New Year’s Resolution: Tufte and the iPhone

Edward Tufte has produced a illuminating video tour of the user interface of the iPhone. The video illustrates Tufte’s struggles to come to grips with the difference between dynamic screen resolution and the resolution of printed paper. Tufte is prone to grandiose pronouncements, like this one:

All history of improvements in human communication is written in terms of improvements in resolution: to produce, for viewers of evidence, more bits per unit time, and more bits per unit area. Slideware is contrary to that history. Trading in reductions in resolution for user convenience or for pitching may be useful in mass market products or in commercial art, but not for technical communications. The solution is not to rescue slideware design; the solution is to use a different, better, and content-driven presentation method. On this solution, see our thread PowerPoint Does Rocket Science—and Better Techniques for Technical Reports — Tufte Nov 10 2006

Somehow, I don’t think the importance of the Gutenberg Bible related to it showing “more bits per unit area.” Quick, count the “bits per unit area.”

Gutenberg bible courtesy of Wikipedia
Illustrated bible courtesy of Wikipedia

It didn’t take bits per unit area to revolutionize communication in the past and it won’t in the future either. The iPhone is a tremendously engaging information device and points the way forward for information displays. Here’s what the iPhone does well:

Maximize screen real estate: Controls are only visible when needed, fading away gently when you are concentrating on content. Tufte furiously neologizes, calling this “computer information debris.” Control junk is more apt, more terse, more Tuftian.

Direct manipulation: As Tufte says: information is the interface. Filtering and choosing should take place in the context of direct manipulation. A good essay on the possibilities of direct manipulation can be found here.

Fun: Above all, information can be fun and engaging to navigate. Tufte condemns Apple’s stock ticker for having “cartoony” and PowerPoint-like displays and offers an improved version (with 5 digits of precision). Apple’s cheery display offers a more entertaining, usable interface for day-to-day usage.

With our empathy for the day-to-day troubles of the business person seeking insight in data, it’s frustrating listening to Tufte. He is clearly an academic, with academic interests and academic timeframes. As much as his work is respected and inspirational within business circles, he makes little effort to enable his message to be implemented.

Good Tufte: Clutter and overload are not an attribute of information, they are failures of design. If the information is in chaos, don’t start throwing out information, instead fix the design.

Bad Tufte: “…the conclusion of sparkline analysis in Beautiful Evidence, where the idea is to make our data graphics at least operate at the resolution of good typography (say 2400 dpi).” *Ed: At least 2400 dpi? Orly?

Mostly right Tufte: “Thus the iPhone got it mostly right.”

Mostly wrong Tufte: “Adobe Illustrator is a big serious program that can do almost anything on the visual field (other than Photoshop an image). Most of my sparkline work was done in Illustrator. Fortunately all graphic designers and graphic design students have the program and know how to use it, so find a colleague who knows about graphic design.”

It is heartening to see Tufte engage and connect his mental frameworks to our modern, screen-oriented, graphics-accelerated, not graphics-designed world. But the future of information design and interaction belongs to the iPhone, not the printed page.