The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint

by Edward R. Tufte

Cover image

Publisher: Graphics Press
Copyright: September 2003
ISBN: 0-9613921-5-0
Format: Pamphlet
Pages: 27

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This is more of a pamphlet or an essay than a book, and on the first reading I didn't write a review of it because of that. But the content is so notable and excellent and the quality of the printing (thanks to Tufte's Graphics Press) is so high that I think it warrants a full review. I believe the content of this essay, at least in one form, is present as a chapter in Tufte's latest book, Beautiful Evidence.

Tufte has written a series of exceptional and beautifully produced books on presentation of information: graphs, diagrams, maps, and similar presentations. His normal style in all of these works is to show and critique examples, showing both positive and negative ways of presenting information and sometimes taking a presentation and rewriting it to improve it. The strongest parts of these books are usually his pointed, trenchant, and often funny critiques of the worst examples. This essay, composed almost entirely of the sort of horrible content regularly produced by PowerPoint, is a delight.

Similar to the analysis of presentations about the Challenger o-rings in Visual Explanations, the centerpiece of The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint is an analysis of the horrible presentation of the problems with the shuttle Columbia before its disastrous return. Tufte uses this presentation, done with PowerPoint in the normal bullet outline format that such slide software encourages, as a compelling example of muddled thinking, confusing typography, false summaries, hidden information, and ineffective communication. His analysis is backed up by the final report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which calls out PowerPoint specifically:

The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.

Tufte goes from there to attack the reduction of thinking to bulleted lists, the PowerPoint graph templates and tables, the low resolution of projected slides, and the standard methods used for presentations in businesses and organizations all over the world. He's in fine form here, pulling no punches. Everyone who has sat through interminable meetings where bullet points of meaningless buzzwords are slowly dribbled out via overhead projector will be cheering him on, and he backs up his disgust with specific examples, concrete suggestions for improvement (mostly around using higher-density supporting documents like handouts). He also uses satire quite effectively, including Peter Norvig's hilarious rewrite of the Gettysburg Address as a PowerPoint presentation.

As with all Tufte publications, this is a bit spendy for what you get ($7 for a short, although full-sized, pamphlet from Graphics Press), but the paper, printing, layout, color, and production quality are first-rate. This is a dense example of the analysis that Tufte does best, and while it doesn't teach on as broad of a front as his books, I recommend it for anyone who gives presentations or has to listen to them. I don't know if anything can get rid of PowerPoint culture, but I wish this essay were universally read.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-09-13

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21