Design articles

Notes on Edward Tufte’s Presenting Data and Information  

Here are my notes from today’s event by renowned statistician Edward Tufte – author of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and Envisaging Information primarily for my own reference but perhaps of interest to others.

A dramatic start

No announcement, no preamble. The lights went out and a visually striking video showing a representation of music started. Conversations were immediately hushed and devices put away. An effective technique to get attention and signal an absolute start.

Charts and tables

Sorting: Find a sort for your data that makes sense. Treat it as another axis and don’t waste it with the alphabet.

Sparse columns: Remove sparsely populated columns from tables. Special events should be specially annotated.

Linking lines: Always annotate them to describe the interaction. Prefer verbs over nouns as they are a taxonomy.

Information does not fit in a tree. The web is successful because Tim-Berners Lee understood this and made links the interconnectedness between content. “Vague, but exciting”

Data

Content is not clean. Data that shows behavior in a perfect way has likely been manipulated.

Human beings over-detect clusters and conspiracies. They find links between unrelated events especially in sequences (serial correlation). Sports commentators given any series of scores will develop a false narrative to explain it. They’ll find a reason for 7 wins in a row despite random data producing such sequences.

Self-monitoring is a farce because people can’t keep their own score. Once something is measured it becomes a target and will be subsequently gamed and fudged as needed.

You can make many models to fit any data you are given. It may work well for the past and current data but how far it will last is highly variable. This effect is referred to as shrinkage – no model lasts forever.

Big data is not a substitute for traditional data collection and analysis. Google famously thought this when they created Google Flu which tried to spot the spread of flu based on search terms. It has been seriously criticized by Forbes and the New York Times.

Conflict

Do not jump to conflict or character assassination. Your motives are likely no better (or worse).

How many nice comments wiped out a bad one? Ten… a hundred?

There is evil in the world but it probably does not exist in your day-to-day life.

A deck of slides

A deck is inefficient. It is easy for the presenter but hard for the audience who are waiting for something they can use. “A diamond in the swamp” Slow reveals further reduce the information density and people will check-out when it gets low.

Prefer spatially adjacent data (a document) over temporally stacked (slides). The often-cited limit of 7±2 items was for temporal retention so limiting a page to this number of items is actually the opposite of what that research was telling us. We can cope with much more data if it is all on-page together.

Meetings and presentations

Do not be afraid of paper.

Prepare a document in advance but do not send it and instead spend 30 minutes at the start of the meeting reading it in silence (known as a study hall). People can read faster than you can talk as well as go back and forth as needed, skipping what they already know and latecomers are less disruptive.. Amazon is famously using this with it’s 6-page narrative memo system.

Never go meta in your presentation – stick to the content. Respect your audience and do not presume to know them or  you may find yourself pandering or having low expectations. Instead present the data to the best of your ability. Many complicated things are explained to millions of people all the time. You can’t teach if you have low expectations. Negativity and positivity are self-fulfilling.

Does your audience understand and trust you? Credibility is eroded not just by lying but by cherry picking. Evidence of cherry picking includes data too good to be true and hiding the source of the data behind excuses such as copyright, proprietary or others secrets. Why would a conclusion be open when the data needs to be secret? It’s likely a misrepresentation of the data for their own means.

Note a few words when somebody asks you a question to make sure your answer stays on topic. If you don’t know the answer be honest but suggest where you would start looking for the answer. Never heckle or waste time correcting minutiae.

Doctors trip

A trip to the Doctor’s office is a presentation. Write down your list before you go in. Make them listen because they normally interrupt after 22 seconds and consider each item individually. You’ll give up before you reach the end of your list this way and they may not see the connected pattern of the whole.

Documents

Every document needs an abstract. It should spell out as simply as possible:

  1. What the problem is
  2. Who cares
  3. What the solution is

If you can’t write this then you don’t have a document and you’re not saying anything.

Latex

Real scientists use Latex. There are thousands of templates including official ones for well known journals. Online tools like Overleaf can reduce the barrier to entry. Latex code appears like this:

\title{My presentation matters}
 \begin{document}
 \section*{Introduction}
 Sample of Latex

R is another alternative but it’s considered hard even by people who use Latex.

Reading

We are taught to read to extract facts to pass exams at school. We need to practice reading for enjoyment, reading to spot new information, to extract what we want, to form new opinions and ideas, to loot & hack.

Immediately skip words you don’t understand: there won’t be a test – you’re not at school.

Design

Design does not belong to ‘other people’. Support thinking with analytical design and do whatever it takes to explain the data.

Why do bird books use illustrations? Because the authors want to help you spot the birds and using art they exaggerate the differences as well as produce a generic version of the bird.

Nature magazine has some of the best designed visualizations around. Openness, pride and space constraints all help. (DNA only got 1.5 pages) The New York Times also often produces interesting visualizations of data.

