The Tyranny of Text

Not too long ago, I spent an evening watching and discussing TED talks. There were quite a few talks that were interesting and relevant to the world of policy, but one really stood out. David McCandless, of Information is Beautiful fame, did a talk on visualizing information. While watching the video, I thought back to my time this summer interning in the Government of Ontario and all I could really remember was…text.

In all fairness, I was in Treasury Board Office and my understanding is that TBO is one of the few places that uses notes to brief high-level decision-makers. Most other shops use slide decks, so maybe my experience is biased. That being said, I’ve seen slide decks going to Cabinet, and they aren’t exactly embracing all that the visual medium has to offer. In fact, they’re almost entirely large blocks of text . They’re basically briefing notes in the medium of projector rather than paper.

To me, this is a serious problem. Visual depictions are better at communicating information quickly and providing big-picture context. This is almost exactly what high level decision-makers need. Think about a proposed expansion of a government program. Which provides spending information in a better form:

  1. A table listing baseline spending, proposed spending, Ministry financial risks, and total ministry spending for the past few years as well as projections for the next few years, or
  2. A line graph showing how each of those same items changed over time

I think it’s option 2  (probably with 1 in an appendix), but in my experience, public servants tend toward 1. To the average public servant, the thought of presenting information in a robust, visual way seems pretty pie-in-the-sky. It still does to me. I don’t know how to create a fancy dashboard, or a good PivotChart in Excel, or even a brilliantly thought out bubble chart that presents complicated information in a completely intuitive way. But I know there are people who know how to do that and I want to be one of them.

I’ve been talking about numerical data, because most of my summer was spent working with numerical data. But information visualization isn’t limited to numerical data. McCandless created a great visualization of the usefulness of various natural supplements, aggregating studies and web traffic to make instantly recognizable something that would take pages and pages of text and tables.

I want a tiny fraction of the time spent on teaching different forms of writing was spent teaching how to present information visually. I want professional programs to expand their definition of “presentation” beyond “Powerpoint + Lecture.” I want assigned reading from Edward Tufte. As both a public servant and a citizen, I want my colleagues and myself be able to brief decision-makers more effectively. I want more public servants with instincts that tell them to make things like this:

Can anyone point me in the right direction? Any classes at U of T that look at visualization? Any good examples of Canadian governments using excellent visual presentations of data? Any textbooks or tutorial websites that I could start reading? I picked up some Tufte from the library, but I’m looking for some other resources as well. If you have any leads for me, throw it in the comments.

– By Brent Barron


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Adam Kowalczewski says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that visualizing data seems like the ultimate skill: it’s like being good cartoonist while being taken seriously.

    I’ll bet that accessible software for this type of work would have come along much faster if the video game industry hadn’t absorbed all the programming talent needed to make it. No doubt any software you use will have a trade off between needing to know some hardcore computer language and the flexibility to make things appear as you’d like. (The wikipedia article on dashboards lists a how-to book by a popular computer language publisher, O’Reilly)

    I’m short on ideas for specific books or courses to teach this skill, but I have one for a book that demonstrates it further (Endless City by Ricky Burdett) and one that helps spot abuses of it (How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff).

  2. Grass Hopper says:

    In the first link there is a free online presentation software. On the second link there is a TED example of its use. I enjoyed your post and agree with you about the text vs image issue. I also think that the change from one to another its not only about technique but also about how we think. Text and image imply different grammars.

    I’m hunting down some free python classes. I’ll let you know as soon as I find them.


  3. Randall says:

    Congratulations on attempting to educate yourself 🙂

    I highly recommend reading “Beyond Bullet Points”, ( ) which does a great job of discussing the major problems with Powerpoint presentations and offers a completely new way of building these slide decks that’s both interesting and engaging.

    And if you want to know about data visualization, you’re on the right track starting with Tufte 🙂 You can read lots more about visualization, including algorithms, examples, and books, at

  4. Stuart says:

    Check out the Knowledge Media Design Collaborative program at U of T (located in the Bahen Building). It’s an inter-disciplinary program that uses innovation — and innovative ideas — to connect across traditional knowledge boundaries. This is what you’re getting at, I think.

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