Edward Tufte’s One Day Course: A Review

Last Monday, I got to attend Edward Tufte’s one-day course. I was looking forward to a day of interesting examples, ideas, and discussions, but was disappointed by the amount of rambling and largely historical examples, with little connection to real, current visualization (or presentation) work.

The Setting

The course took place in the large ballroom of the Westin Seattle, which was set up for around 500–600 people. Maybe it was naive to assume a more intimate setting, but I had imagined around 100 people there. There was, consequently, no interaction with the audience of any sort, other than people lining up to get their books autographed before the course started or during lunch break.

As part of the course, you get his four books in a little cardboard box with a handle. With the box, you are handed a sheet of paper with a reading assignment: one or two chapters from each book in the first hour. Unfortunately, he does not actually make use of that reading in his presentation, presumably because he knows that only a fraction of attendees actually read everything they’re supposed to before he gets started.

The Good

It’s no secret that Tufte likes paper. His sparkline technique is meant to be a high-resolution, high-density data display that communicates a lot of data in the same space as a number (or maybe a few numbers). His relentless pounding on PowerPoint is also mostly focused on the fact that slides tend to break information up into small chunks, rather than laying it all out so it can be taken in.

His suggestion is to hand people the information, in printed form, at the beginning of the meeting and give them 10 minutes to read. That way, everybody can get a sense of what is there, and skip the parts that are not relevant. This makes a lot of sense, though it does assume a certain type of presentation. This will not work for presentations where a certain amount of theatrics is actually important, like a product presentation or even some strategy discussions. For a data-heavy presentation, his method is undoubtedly a good one.

There is also something to be said about the density and size of a sheet of paper. You can fit a lot of information onto a piece of printed page, much more than a typical projection screen or slide (recent high-resolution screens are slowly getting there). However, to make that truly useful, you have to spend a lot more time laying out the information in a meaningful way. Done well, this can be incredibly effective, however.

Tufte also has amassed a huge wealth of historical examples of data visualization, some going back many hundreds of years. The presentation in his books is also incredibly well structured and designed, and he is a good speaker. Some parts of it, such as the beginning, were perhaps a bit overly dramatic, but it was never dull.

Where he is also certainly right is his motto of Do whatever it takes! to get the job done. The point here being that you don’t want to pre-specify the tool, but pick it based on requirements. His rant on how academics tend to work the other way around had a lot of truth in it, though it was of questionable relevance to the audience.

The Bad

Tufte likes to ramble. A lot. I’m not opposed to a good rant every now and then, quite the opposite. But everything in moderation! It seems that he spent half of the entire course time on wild tangents and rants about things, most of which he really does not know all that much about.

One particular example was his long half-joking dismissal of big data. This being Seattle, he undoubtedly had people from Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and probably a dozen big-data startups in the audience. I doubt that they came to hear him dismiss big data analysis as mostly self-correlation. I don’t think he’s entirely wrong about that, but he didn’t exactly offer anything useful, either. He claimed that the scientists of the 16th and 17th century had been the original big data people, because they had to turn their observations into theories.

Some of his other rants included his current sculpture work and how he is now more interested in 3D these days, how people are getting unnecessary medical test because ‘the money is in the false positives,’ proprietary vs. open technology (which hilariously ended with him praising PDF), how administrators are taking over universities, Apple, and of course PowerPoint.

Tufte’s scholarship of old visualization examples is interesting, but unfortunately he is also stuck in the past. He showed off an original printing of one of Galilei’s books, as well as the first translation of Euclid’s work into English. What was the point of that? Blinding us with impressive artifacts?

He had some good points about how Galilei presented some of his observations, like the sun spots he saw and that kept moving in a way consistent with a rotating sun. That made for an interesting history lesson, no doubt, but what can we learn from that?

The Ugly

The rambling is one thing, but the 15-minute sales pitch was quite another. Books! Posters! Yes, Tufte told us to buy his books, his posters, and even his mother’s book on grammar, the only non-ET book Graphics Press sells. You really don’t expect that when you’re paying $380 for the day.

He also seemed very worried about people realizing how important he was. He listed the things he had done, including not only his recent presidential appointment, but also the importance of sparklines, etc. For the latter, he kept citing the fact that Google had returned more results for the query “sparkline” than “Steve Jobs” – as of July 2011.

One of the videos he showed was of his wavefields idea, which he describes as an extension of sparklines. What it is, though, is a bizarre claim about HD movies and data representation that is either a prank (as one poster on his forum also noted) or just shows a complete failure to grasp human perception.

Throughout the course, Tufte seemed out of touch, both with his audience and with the real world. At least three times, he said something along the lines of “We as real scientists …” to an audience that was hardly a group of scientists. His recommendation of tools also included LaTeX, which may still be the academic choice for writing papers with lots of math, and which have to follow strict formatting guidelines, but hardly a practical suggestion for most business users.


My advice? Buy his books. Read them. They’re good. Just realize that you’re getting a historical perspective on data visualization, not the cutting edge. Understand that Tufte’s ideas are a good starting point, not a religion. There are many things that Tufte doesn’t know, including pretty much anything related to visual perception and cognition, recent work (less than 30 years old), and interaction.

Once you’re done with Tufte’s books, read Stephen Few’s or Colin Ware’s or something else that’s recent. But by all means, skip the course.

74 responses to “Edward Tufte’s One Day Course: A Review”

  1. Marlena Avatar

    You are not alone in your conclusions. In fact, you might find Justin Wehr’s review of the same class from a few years ago amusing.

    1. prophet1965 Avatar

      I could not agree more. He created a cottage industry for himself, but has not updated the cottage in 30 years.

      The class and the book tend to be a right of passage in the UX/VD field but they hardly apply to the real world anymore.

  2. derek Avatar

    I stopped checking his web site when it started showing more about his collection of open air sculptures than about the application of visual intelligence to science and business.

    I have the greatest regard for his first three books (haven’t bought the fourth) but growing old happens to us all, and the first sign is that you start repeating the insights you had before, instead of bringing new ones. I think he may be having new insights, but that they’re in some other field, like history of art or art appreciation, and have therefore moved outside my area of interest.

  3. Jim Avatar

    I’d def have to agree with your review here. What surprised me the most was the way he walked around prior to the class starting picking up students materials (his books) from their desks and autographing them with his ‘ET’ monogram. He signed all 3 of mine.

  4. Chris Avatar

    Absolutely spot-on. Tufte is a good starting point for modern datavis, but his failure to engage with current developments in the field is disappointing. I’d love to hear what he has to say on interactivity, for instance.

  5. Carlos Avatar

    Interesting; I truly hope that wavefields are a long troll. Given that it would be his first, I think that’s unfortunately unlikely.

    When he gave his course in NY, the historical artifacts like the Galileo drawings were a direct plug to his new gallery. The whole thing had the weirdest infomercial tone to it.

    On a positive note, in NY he did hang out with people before the course. And if I remember it right, he also used the assigned readings.

  6. Ian Roberts Avatar
    Ian Roberts

    Robert, I completely agree with your assessment. I saw him in Portland several years ago and came away very underwhelmed. The best part was that I got to stay overnight in a nice hotel with my family. :)

    I tell others who ask me about it the same advise you give; set aside a good chunk of time to read the books and take notes. It will be cheaper and you’ll come away with more actionable knowledge.

  7. Michael Thompson Avatar

    LaTeX??? That deserves some splainin’ from Mr. T. I just listened to a rant two days ago from an astrophysicist who complained about its limitations in the presentation layer, and the fact that scientific journals still use it as the standard format. Given our Kosara community I’m quite sure there is no need to give better examples of tools, so I will just say…huh?

    I attended tufte’s course nearly 20 years ago. Sad to hear it hasn’t evolved.

  8. ChartMonkey Avatar

    I attended a Tufte session in Houston earlier this year and was more than a little disappointed. I left the session feeling cheated. Between the breaks to read passages from the books, inane ramblings (PowerPoint, NASA, dual monitors on this day), and constant plugs for his pet projects I felt a lot of the day was wasted. Save your time and money. Read his books, watch his videos but don’t bother attending his seminars.

  9. Michael Avatar

    I attended one of his sessions many years ago where he made fun of 3D data visualization. Given the number of times I hear people referring to him, I imagine his ‘old school’ point of view has had a significant impact on the development and adoption of any ‘new school’ beyond emerging beyond today’s still profoundly pervasive flatlands. Luckly some of us ignored him and charged ahead.

    Interesting to hear he’s changing his tune. Working in this industry and interested in more than traditional charts, I thank you for this honest and direct review. The books are great basic design intros but – a nod to his influnce – they’ve become so common as to become conventional wisdom.

  10. ken farmer Avatar

    I attended one of his single-day presentations a few years ago. A few of my notes include:

    Primary principles included the importance of showing comparisons (ex: how is company x doing in comparison with their peers), show causality since most questions are about performance, show 3+ variables since almost no problem can be understood with fewer than three variables, etc. These were fine and confirmed my experiences.

    I documented about 25 secondary principles – from ‘detail helps credibility’ to ‘it is almost impossible to over-annotate’. All good, I disagree with a few but they’re good legitimate thoughts.

    Electronic vs paper – covered above. My biggest issue is that in 2012 few of my presentations happen physically in person. They’re mostly remote. Distributing paper is costly, expensive and slow.

    Sparklines – they’re fine in small doses, but in my opinion have enormous limitations as well (in comparing different lines, getting detailed info from them, sorting by them, etc).

    Misc discourses – iphone, powerpoint, museum web site, Napoleon’s March graph. While I thoroughly enjoyed his dissection of the march graph, I was cringing through most of the other rambles.

    All in all, I enjoyed it but take his perspective with a grain of salt. He tends to want everything shown at the same time on a high-resolution media in a way that allows the drama of the raw numbers to blow the audience away. But this can introduce an intimidating information barrier – in which the audience clearly sees that they’re going to need 10 minutes to study the chart. In a circumstance in which the audience hasn’t yet decided that your problem is worth their 10 minutes (say, your CEO) this can be a catastrophic approach.

  11. debby Avatar

    Completely agree. Attended Tufte’s course earlier this year and he could not have been more dismissive of big data. I found his books interesting, beautiful but his lecture, like his art, was quite lacking. Could not believe the amount of name dropping he felt compelled to do and was disappointed by his inability to think in terms of practical application in today’s product development and data communication needs.

    His argument boiled down to everything should be flat, like an ipad display. Interesting, yes. Insightful? Not anymore.

  12. @mjillster Avatar

    Couldn’t agree more. Your experience sounds very close to mine, which I got at the same course in Seattle 3 or 4 years ago. I have certainly learned a lot from his books, but the course itself came across as far more about him than the art of presenting data.

  13. Visual Avatar

    I attended his course 3 years ago using my employer’s support $. The first 30 minutes I reached the same conclusion about his course. I felt if I paid for the course myself, I would have asked for a refund and went home. The only thing I got from his course is the fact that I need to start thinking differently about data presentation. Maybe he takes some credit. yeah right ;)
    I was also bothered a lot by people lining up for signatures for books and other items. In my opinion, it’s a “scam”. What signing pictures on historical illustration and sell them at a premium price? really? an acomplished professor actually do this?

  14. Katydid Avatar

    I attended his seminar today and was shocked by how little content there was.He rambled on and on, spending about 20 minutes on how one should talk to one’s doctor.He plugged his books and art, as well as his mother’s book.He spent a great deal of time on his disdain for PowerPoint. I was hoping to learn how best to format and present troubleshooting information for service desk agents who are trying to absorb and apply resolutions while helping customers on the phone, so most of what he said didn’t apply at all. I left after lunch, terribly disappointed.

    1. adamcee Avatar

      I just went to his course earlier today. This is a few years later from the original post. He shared the same advice about talking to your doctor. I took it as a metaphor for how to constructively engage with people you need to share information with and assess, but who may not (for whatever reason – doctor, boss, etc) be inclined to listen to you very much. To me it was both useful and interesting. Obviously, YMMV.

      1. ghamut Avatar

        I just came out of the session today. Dr. Thing is still going strong.

  15. Peter Bedson Avatar
    Peter Bedson

    You need to remember Tufte is a guru so he flogs his ideas ad infinitum what he says in his books is good but very limited in its application. It is really about putting stuff down on paper, in a book when illustrations had to be prepared by special skilled folk – my university department actually had a specialist on the staff who just produced diagrams for print! There are lots of insights here you can use and Tufte did great things but if you expect a “how to” for presenting data in the modern world you are in the wrong place.

  16. Dustin Avatar

    I am so glad I stumbled upon this review. Before attending his course today I went in excited and giddy to see the authority on data visualization bestow his knowledge upon me. As a graphic designer for a company with a research team, I create data visualizations and infographics on an almost daily basis. I could not wait to get some tips and advice from Tufte himself. Instead, he almost comes across as resenting my field.

    After leaving the course today I felt underwhelmed and very contemplative on what I just experienced. My whole walk home I analyzed the course and almost felt guilty for not really appreciating the chance to hear a lecture from Tufte. This review summed up my feelings exactly – you nailed every thought I had had upon reflection of the course.

    Your conclusion is also spot on: buy the books and read them, but don’t think Tufte is the end-all, be-all to data visualization. Time are changing, and thats not necessarily a bad thing.

  17. Me Avatar

    Sitting in his course right now. Tired of the rambling and when spoken to one on one (at break), he’s ridiculously arrogant. I’m disappointed.

  18. Kai F. Avatar
    Kai F.

    I attended the course today in NYC and came away with the same impression. I’m glad to have Tufte’s 4 books to comb through now, from what I’ve heard and read, that’s where I’ll learn. He is a good speaker, and can hold your attention with some good examples from the books.

    But I came away thinking there wasn’t much covered in the 6 hour course that was particularly insightful or relevant to a practitioner like me seeking the latest thinking on data visualization. Knowing your audience is at the heart of good presentation, and Tufte didn’t seem to know who we were or why we were there.

    I wish I’d read this review before I’d registered — I would have just bought the books and skipped the course.

  19. Martha Avatar

    A little heads up for those attending at Tufte’s gallery. I arrived late for the same class Kai attended…and couldn’t open the door. (I emailed ahead, with an apology.) it was impossible to tell if anyone was in the gallery where the class was supposedly being taught. The windows and doors were covered with blackout curtains. I called to see if someone could let me in. I got a machine. It turns out that the door is just very hard to open. Which I discovered when I returned for the afternoon session, and Tufte’s assistant told me so. Not so great for those of us who have bad shoulders. Later, Tufte and his assistant actually watched a woman struggle with the door, and Tufte said: “Oh, she can’t open the door.” Which she actually apologized for. I think the books are beautiful, and the hour and a half I heard useful. Also useful would be a sign on the door saying “Class in Session. Door Sticks.”

  20. Marrein Avatar

    Well, I felt exactly the same, It was not what I expected from the class. You would go into the class with a mind of having better presentations, creating better dashboards, score cards, powerpoint , name it all. Yes it was entertaining, he is a good speaker and all, but…. Good thing that you walk away with a couple of books to read and learn from.

  21. Art&Info Avatar

    I am SO glad to have found this review and all the wonderful comments! I just got home from The Class in San Fran today, still perplexed about my experience. I was shocked at all the pre-reading, first of all, and had to call a friend to see if I was right in being shocked. 5 or 6 chapters in one hour? wow. The writing was so…hmmmm….wordy and well, difficult and intense–in my subjective view. It will be a while before I feel like opening those books again.