User interface

Use the ideas proven by large successful sites on the web. Do not be swayed by arguments that you’re users won’t understand. Millions of users already do.

Touch is the next-generation of user interface. It allows the chrome (interface junk) to be jettisoned. No scrollbars, no buttons, no cursor, no zoom. Pure information experiences and this came not from academia, finance or medical but from consumer space.

The future of interface design… is information design. Edward Tufte – Seattle, August 4 2015

The original UI metaphors at Xerox Parc on the Alto were around a single document. Instead we have application-owned silos of data. The elegance was lost because companies want to control the content you create with their tools. They isolate your content so they can profit.

Hierarchies are still used for web design because it mimics the organization paying the bill. They see themselves this way and do not focus on how and what their customers need. Famous examples include the Treasury Department burying tax forms 7 levels deep despite being a top user request and also the XKCD strip about University web sites. People on the inside have a skewed perspective of what the outside is.

The density of user interfaces is increasing which allows for richer visualizations especially when combined with animation or video. It is hard to get right.

Typography in bits: Other English micros  

I’ve been wanting to do a follow-up to the popular Typography in 8-bits: System fonts post and the 16-bit sequel for some time and recent Hacker News and ArsTechnica traffic reminded me that I’m not the only one nostalgic for chunky pixel fonts of old.

This time I’m focusing on a handful British machines that were much less well known around the globe which – all seem to borrow heavily from other machines!

Sinclair QL (1984)

Specifications

Condensed sans
5 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII+code pages
256×256 (40×25 text)
512×256 (80×25 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

Sinclair QL system font in medium resolution

The short-lived Sinclair QL was Sir Clive’s attempt at getting into the business market but the corner cutting on the CPU (a Motorola 68008 – the 8-bit data-bus version of the 68000) and storage (Microdrives consisting of loops of high speed tape instead of disc) meant it wasn’t taken very seriously. This was a shame as the operating system and software was advanced for its time.

Unusual characteristics

  • True descenders making the font effectively 9 pixels tall
  • Single story lower case ‘a’
  • Over-extended ‘7’
  • Squished lower-case ‘f’
  • Aligns braces and brackets to tightly wrap contents
  • Soft curves on ‘gil’
  • Unusual join on ‘k’

Rationale

A rather tidy condensed font very similar to those used on LCD displays still today. Almost certainly looked good on a monitor although perhaps not using the system default colors shown here. Almost certainly too hard to read on a TV at the time.

Influences

Has similar proportions and characters to much of the Apple ][ font but with various visual improvements such as on the 6,9,2,$ etc.

Memotech MTX512 (1984)

Specifications

Condensed sans
7 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII+code pages
256×192 (34×24 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

Memotech MTX512 system font in low resolution

Memotech were a peripheral maker who decided to get in on the action and produce their own machine in the 1984-1985 period that saw a lot of machines and failures. Despite some good specifications it never made a dent and its claim to fame is being the computer in the movie Weird Science.

Unusual characteristics

  • Some very quirky decisions especially in lower-case
  • Awful character alignment especially on ‘q’
  • Uneven descenders on ‘gy’
  • Mismatched ‘.,;:’
  • Weird serifs on ‘adu’

Rationale

This quirky font doesn’t looks okay on low-quality TVs of the time with oddities lost in the blur. On sharper screens it looks amateur and unfinished.

Influences

Despite some similarities in the upper-case to the Apple ][ font it doesn’t take many cues from anywhere else.

Amstrad PCW (1985)

Specifications

Serif
7 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII+code pages
720×256 (90×32 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

Amstrad PCW system font in high resolution

Alan Sugar’s Amstrad didn’t waste any time after the CPC in going after the business market with a range of cheap machines for word processing and other general tasks. In the UK these machines could be found everywhere either paired up with Amstrad’s own daisywheel or dot-matrix printers.

Unusual characteristics

  • Pixels were actually rectangular (simulated here by doubling the vertical size)
  • Very distinctive curves on ‘CGOQ’
  • ‘X’ looks like a different style because of high mid-point

Rationale

These machines came with their own monochrome monitors and were very high resolution for consumers at the time. The font is not a bad choice and did allow for 90 columns of text but smarter alternatives existed in word processing programs such as Locoscript.

Influences

An almost direct copy of the Amstrad CPC font disguised by the double-height pixels. Actual changes are the 0 taking on the more oval shape, O and Q taking on the boxier shape and the apostrophe loosing its slant.

The PCW was not alone in using an existing 8×8 font in a double-height manner. The Atari ST, Commodore Amiga and Acorn Archimedes all used the same trick.

