Tufte spent most of his talk walking around the room while talking on a wireless mike. He had two projectors set up, but for the most part he only displayed pages or pictures from his books, instructing the audience to follow along in their own copies (which had been provided to every attendee). He occasionally carried around some other props, in particular a few 400-year old books from his personal library. This style not only entertained and engaged the audience, it also emphasized one of his main points, which is that progress is often measured in data density - how many bits per unit of area can be accomodated by a hard drive or a display.
In terms of text display, a page in a phone book can hold 36K of information, while the best display can only show about 5K (those are his numbers, I didn't verify them). If you look at something like a topographical map, the resolution available on paper is a factor of ten, at least, beyond what can be shown on a screen.
Thus, paper is a much better way to present information than a computer display, and a speaker reading off a slide with five bullet items on it is actually an awful way to make a presentation. He feels printed handouts are not something to be displaced by the "paperless office," but instead a hallmark of a good presentation - not just for their information density, but as something permanent that can be taken away from a meeting, symbolizing the integrity of the presenter and his or her belief in what was presented.
Tufte feels that the same mantra about data density should be applied to web sites, and in fact to the entire contents of the computer display that the user sees when navigating a web site. Thus, he dislikes task bars, menu bars, status bars, and other GUI screen overhead, since they constrict how much of the display can be used for content. Once you get to the actual site, he has similar disdain for banner ads, navigation bars,
graphical frills, and the like. His most withering criticism was for frames, which he views as having no purpose other than to fill even more screen real estate with useless information (he compared frames to a university filled entirely with assistant deans, which got a good laugh from the audience - so maybe it wasn't all web designers out there).
So he dislikes Powerpoint, Windows, Internet Explorer, Microsoft web sites, and Frontpage. He also dislikes designs based on user testing, feeling that it produces only routine competence, and that great designs - he mentioned the Macintosh and Next - come from great designers. For good measure he threw in some Excel jokes for the Seattle audience. So what does he like?
Tufte feels that the main measure of a web site (or any computer interface) should be the percentage of the screen that is actually devoted to the task at hand. He wants web pages to use words instead of icons, because they can display information more compactly (as he demonstrated, most icons require an explanatory word beneath them anyway, making the icon a complete waste). He does not like navigation bars, but instead wants as many choices as possible on the main page. The one "navigation"-type bar he wants is one allowing the user to select a different language (and please, put each language name in its own language, not in English).
He said that
had 240 links on its main page, yet remained clear and easy to use. Other sites whose density he admired include
Arts & Letter Daily and the very similar (design-wise)
SciTech Daily Review,
Science @ NASA,
(he is a friend and admirer of Philip Greenspun, and uses the
ArsDigita Community System
for his own website). He also highlighted
Isys Information Architects' site for its discussion of good and bad interfaces. He did not mention Kuro5hin, but in my opinion its rough-hewn, information-dense design is up to his standards.
Tufte feels that good design is "clear thinking made visible." A designer should ask "What is the thinking task that this display is supposed to help with," and then imagine how the audience will respond to it. In fact, he suggested that designers think of their audience in terms of what they read. What he is aiming for is a move away from the "keep it simple" idea of design, in which the audience is viewed as stupid, towards one in which the audience is viewed as a partner in learning.
In other words, more like academia than the business world. In fact, he stated that the best way to learn how to make good presentations was to ignore the business books and instead read books on how to teach. Given the clarity and persuasiveness of his own presentation, I think he has a point.