    I realized that the revered Mr. T is SUPER left brained and an analytical type to the max. Brilliant him. My bad. I wasn’t clear on that. I respect him tremendously, but felt stupid before the class even began. Being a super right-brain intuitive empath, artful designer I was on edge at the start. Then when he began talking, I couldn’t follow his logic! Again I wondered what was the matter with me. I stared at the carpet thinking, what the heck….? His stories had me lost and completely disconnected to him and the 1000 people who were there. I had never felt so uncomfortable at a lecture in my life. When he suggested websites crammed full of junk and info overload as well done, I knew I had to leave. Yes, my humble viewpoint is probably in the minority, but I just couldn’t agree with his. I know he is genius & “right” and I am wrong, however I just didn’t click with his design sense.

    And the art for sale in the lobby? I didn’t get it! (my fault, not his) I suppose if you’re a certain type of personality who enjoys numbers & data over the other stuff you’d like it. Embarrassed to say that I left bewildered and disappointed after only an hour and a half. Sorry sir, I just couldn’t take it, but I still respect you very much and appreciate your talent and wisdom. Interesting ideas for some people, I just don’t know what to make of it. Sign me, -Bummed in the City :[

  22. Dave C Avatar
    Dave C

    Sounds like there are mixed reviews on the Tufte course. Are there any other “data visualization” seminars that anyone would recommend?

    1. Robert Kosara Avatar
  23. Diana Avatar

    I disagree with these nay-sayers. I attended the class yesterday and found both the content and the presentation very useful. Dr. Tufte has the ability to pack every sentence with meaning, so it’s necessary to listen carefully to every word and at the same time look for ways in one’s own work to apply his suggestions. I have pages and pages of notes that I look forward to reviewing.

    That said, the first three-quarters of the day was brilliant, and the period after lunch to the end of the day was thin, consisting largely of cross-references to other works for further study and somewhat generic, although correct, observations about presentation style (respect your audience, arrive early, etc.). I think he skipped lunch in order to sign books and answer questions during the lunch break. The course would have been better served by a lecturer with sharper after-lunch focus. I would have preferred to start the class a half hour earlier or end a half hour later, so that he could refuel.

  24. Philip Williamson Avatar

    I attended a Tufte lecture in San Francisco with two co-workers about 9 years ago, and had a similar experience. I was disappointed that the lecture (then) went over different bits in the books; things that I’d already read. I was pretty irritated, and I probably would have enjoyed some crazy ranting more.
    My co-workers refused to go back after the break.
    If I had it to do over, I would have picked up my complimentary books and gone to a nice cafe to read them.

  25. Deepak Avatar

    Someone save me… I am attending his course right now and he just won’t stop rambling !!! How can you even compare websites like google news, maps to how our daily presentations should be!!

  26. Douglas Avatar

    Thanks for this post. Everything you said was accurate. After the first 3 hours, had politeness not caught hold of me, I was about to shout…”are we actually going to cover some content today?” His braggadocio was nauseating. How a person who can create such excellent visual content can be such an embarrassingly poor presenter (verbally and visually) was astonishing. I left at the lunch break.

  27. Bert Sperling Avatar

    Thank you for this post about “E.T.”‘s course/class/lecture/show!
    For a while I thought I was the only one who thought the emperor had no clothes, or at least the raiments were actually a little shabby and threadbare upon close inspection.
    I was hoping for insight into the presentation of demographic and health care data, but it seems Tufte has a particular fondness for time series, and only gives a nod towards the currently popular “heat map.”
    But I’m glad I went, if only for the experience.

  28. Akira Avatar

    Ditto. Ditto. And again ditto.

    What an arrogant, self-serving, mis-informed, behind-the-times, righteous, sarcastic twit.

    I just got out of his worthless $380 4-hour lecture which came along with his ridiculously heavy box-o-books. I loved his first two books, when they came out decades ago — he was a guardian of the old order, when data was presented more as graphic art than fodder for Excel charts.

    He’s an embarrassment. Like your aging granddad who goes on and on.

    Now he claims that the US weather service and ESPN sites are models of information display?!!! Huh?

    The more you pile on the better it is, especially if you cram it full of sparklines and graphic quilts. Less is boring to this guy. That’s odd for someone who loves Albers.

    Stay on the page with JavaScript! Oh how he hates to move on — to other pages or . . . links. Explore god in the details! Until you nod.

    I wish he had shown a bit of humility. If he wanted to show relevance he should have talked about why he admires Nate Silver’s methodology. Or about why Facebook’s UI works or doesn’t. Or the future of smart phones. Or taken questions.

    Nope. He just mentions that his rare 1570 copy of Euclid — a pop up book by the way — , which he could not resist showing us, cost him two years salary as a Yale professor. And he adds — this is totally crazy — always make your data 3D if you can? Yeah sure like 3D glasses?

    I gave my four books to the Mechanics Mercantile Library in SF — they were happy, as their copies were worn out. Like ET Tufte.


  29. airspeed Avatar

    Mixed feelings. He is right about PowerPoint, one of his strongest and intellectually sound messages. But he does ramble.

    I am an economist working in the international arena, and I got to the point I am at not through big school brand name recognition, but through my own relationship with data, how it should be aggregated, and how it should be presented. Having found myself in this line of work on my own terms, and being published, I found Tufte’s class today to be 1/3 stimulating, 1/3 rehashing what I had already figured out on my own, and 1/3 pure boring to the point I had to keep myself off from either being aggitared or falling asleep.

    There are gimmicks, rest assured, and this is from an academic who claims to disapprove of gimmicks!

