Data presentation is just as important, if not more than the collection of data. It can be the difference between getting a paper published in the “big 5”–Science, Nature, Current Biology, Cell, and The Lancet (or whatever your top five are)–or settling for a lower-tier journal.
This past Friday, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop led by Dr. Edward Tufte on data presentation. Dr. Tufte is an expert in simplifying and constructing large data sets and concepts into a two-dimensional plane with graphs, tables, flow charts, and other schematics that model some of the most intuitive art and data presented by Galileo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Manuear, Charles Minard, and other forward thinkers. He has not only taught and done research in the Ivies for years, but he was also appointed by Obama to the American Recovery Act counsel. There is plenty more to Dr. Tufte on Wikipedia.
Here are some of his key points expressed in this 6-hr workshop (or at least ones that I found significant and relevant):
1. First and foremost, the best scientific visualizations in the world are in Nature and Science. I was pleased to hear this. Although I don’t often read the abstracts and results in these magazines, I have often made a point to closely examine the graphing and schematic representation of data over the years and to model these figures, tables, and photomicrographs when producing my own.
2. Show causality and mechanism through design. Flow charts and annotated lines are some of the most useful tools to illustrating mechanism if it is not clear from the quantitative data alone.
3. Don’t search words, but images on Google. According to Tufte, images can provide a quicker and clearer picture of an inanimate object’s or concept’s significance, demographic of target, or emotive qualities, to name a few.
4. Interface back, content forward. The point here is to not forget why you were asked to give a presentation or write a manuscript–to present novel data or data that corroborates or challenges a previous hypothesis–not to demonstrate your aptitude in design via modern technology.
5. In line with point 4, dull backgrounds consisting of light greys and browns coupled with primary colors in the foreground are the most effective means for data to stand out. This is why the works of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol are aesthetically pleasing to the visual eye. To quote Tufte, “grey is one of the prettiest, most important, and most versatile colors in nature.”
Websites accessed by millions of people on a daily basis that abide by most if not all of these principles include The New York Times, National Weather Service (not Weather Channel), and especially ESPN. Use these as models as well.
To conclude, don’t make a presentation like this: