Edward Tufte

Graphics Press, ISBN: 0-9613921-5-0 Publisher

Edward Tufte is probably the single most influential authority on communicating complex information graphically. He pretty much wrote the book(s) on the subject in his classic series The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information and Visual Explanations.

In this short booklet (24 pages), he devastatingly takes to task the shoddy quality of Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, and makes the case this information poverty is intrinsic to the tool itself, due to its limitations such as low resolution (cannot use complex data), poor typography, strong bias towards hierarchical outlines and fluff over substance. In Tufte’s own words:

The PP slide format has probably the worst signal/noise ratio of any known method of communication on paper or computer screen.

This echoes one of the reasons why Sun Microsystems banned PowerPoint slides, their abysmal information per kilobyte ratio. More worryingly,

In day-to-day practice, PowerPoint templates may improve 10% or 20% of all presentations by organizing inept, extremely disorganized speakers at a cost of intellectual damage to 80%.

The booklet is short and sweet. Tufte’s wicked sense of humor comes out in comparisons to Stalinist propaganda or in a set of slides by Peter Norvig showing how PowerPoint could have denatured the Gettysburg Address.

In my experience, PowerPoint slides are mostly used to vehiculate marketing garbage presentations. As such, there isn’t much content to damage in the first place, and the act of showing a PowerPoint presentation is in itself an excellent cue to the audience that they can do their crossword puzzles, tick off their grocery lists on their Palm Pilots or whatever other discreet way is at hand to salvage otherwise completely wasted time.

Tufte’s suggestions for improving the quality of presentations (give high-content handouts, eschew PowerPoint for anything but projecting low-resolution images, and above all, do not read out slides) are mostly useful for scientific or engineering presentations, which is probably a tiny proportion of PowerPoint’s market.