Interface Guidelines section, “The Display Is Paramount, Regardless of its Size” where Apple points out that the user’s focus is on the content. I like Tufte’s phrasing better though, because it drives home the point that, ideally, there is no interface beyond the content itself.
Design isn’t crafting a beautiful, textured button with breathtaking animation. It’s figuring out if there’s a way to get rid of the button altogether.
Or, as Tufte said, “No matter how beautiful your interface is, it would be better if there were less of it.”
“Focus on content and understanding, not display.”
Tufte is delightfully obsessed with the moral and ethical obligation of presenting content in such a way that enhances the user’s understanding. Our goal is to “Make the user smart.”
As software designers, it’s easy to get fixated on the aesthetics of our content design and forget to step back and ask ourselves “does this help the user accomplish what they want to accomplish? Does it make them smarter/safer/better/happier?” When we design our apps’ content, we should remember that both we and the user have a goal. The design of the content should support those goals and the display of that content should never interfere.
“Don’t get it original, get it right.”
Or, perhaps my favorite quote from the entire course, “Talent imitates, genius steals.”
Tufte points out that many data presentation problems are either solved problems (e.g., maps) or can be solved once and used over and over (e.g., table templates).
Good design is abundant on the app store. Play with tons of apps. Do design reviews. Ask yourself: What works? What doesn’t? Develop a design vocabulary using the best of what came before you and avoiding everything else. Steal. Save the hard work of being original for solving difficult problems that haven’t been solved well before.
“Cultivate a sense of the relevant.”
Also expressed by Tufte as “Have good taste.”
I like the idea that “good taste” is just the ability to figure out what’s important (in an app, in a meal, in life) and focus your efforts on it. This neuters the idea that “good taste” is something that only Warby Parker-wearing artisan-coffee-swilling neckbeard hipsters are born with.
On the other hand, there’s probably no way at all to learn what is and isn’t relevant without spending some time on irrelevant things. There are entire categories of mistakes you can’t avoid without making them at least once, so it’s best to go ahead and get started on making them as soon as possible. Make mistakes, just don’t spend too much time on them.
Most bad design–indeed, most bad ideas–probably come from laziness: Somebody ran with their first and only idea. The problem with this approach is that your first and only idea never had to defend itself. It’s weak. You can’t know whether it’s the best solution because you haven’t generated any alternative solutions to compare it to. The first and only idea came in first place because nobody else ran. Not exactly a rigorous test of fitness.
Don’t be afraid to mock-up every single bozo design idea you have. You probably won’t hit on the “right” solution without exhausting all the “wrong” ones and as long as you can spot the one good idea in a sea of mediocre ones and spend your time on that, everyone will think you have impeccable taste.
Finally–and admittedly, this has little to do with software design–Tufte showed off two truly incredible books from his collection.
The first was a first edition, first printing of the first English translation of Euclid’s ‘Elements’, circa 1570, originally owned and signed by William Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson.
The second was a first edition, first printing of Galileo’s “Letters on Sunspots,” circa 1613.
 Not nearly as abundant as bad design, but studying bad design helps, too.
 In fact, I think most people can do this: It’s much easier to spot a good idea in a pool of mediocre ones.