Edward Tufte, godfather of statistical graphics and beautiful evidence, wrote a 2005 essay in which he indicts the “cognitive style” of presentation slideware—especially PowerPoint—as weakening reasoning and analysis. PowerPoint is to critical thinking and communicating as kryptonite is to Superman. Lives don’t usually hang in the balance depending on the clarity and rigor of our argumentation and case-making presentations—but sometimes they do. Tufte’s essay is based on time with NASA as a “consultant on technical presentations for shuttle risk assessments, shuttle engineering, and deep spaceflight trajectories,” and notes on findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and the Return To Flight Task Group. Specifically, he analyzed PowerPoint reports prepared by Boeing for NASA decision-makers to assess the threat to a still-in-flight Columbia shuttle after the foam-debris impact was discovered.

Even while getting down to serious points, Tufte is pithy and often hilarious. His side comment about velocity:

Velocity squared is like shipping and handling: it will get you every time.

Tufte argues that PowerPoint’s slide templates, with their declarative headline-ish titles, hierarchical bulleted-outline structure, and line and space limitations, deform, skew, and limit the presenter’s message—and the presenter’s ability to think analytically and deeply when preparing the message. Tufte again (specifically critiquing the Boeing slides here, but let’s go crazy and take the liberty of generalizing his remarks) :

The rigid slide-by-slide hierarchies, indifferent to content, slice and dice the evidence into arbitrary compartments, producing an anti-narrative with choppy continuity….The format represents a common conceptual error in analytic design: information architectures mimic the hierarchical structure of large bureaucracies pitching the information. Conway’s Law again.

In other words, we tend to organize our arguments to mirror the structure, language, and culture of our organizations. And, in packaging our messages as simplified, summary “pitches” for external audiences, we run the risk of drinking our own kool-aid and forgetting the necessary technical nuance and rigor that informed the pitch in the first place. Pitching out, Tufte says, corrupts within.


In an apparently unrelated development, Jon Becker recently tweeted an existential yawp of frustration at the growing epidemic of bad PowerPoint. How do we feel your pain, Jon? Let us count the ways in a numbered or bulleted list. Jon’s mock public health notice about PowerPoint sparked a conversation about the constraints and affordances of presentation tools in general, and the challenge of communicating complex ideas through slides. Which led to this:



Heavy irony acknowledgment due here, as I baldly use Jon’s point about linearity to come full circle to yesterday’s post about curriculum. His comment speaks to frustration with artificial limitations; to hopes raised for freer, more organic alternatives; and to resignation at the persistence of linear, sequential modes of thinking. I heard similar frustration about the idea of  curriculum echoed by participants in Sylvia Martinez’s tinkering session. If curriculum is a path, it insists on being followed.

Does our insistence on a path exclude other possibilities and side-paths?

How many detours will a pathwise curriculum tolerate,  and how far off-course is too far?

When is insistence a steadying hand, and when is it coercive?