    But you do go to see someone who is well known, and how, in the end of it, you really feel, is in itself a data point, at least for me as an economist…

  30. Noah Helenihi Avatar
    Noah Helenihi

    It’s too bad. I saw him present in Portland, Oregon in 2002. It was a completely different presentation and it was phenomenal. One huge difference was that in 2002 the course had an outline and he followed the outline and his notes. So, the “rambling” aspect was much diminished. Also, he focused a lot on theory, application and examples. The course was chock-full of practical ideas and advice. Plus, we saw the history and development of the ideas and how they had been applied or ignored by others—in some prominent, real-world examples.

    I saw him again, yesterday, in Portland (7/23/2013). This time, he did not work from notes. There was no outline. He seemed to be speaking to whatever was most recently commented-on on his site or some other conversations that everyone was somehow supposed to already know about. No notes equaled more rambling.

    There was still enough content for me to get excited about and a few nice, new ideas to take home. But, throughout the day I found myself wishing the audience could see the presentation from 2002. Oh, well. There is still a lot to take home—you just have to work a bit harder to find it.

  31. Rob de Jong Avatar

    I saw him today and was thinking: “Is this just me…?”

    I took home a couple of good ideas and a really beautiful set of books. I love the books.

  32. TufteFart Avatar

    Rob, it’s not just you. This “course” was the biggest waste of time. He f**king showed us the Google maps traffic feature. And he said something about how it can help your next commute, not how it relates to anything we came there for. I feel dirty.

  33. Hypocritical Tufte Avatar
    Hypocritical Tufte

    Good books, horrible presentation. For someone who puts down PowerPoint a bunch, I found it interesting that part of his presentation was run on Keynote, Apple’s PPT competitor. Isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black? He preaches against proprietary software, but most his presentation was built on it. I would suggest to Tufte to watch an Apple product announcement and see how well done they are, despite being just glorified PowerPoint presentations with a glossy feel and black turtlenecks. Tufte also really doesn’t care for dropped shadows and lets you know about it. A simple visit to his website will show 8 images on the landing page that have them though. Click around and they will keep showing up!!! What a waste of pixels!!! I think he used the word, “Stupid” at least 25 times in his presentation which I thought was a little odd as well. “I assume that anyone that uses pie charts is stupid and can’t count.” I’d bet most the individuals in the room had created a pie chart at some point in their life, hence it wasn’t the most respectful line from the presenter. Especially considering it came after his spiel about respecting your audience.

    Too hypocritical for my blood. His contradictions between what he preaches and practices made me question his credibility. The best part is his opening music graphic of past, future, and present. That was very well done and I was disappointed the rest of the presentation didn’t come near that benchmark he set for himself. Sign up, get the books, stay for the opening, and then run for the doors!

  34. Matt Avatar

    I went to a seminar today outside Philadelphia. I have admired this man’s writing ever since I was an engineering grad student, and his ideas are evident in a lot of my graphic style. I am a professor now and have a chance to maybe teach an upper level design elective, so I thought it was the perfect excuse to get some expert training from the man himself.

    I was shocked at the size of the crowd. I guess that makes sense, since he makes a living this way, but I honestly didn’t know so that many other people knew about him. It definitely was a different dynamic than what I was expecting.

    The best thing about the experience today is the 4 books (well, 5, because I also ended up buying his mother’s, which is just “okay”).

    The first half of the lecture had me hopeful, but I started getting a little uneasy at the amount of time we spent looking at websites like Google News and ESPN. I found his whole premise of the information-rich flat display as being superior to stacked presentations interesting…but how exactly does that translate into how we are to give presentations? Should I make a NYTimes-esque website and scroll around it while giving a talk? Also, his methodology for how to manage the room during a presentation also might be okay for the occasional department meeting, but I don’t think it would work for my day to day lectures.

    The second half of the program was where things really fell apart. We got started about 20 minutes later than the program suggested we would (and of course he ended a few minutes early, something I imagine must be his schtick). In that abbreviated second act, Tufte still found the time to go on a oddly unstructured diatribe about how to appropriately give “generic respect” to audiences. He circled around that point three or four solid times before bringing it in for an unceremonious landing and moving on to something else. There were also 2 or 3 times when he seemed to completely lose his train of thought and would pause for about 10 seconds (that doesn’t sound like a long time, but count it out in silence, and imagine in happening in a room with hundreds of people — awkward!).

    Honestly, my biggest criticism was that he taught exactly like *I* do on the occasions when my teaching plans have gone south and I’ve had to completely improvise. What baffles me is that I know he’s given this spiel a million times before, so I don’t understand how he could be talking off the cuff. Surely he’s said it all before and should have it down pat?

    I know my students would have given this guy a pretty poor evaluation, so ultimately I’m not going to look to him as a model for how to facilitate learning. But I think I will make much prettier figures after reading his books, which really are beautiful and full of interesting ideas.

    1. Charles Aker Avatar
      Charles Aker

      Perhaps his age may be playing a part in his performance?

  35. Michelle Rowe Avatar
    Michelle Rowe

    I also attended the conference in Philly and understand where people that have attended his seminars are coming from. I myself did get some very valuable information because I come from the counseling field and most recently switched to the research statistical field so in that respect some of this information was new to me. However, if you come from the design field, marketing, graphics I can see where a lot of this information would not be applicable and useful.

  36. Charles Aker Avatar
    Charles Aker

    In my opinion, Professor Tufte’s seminar’s was a worth while educational exposure. That so many former attendees would broadcast such criticism does not surprise me much, as the majority of our populous has little concept of value.