Acorn Archimedes/A series (1987)

Specifications

Bold sans
6 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII
various
Unknown
Download in TrueType

Acorn Archimedes using double-height pixels
Acorn’s successor to the BBC Micro was a lovely piece of hardware with an all-new 32-bit RISC processor they developed dubbed ARM. While it did well in Acorn’s entrenched education markets it never found a foothold anywhere else. After various models they cancelled their upcoming Phoebe workstation (yes, named after the Friends character) and would concentrate on thin-clients before abandoning that and focusing purely on processor design where they had immense success. The ARM design now powers almost all the smart phones on the market today.

Unusual characteristics

  • Pixels were actually rectangular (simulated here by doubling the vertical size)

Rationale

These machines came with Acorn’s color monitors and were capable of running VGA-like resolutions. The GUI on these machines really missed an opportunity here to use a specifically designed font and to add proportional text printing and take on the Mac. Instead these used a scaled fixed-width font like the Amiga and ST despite being a couple of years late to that party. Proportional fonts were supported later.

Influences

Identical to the BBC font except for ‘^|’

SAM Coupé (1989)

Specifications

Condensed sans
5 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII
256×192 (32×24 text)
512×192 (85×24 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

SAM Coupé in high resolution

MGT were a third-party producer of expansion products for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum who bet their company on a Spectrum successor using VLSI technology that would ‘rival an Amiga’ at a fraction of the price. While the machine was impressive by 8-bit standards when it finally arrived somewhat late and more expensive than originally touted it failed to make a dent as the market went to the 16-bit machines and it took MGT down with it.

Unusual characteristics

  • Rather ugly ‘*’ asterisk
  • Inconsistent ‘.,;:’ set
  • Inconsistent ‘ and “

Rationale

A smart font that despite the various inconsistencies looked good on a quality display in both high and low-resolution modes.

Influences

Almost a direct copy of the Sinclair QL font. The upper-case are identical and a most lower case with some exceptions to squeeze the QL’s 9 pixel high font into 8 pixels. This is especially apparent in the over-extended 7, the slashes and the bracket alignments.

Also check out articles on 8-bit and 16-bit system fonts.

[)amien

Typography on the Microsoft Campus  

One of the great things about working for Microsoft was the sheer breadth of the company means there are lots of cool and interesting things going on that you can peek into even if it’s not your area. With a few exceptions your Microsoft badge gets you into the whole campus (some of the Xbox studios and the executive floor are exceptions).

As many people know I have a bit of a passion for typography and the Microsoft typography team are a very nice bunch of people happy to humor a crazy enthusiast.

Before I left I paid one final visit to the typography team to snap some cool pics. Here they are, admittedly a couple of years late, with some additional typography-related snaps from elsewhere on campus.

Microsoft Typography


Gabriola rendered in 4 level (2bpp) greyscale using 1x1x1 LEGO pieces.


Microsoft, Linotype and Hermann Zapf collaborated on Palatino Linotype and these beautiful posters commemorate the occasion.


The old Windows Start button in its pixelated glory alongside the Blue-themed XP replacement presumably rendered in photoshop.


Poster showing an italic single-story a aliased and then rendered with ClearType.


Lots of lower-case ‘e’ glyphs from various fonts on display in one of the Windows UI buildings.


Simon Daniels on the typography team has his surname in steel cut in Segoe.


The Mac Quadra that Vince Connare used to create the polarizing Comic Sans.

Studios


Microsoft’s XNA has had a bit of a bumpy journey but it does have a very cool logo with some subtle typography.


In our own Shark Tank scrum area we used the time-honored tradition of sticky notes to create pixels for our own sign. Subpixels were added later.


Our content management system’s sister team had their own sticky note sign too.

Elsewhere


Even the product fair can’t resist some blocky 8-bit inspired fonts.


Somebody made their own pretty Microsoft logo. Don’t recall where this was…


The counter behind the Microsoft company store is an explosion of typefaces.

Some more

Check out Guerilla pixels via John Berry too.

You can see the full set including a few more shots, Sonic the Hedgehog and Lara Croft at Microsoft Campus on Flickr.

[)amien

For the love of pixels  

There’s something entrancing about the pixel. Square and elegant and when pushed by the right people they can form beautiful art, stunning animations and gorgeously crisp text.

But as resolution and pixel density increase these building blocks of the screen become smaller and individually insignificant especially as the dpi of displays hits 220+ppi. What once was a building block of art and design becomes nothing more than a indistinct element in a photo-realistic image or a glint in a faux-texture supporting a skeuomorphism.

And so the art style of the visible pixel is doomed… or is it?

Games

Screenshot of Sword and SworceryA resurgence in retro games over the last 10 years has helped keep pixels front-and-center (and sometimes off-screen to the right in the case of horizontal scrolling beat-em-ups).

Minecraft brought 3D pixel art to the mainstream with its wild success across PCs, iOS and even the Xbox. Some people say it’s despite the graphics but I think they’re part of the charm.

