E.T. and his iPhone

February 15, 2008

Edward Tufte is big when it comes to information graphics in books—but a quick glimpse at his site will reveal that he is not the man to trust when it comes to interaction design.—Don’t beat an old man even if he’s throwing dirt they say, but when we saw him correcting Apple’s iPhone as if it was the white paper of one of his first year college students the iA alarm bells went of…

There is just too much randomness in his little lecture. Here we have a slide from the video, a gallery page on the iPhone:

Tufte criticizes line color and thickness

His critique?

The line between the pictures should be one pixel and grey.

One might have a little debate about the more or less random one pixel assumption (bigger thumbnails perhaps?), but in order to have a clear contrast between each picture the line needs to be white.

Why? Because the contrast between solid white and any other color is, at best, 100% (white or black). The degree of contrast between 50% gray and any other color is, at best, 50% (gray to black or gray to white). When the 50% gray is a solid, 1px line between images that are of varying colors, the apparent visual contrast is reduced proportionally. Maybe we should have been college professors instead of designers though. Then we could make obnoxious claims rather than working.

Here’s another, this time from the stock exchange screen of the iPhone:

iPhone Charts

“The iPhone stock exchange page looks like a power point slide. Strong colors and zebra stripes, but not much information. Down below a modest datagraphic cartoon.”

His criticism is that it is too “carthhhuuuny.” It looks like Excell or Powerpoint. What? Whatever that means, changing the above into the following unreadable amateur sketch is not a solution:

Tufte's iPhone chart

Straight out of a book. Difficult to scan. No immediately recognizable hierarchy. Requires zooming. I’m still not sure what we’re even looking at.

Maybe it’s just a sketch; an illustration of an idea and not necessarily the improvement he’d like to see. After all, by this point he’s a little vague on the reasoning and evidence to his claims. Let’s hope he comes up with something that proves he knows what he’s talking about.

Tufte criticizes the bottom bar

The button bar steals away fully 10% of the screen.

Sure, fully ten percent of the screen can be considered a waste of valuable screen real estate. So what would you suggest professor?

“It should be transparent.”

Making it a transparent thief of valuable screen real estate does little to solve the problem. As the top bar in Leopard demonstrates, transparent bars can be more of an annoyance than a viable design solution. There are other alternatives worthy of consideration, but again, that’s a job for a designer, not a college professor.

Next, the professor adds the final nail to his design coffin with a rehash of the weather forecast:

Tufte's iPhone Weather Forecast

Why not show a dynamic weather forecast and use the magnificent resolution?

Why not? Because doing so would result in distracting, uninformative clutter.

This slide should be painful for any designer to look at. It takes the clear and readable original format, compresses it to a tiny corner of the screen, adds worthless text (set in his beloved Gill Sans), then visually rapes half the screen with a moving graphic requiring a degree in meteorology to derive any substantial meaning from. Overload and clutter are not attributes of information, they are a failure of design. Wouldn’t you agree, professor?

Overload and clutter are not attributes of information, they are failure of design.

I’m glad we’re on the same page. In conclusion, his theory is: “To clarify, add detail.” Our tip: To understand interaction design, you need to practice it.



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