    For what little time he has available, I believe he did rather well, and the text’s he provided certainly compensated the price, not to mention the experience of his presence. People who felt that they did not ‘get their monies worth’ obviously suffer from an unrealistic expectation from life.

    How any rational person might believe they’d have their abilities transformed any, after limited exposure to such a complexed subject, need to discover some magic pill, or consider hypnotism. I felt
    Tufte’s ability to present such material over such a small time period is indicative of his reputation.

    Examples of historical presentation of data and mordern day application’s too helped me formulate good ideas. Folks might want to consider the expense associated with the logistics and facilitation of conducting any on the road edcational series. I for one am grateful that he’s able to personally share his lifes work, along with all his other responsibilities.

  37. mapodofu Avatar

    Signed up for the Arlington, VA class held today (November 1, 2013). Left after an hour of rambling with the lights off about how wonderful the National Weather Service, NYTimes, and ESPN websites were and fifteen minutes of ranting against all the “admirals in this town who have 50 full-time staff members building PowerPoint slides for them.”

    The gross exaggerations, un-truths, misconceptions, etc. were sloppy at best, irresponsible at worst. Tufte may have many relevant things to say, but the crusader-persona gets in the way.

    Am reminded of Brendan Behan’s quote about eunuchs in a harem…

  38. Jim Eitel Avatar
    Jim Eitel

    I’m a pediatrician with enough past experience in graphic design and info communication to know that the electronic medical records I am forced to use are dreadful as well as functionally oppressive. I heard about Tufte and decided to go the one day “course.” , thinking I might find some hope and alternative ideas. “Course” because I found it exactly as most people above who commented: rambling, not very specific, and ultimately minimally useful. He didn’t take any questions in front of the group on concrete problems which would have been quite useful. Pretentious, vain, and self important come to mind. Highly unskilled as a teacher and disrespectful to his students/audience. I hope I never relate to any of my patients that way … Glad you folks have good alternatives that were mentioned above.

  39. Jim Eitel Avatar
    Jim Eitel

    Just learned of someone from Sweden who does very interesting geopolitical work–Hans Rosling, also new California Atlas by Dick Walker et al..

  40. profjustice Avatar

    Was planning to attend the seminar/presentation toward the end of January. Thank goodness I haven’t sent my money yet. I doubt things have improved in the last month. Thanks to everyone for the straightforward appraisal.

  41. Danhoshima Avatar

    This course was a waste of time. Though I did learn that 12 is the average number of numbers on a power point slide. Or was it six? I can’t remember.

  42. CB Avatar

    Thank goodness I googled and read this before signing up for this “course” next week. I figured it would be packed and impersonal and the price was a bit high for a large lecture. I was disappointed to miss this a few years ago, and assumed it was probably an even more honed presentation by now! Will spend the day reading from his books instead.

  43. John Avatar

    Just read this after I left the course early after 45 minutes (!!!) of ESPN, National Weather Service, NYT website ‘analysis’, most of which consisted of insights such as ‘they put the authors’ names at the top, which indicates that they stand by their work’. Amazing rubbish and such a shame as, as all above note, the books are lovely. Such a big hall that I could barely see the display from the back and he was almost inaudible. I think this is firmly a scam by now.

  44. Amy Avatar

    So happy to have found this website. I only wish I had read it before signing up for the course. I’ll circulate this the next time his course promotion flyers start making the rounds here.

  45. Dung Avatar

    Sounds like a scam. I’ll stick to the books.

  46. Adam Avatar

    I attended the course today with three colleagues. All of us gather, analyze, and present data and work in marketing or IT.

    The course was not worthwhile for the reasons others have mentioned. Here is my particular spin: We expected to learn some practical lessons about how to visually present data more effectively. We came away with a few snippets of useful information, some nice colleague bonding over lunch, but little else.

    He criticizes PowerPoint but provides only the thinnest explanation of alternatives. His presentation was very sloppy, well below the level of a “good” college lecture or continuing ed class.

    For $380 I expect some lessons I can apply in my work. It was an overpriced waste of time. The guy is a genius, but did not deliver as promised.

  47. Katie Avatar

    Like Adam, I attended Edward Tufte’s course on August 6, 2014. I wish I had read your review before registering for the course. I found that the course is a waste of time and money. In the course, Tufte noted that we should avoid using powerpoint, but I think his presentation would have benefited from this software if it could have helped him stay on topic. Most of the course consisted of him rambling. Instead of taking the course, I would recommend that people buy his books and discuss them in a book club setting with their colleagues.

  48. Anjali Avatar

    Sorry to say this, but the course was a terrible waste of time and money. It was really hard to sit through a whole day of him talking.

  49. Monika M. Wahi, MPH, CPH Avatar

    I really appreciate this honest post and all of the comments. I worked somewhere in 2012 and we were thinking of sending someone to this course (we all were datavis people and we love his books), and after reading your helpful review and the equally helpful comments, I’m glad we didn’t.

    Now I have my own business, and I teach. I am looking into holding in-person seminars to teach using R and other software (leaning toward open source or cheap/easy on the web) for datavis, and I was wondering what would be the right fee to charge for a seminar like I *thought* this one was. All of this discussion has really helped me with my market research and getting an idea of what people expect to receive after paying $380 for a 6-hour workshop, so I can hopefully deliver something in my workshop better than “Mr. T”. Thanks everyone!