Skrillex Quest is a 3D Flash game with textures made up of large pixels and all manner of 8 and 16-bit style graphic corruption that lends to the retro feel while music from the man himself ensures your ears stays as overwhelmed as your eyes.

Sword & Sworcery: EP is a recent discovery for me but its gorgeous 2D landscape, fun story and great sound make for awesome atmosphere. It’s currently available on Steam for the PC or Mac and available from the iOS store too.

LucasArts Adventure Pack on Steam gives you a bunch of point and click adventures including two installments of Indy, Loom and The Dig. They also have a Secret of Monkey Island 1 & 2 Bundle that has updated graphics but your can toggle back to the pixelated 256-color VGA version at any time.

Scott Pilgrim The Game is a fun little horizontal-scrolling beat-up up created a couple of years back. Some of the graphic artists have some great pages up showcasing their pixel animating talents.

Home from Benjamin Rivers is a creepy whodunnit horror mystery where the story unfolds and changes based on your own actions. Who knew pixels could be so creepy.

Art

Fall City by Mark J. FerrarieBoy is a three-man team that has been creating isometric pixel art for years sometimes for magazines and adverts but primarily available as posters and wallpapers and now puzzles too.

Color Cycling revisits the technique of animating hand-illustrated Amiga artwork that achieved the effect of animation simply by cycling parts of the color palette. This effective technique was incredibly space efficient and was something every Deluxe Paint user tried (and likely failed) at some point.

Iotacons by Andy Rash are very low-resolution icons of various celebrities and well known pop-culture figures lovingly adorned in digital format and, on occasion, as a real-world cross-stitch.

DeviantArt have an entire category dedicated to pixel art many of which are lovingly animated. If the cuteness of these pixels doesn’t make you miss them then nothing will.

F David Thorpe produced some great loading screens for computers in the 80s despite their crazy technical limitations. Binary Zone has a great page that highlights some of his best.

Animated backgrounds from various fighting games look beautiful.

Fonts & icons

I’ve covered some great pixel fonts from older 8-bit and 16-bit computers already but there are plenty more great examples to be found:

FontStruct is an online tool that lets you build fonts from blocks and so lends itself well to people wanting to reproduce bitmap fonts. They have almost 500 fonts in their gallery already tagged with ‘pixel’

Semplice Pixelfonts has some beautiful proportional pixel fonts in TrueType format.

Guidebook has screenshots of various pixelated desktops throughout the years including shots of early Macintosh, Amiga, Atari, OS/2 and more.

Fashion

Star Wars pixel shirt from We Love FineThinkGeek have the I See Dead Pixels T-Shirt, the 8-bit tie and the less practical 8-bit hair bow.

WeLoveFine also have a great selection of 8-bit wears just flowing over with pixels.

Red Bubble have a Mac Cursor Icons T-shirt that the original Apple fans can appreciate.

Even sunglasses get the pixel treatment in black or blue… or even regular clear glasses.

In the real word

Cube Craft Pixel Pages consists of a bunch of icons you can print out, cut and fold to create a pixel-deep real-world rendering when placed against a solid surface.

My Desk is 8-bit happened when Alex Varanese wondered what a video-game would look like rendered on his desk. It’s a labor of love 1:18 long video with great chip music too.

Swedish Subway shows that the small square tiles that adorn the walls of subways can be put to creative use when you think of them as pixels such as this homage to video-games.

Playing Cards featuring pixel art including some from video games such as space invaders.

8-bit pop-up cards are a fun way to make a gift card with more pixel goodness.

A love of pixels can however go too far.

Dithering

Wikipedia has an excellent article on the screen resolutions and color capabilities of 8-bit and 16-bit computers. With such few colors available it was necessary to blend colors together to achieve the effect of more colors or shades. This tutorial at Deviantart is a good start although there are a few different algorithms available including the most famous Floyd-Steinberg and the ordered dithering of Windows older users may be familiar with.

Derek Yu, Pixel Schlet and Garmahis provide tutorials showing you how to do it by hand!

Further exploration for those still with me…

Teletext (aka Videotex, Ceefax) was a low-resolution graphics system long before the Internet. It was available in some countries such as the UK via television and some early computer systems (Prestel, Micronet) used it over incredibly slow (1200/75bps) modems although it had a certain charm.

Creating graphics and pages in it was quite a challenge and I actually have a Cambridge University IT Certificate for doing so while at school where we also used a special adapter with our BBC Micro to let them download programs by holding a TV aerial up and waiting a lot. The French also had a system based on this called Minitel which was shut down earlier this year :(

Of course for the ultimate pixels experience you could also just dive back in to the old games such as those provided by Good Old Games (PC) on the amazing World of Spectrum.

[)amien