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PowerPoint, PundiTuftes and the Press

Edward Tufte and other would-be pundits seem to delight in taking potshots at PowerPoint.

The general theme seems to be "There are a lot of bad presentations and bad presenters out there. Most of them use PowerPoint, therefore PowerPoint is bad. Let's kick it."

Nobody with more than a few gray cells to rub together would seriously suggest that PowerPoint is without flaws. Sure it's often badly used or forced into use in situations for which it's hideously inappropriate. But to blame PowerPoint for bad content, sloppy thinking and boring delivery is about as rational as blaming the milk container for breaking when your kid drops it.

Or as Larry Wall, the Father of Perl, puts it so elegantly:

I do quarrel with logic that says, "Stupid people are associated with X, therefore X is stupid." Stupid people are associated with everything.

According to Don Norman, "Tufte misses the point completely. His famous denunciation of the NASA slides, where he points out that critical information was buried, is not a denunciation of PowerPoint, as he claims." Read the rest of Cliff Atkinson's interview with Don Norman here on

Edward Tufte is widely (and I think rightly) revered for his beautifully crafted and clearly written books on presenting complex information visually. But he's misguided (to put the kindest possible spin on it) in taking PowerPoint to task in Essay: The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.

Alas, it'll cost you seven bucks to find out what he has in mind. And another ten if you want the poster that seems to suggest that PowerPoint is somehow Stalinist in affect. That strikes me as a bit over the top, as do some of his comments in Ask E.T. (Tufte's moderated forum).

This Wired article apparently summarizes the essay.

Mr. Tufte graciously mailed me a copy of the publication, and it's a fascinating and generally well-reasoned read. It's not that the points he makes about bad presentations are wrong, it's that he blames the tool, not its users, and in so doing, distracts from the central theme of his argument, dilutes its effect. Perhaps he means to use PowerPoint and PowerPoint presentations as a metaphor for all presentations. Admittedly that's not such a stretch in a world where PowerPoint pretty much rules the presentation roost.

But if so, if PowerPoint is simply standing in metaphorically for something larger and more elusive, he should say so, or risk seeing his many valid points get drowned in a sea of arguments about PowerPoint itself.

Textism's comments

Aaron Swartz: The Weblog presents PowerPoint Remix, Tufte On PowerPoint, A La PowerPoint

Reviling PowerPoint for what incompetents do with it isn't very productive. It's also insulting to anyone who uses PowerPoint (or any other similar tool) well.

For a more proactive approach, see Preventing Death by PowerPoint

And for a very refreshing counterpoint, see Adam Hanft's Grist: More Power Than Point (from Inc. Magazine, August 2003)

A sample:

"Think about it for a moment: Which came first on the evolutionary ladder, stupidity or PowerPoint? For all the demonizing, PowerPoint is just a tool. And we should all know by now that tools are like messengers: They shouldn't be shot, they should be feted because they tell us something about what's going on beyond our headquarter's camp."

And on a higher plane, this David Byrne article in Wired

Or this, also from Wired , which talks, among other things, abuot Byrne's new book, Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information. Tufte fans will find something vaguely familiar there.

Jim Ley pointed me at this paper by Adrian Smith who addresses the issue of screen vs print graphics. This seems to be another fundamental distinction Tufte fails to make.

Basta. Enough.

Search terms:tufte,byrne,pundit

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PowerPoint, PundiTuftes and the Press
Last update 07 June, 2011