    1. Jenny Avatar


      I like your idea and think it would be very helpful! When do you plan on having these seminars? Where? What other software are you planning on including?

  50. Jodi Avatar

    I feel so validated! I was so irritated for the five hours I was sitting there.

  51. Liz Cal Avatar
    Liz Cal

    I was thinking about attending his program in Boston this spring but decided against it after reading this review and visiting his horrifyingly ugly website. I’ll stick with reading his books which I really enjoy!

  52. Sandra Boer Avatar

    The Man is a total egoist & jerk! I teach math and statistics at The Largest Community College on the East Coast (BMCC) and when I asked if there were any “discounts” for college students to take his class or if he ever gave any talks in schools as community service, he literally SNEERED at me!!! I have advanced degrees in Pure & Applied Math & understand more about math than this guy pretends to know…Yet he was SO SNOBBY to me!
    I did take his class & it was just a self-advertisment.
    I also mentioned to him that I am a proud member of MoMath (Museum of Mathematics) and am friendly with the ever so humble & truly brilliant founder Glen Whitney. I said perhaps MoMath might want to display some of his work & since I am a volunteer there could mention his work. Tufte said, “Let them come to me!” What a snob!!!!!

  53. Monica Avatar

    I wanted to thank you for your review, even four years later. I saw that he is holding a workshop later this week here in Denver, and was considering it. As a gut check, I searched for a review and yours came up first. I think I’ll just buy the books and save myself some money. Cheers!

  54. Stephen Avatar

    Just left Tufte’s now $420 seminar and feel like it was a waste of my day and my company’s money. He seemed painfully out of touch and rambled for about half of his time on stage – in case you’re curious, the current trending topics for Tufte are: high-res displays (“6K all the way!”), baseball stats, high resolution paper, and lots of name dropping.

    Wish I had found your review before attending. Although, before today I was so ensnared with his books I might have attended anyway.

  55. Alex Telea Avatar
    Alex Telea


    Could not agree more [in retrospective, given I’ve found your post years after it was done].
    But, is this a surprise?

    What do you expect from a salesman — else than simple (and, true, crisp/clear) truths, packaged of course with the “buy me” message?

    Money rules, as we all know. This guy is not an academic. No offense, he’s smart BUT his final goal is to make money whatever it takes, not to advance knowledge. If anyone has _grounded_ arguments against that, I’m interested to hear them.

    PS: he was recently (this year) on a tour in the Netherlands, where I work, and.. boy, the same sell-show.

    Alex Telea

  56. norbert turek Avatar
    norbert turek

    I got a flyer today that prompted the search that led to this site. Thanks for confirming what the material suggested.

    Honestly, as I looked at the boring 11×17 bifold glossy from someone touting information presentation, I thought, “couldn’t this have been more creative?” The Grand Army graph is very cool, and almost drew me in. Thanks.

  57. Andrew Kennely Avatar
    Andrew Kennely

    Tufte is doing his one-day course in Seattle this week. I attended todays presentation; he’s doing an encore tomorrow. At the downtown Westin.

    I am a big fan of his books, and had been looking forward to his seminar in much the same way that the fan of a musician looks forward to a concert.

    Truth be told I was disappointed. Here is my review:

    • He seems very cold and distant. He was never introduced, nor did he introduce himself, nor did he begin the talk by welcoming people to the event or thanking them for coming. When the program started, the lights were dimmed, and he just started talking as a video representation of a Chopin song played.
    • There was absolutely no interaction with the audience — no “raise your hands if you think . . .”, no posing questions to the audience to engage them, no Q&A, no nothing.
    • At the conclusion of the event, the audience clapped, I looked down to put some things in my backpack, a few seconds later I looked up and he had vanished, apparently ducked behind the curtains behind the podium and made his way out a back exit. You’d think he’d “linger” to talk to members of the audience. Attendees paid $380 apiece; with ~500 in attendance, he’s pulling in good money, you’d think he could hang around for a half hour to chat with his fans.
    • I was anticipating an event of maybe 100-150 people; instead I’d say it was more like 500. There’s nothing wrong with that, just don’t go expecting an intimate setting.
    • His delivery is not particularly engaging or interesting or memorable. His presentation was canned and his voice and delivery demonstrated little enthusiasm; you felt he’d rather be somewhere else. There were maybe 2 or 3 instances of very light humor (though the graphic of “how to load a dishwasher” was pretty funny).
    • Several times, he asked the audience to get out one of the four books from the set (all attendees get a box with paperback copies if his four books) and open to page x. That’s annoying.
    • The points he makes would be far more compelling if he would show “before” (bad) and “after” (improved version).
    • It wasn’t really even a full day course; it ran 10-4 with an hour for lunch (at the awkward time of 1:15-2:15). After lunch, the course turned boring and I found myself losing interest.
    • He rants against PowerPoint, but quite nonspecifically, and ironically he’s showing slides of some sort which may or may not be PowerPoint, but could be.
    • It was telling that there was no evaluation form or survey for participants to complete. Apparently, he does not care what his audience thinks.

