hypergene / media solutions

Don’t 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 weary.

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, Yale’s 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 life.

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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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.

Tufte’s 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 for design.

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. “Don’t 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, it’s about responsibility, integrity. It’s self-effacing and at it’s best invisible. “Good information displays get people thinking about the information not the design,” Tufte said.

Deep down I knew design wasn’t about looking good or advancing one’s 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. Galileo’s 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 I’m 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.

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