  58. Diana Avatar

    I wish I read this before I signed up to the class (Oct 23, 2017 in Boston).This would not have stopped me from going (making my own mistake here..:-) ) but at least my expectations would have been lowered. There was so much I wanted to learn and the first hour was promising. I was hoping it was only going to be an intro to some learning. Instead, there were about 20-30 minutes of real info I will be able to use in my work. The rest it was a presentation of how information was presented in history (not data really) and about 45-60 minutes consisting of a preview of book 5. All of the info presented seemed to be out of date and I am hopeful the books I got will teach me something. This class was disappointment to me, really sorry to say, since I am looking up to Mr. Tufte. Also, any class I participated in wanted some sort of feedback of how they are perceived – this was not the case. I could not figure out a way to provide feedback on his site either. I guess this could be the reason why your 2012 review is SPOT ON for 2017.

  59. Brian Avatar

    Man, do I wish I had done my google search for “Edward Tufte course review” before signing up (at least work is paying). I have a list of five interesting points that he made during today’s course (October 24, 2017 in Boston), but other than that I learned nothing. I did not hear a single new idea for visual display of data, and the rambling just would not stop. Right after lunch, it developed into a pitch for a forthcoming fifth book on an unhinged theory of “meaning and space”.

    I would recommend just buying the books.

  60. Michael Shur Avatar
    Michael Shur

    I didn’t find this review or the comments in time, so I attended his course today in Dallas, and his shtick is exactly as described by so many here. I too left after lunch, and because I paid the $380 myself, felt kind of bad for wasting my money. Thought maybe I was missing the point. Glad to know I’m not alone.

    1. Lorraine Rolston Avatar
      Lorraine Rolston

      I am reading the books in advance of attending the course in August 2018 in Minneapolis. It seems my suspicions (same as the concerns expressed here) after reading 2 books in the set are justified, but I’ve committed my $380 and will attend. Hopefully, my advance reading will facilitate paying attention — otherwise I will have my knitting with me just in case.

      1. Diana Avatar

        maybe you can figure out a way to get a refund. Seriously, do not waste your time ! :-(

      2. Monika Wahi Avatar

        You will be happy you brought your knitting!

  61. Jeannie Clinkenbeard Avatar
    Jeannie Clinkenbeard

    Wish I’ld seen this website a few weeks ago. Today’s lecture was 7 hours of my life I’ll never get back. Seriously the worst course I’ve ever attended. Can’t believe he’s made so few changes to it in all these years. Save your money!

  62. N ZO Avatar

    I attended in DC. My employer paid as part of an employee development initiative. Based on the amount of military uniforms in the room I’m guessing this is pretty common. The presentation was disappointing, seemingly random topics were touched on and the audience was then advised to read about it in the books. It impressed me more as a meet & greet opportunity for Tufte fans than a cohesive learning experience. I’d advise those sufficiently interested to buy the box of books on an auction site and pass on the seminar.

  63. RN Avatar

    I attended a Tufte seminar in November 2018 and just received an announcement fio another set of seminars. Figuring that people would be looking online for reviews, I’ll give my input. I read the Tufte books many years ago as a newbie math textbook author and was really influenced by his design ideas. Authors often do not get much input into design, but I was able to persuade my publishers about introducing some new layout options and they were on board. Later on, I saw that similar layout in other math textbooks as well. So I ended up being a big fan of Tufte, and couldn’t resist the opportunity to attend a local seminar.

    Regarding the course itself, disappointment would an understatement. Just a rehash of the stuff in his books, a lot which is now mainstream. Kosara’s review from 2012 is still spot on. Doesn’t look like Tufte has changed his presentation in years. He was also distant and not approachable, both literally and figuratively.

    So save your money, and get the books! Seems the books are overstocked on ebay and amazon so folks should be able to get a good deal on them.

  64. Sean Rule Avatar

    I wish I had read this before driving 3 hours to his course…

    …in which I just finishing googling “Edward Tufte 1-day course reviews”, somehow expecting a miracle turn of events.

  65. D. P. Scarpazza Avatar
    D. P. Scarpazza

    Mr. Tufte publishes incredibly appealing books, and he has had ideas that stood the test of time. Both these claims are indisputable.

    However, his attitude and demeanor are unprofessional and, in my opinion, unacceptable.

    I’ll keep for myself my subjective opinions on the person’s ego and his seminars’ value.

    I will focus on two objective complaints:

    (1) during the Q&A session following his talk (company-sponsored event) seminar by him, I asked a question — or tried to. The question revolved around how he would recommend countering some of the shortcomings of contemporary PowerPoint usage. Mr. Tufte interrupted me mid-question with “I’m not interested in this question – next!”. I don’t mind people being opinionated, I don’t mind political correctness, I don’t mind calling a spade a spade. I don’t even mind someone calling me an idiot, if that’s their professional opinion. But a paid speaker has obligations toward the host organization. If you pay this man to speak to your event and taking questions, be prepared for the fact that he just might not deliver;

    2) during the talk, he handled a fragile, rare historical book he owns, possibly 400+ years old, while walking in the middle of the aisle. The point was to show how the book had folding flap that would compose into a three-dimensional shape. He handled the book without gloves, without precautions against skin oils depositing on the paper, and without precautions against the risk of the book falling, or slipping from his hands and getting torn or lacerated. I thought that this display of personal wealth and power was irresponsible, vulgar and unethical. Rare book collectors have no legal obligations, but definitely an ethical duty to protect what they own for humanity, and at least preserve books from wanton damage. I thought that he could have achieved better teaching value in recording a short video of himself demonstrating the book once (maybe with gloves) and showing it during the presentation, rather than physically manipulating the book at every seminar, which does not even give a chance to people sitting in the back of seeing the demonstration.