The Unprecedented is Overrated

I was invited to speak at a recent TEDx event in Berkeley, but I withdrew late in the game when the TED folks asked me to sign a contract that would have given them the right to edit my talk however they wished without my permission. This is something that I never allow, because I’ve learned the hard way that even people with good intentions can screw things up by making bad edits. I’m writing today, not to talk about the rights of content creators to their work, but about the theme of this TEDx event, which struck me as misguided. I and the other speakers were asked to tie our talks to the theme “Doing the Unprecedented.” When I received this request from the event coordinator (TED calls them “curators”), I told her that I would tie my talk to this theme by making the case that doing the unprecedented is highly overrated.

Most of what we can do to make the world a better place involves, not doing the unprecedented, but doing what matters and what works, whether unprecedented or not. This might not be as exciting as the unprecedented, but it’s desperately needed. I believe that too many opportunities are wasted because we glorify the unprecedented for its own sake.

In the United States over 150,000 people die each year due to post-surgical complications. That’s three times the number of traffic fatalities. What makes this even more shocking, however, is the fact that half of these post-surgical deaths could have been prevented, not by doing the unprecedented, but by doing what medical professionals already know, but often fail to do.

Many of these surgical failures are caused by the complexity of the work. When tasks are complex and you’re working under stress amidst distractions, it’s hard to remember everything that should be done. A movement is now underway to solve this problem, which involves nothing unprecedented, but something that another highly skilled group of professionals—pilots—have been doing for many years. Surgical teams are beginning to use checklists.

Atul Gawande, who led the effort to create this surgical safety checklist for the World Health Organization, writes convincingly about the need for checklists in all professions that deal with complexity in his new book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right.

In the field of data visualization, failures are more common today than successes, not due to complexity, but to the fact that few people have been trained in the simple principles and practices of graph design. As a result, they rely on software tools to do the work for them and most of those tools lead them astray, encouraging them to produce silly, useless displays like this.

This is a travesty, because we are living at a time when we could be making tremendous use of data to inform better decisions, and most of the rules for doing this well have been known for years.

Here’s an example of one of the earliest quantitative graphs, hand drawn by William Playfair in 1786. In his time, Playfair did the unprecedented by inventing or greatly improving many of the quantitative graphs that we use today.

Back in 1983, Edward Tufte published his first book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, in response to the problem of ineffectively designed graphs. And yet, despite Tufte’s efforts, plus my own and the work of several others since, it appears that graphical communication skills in general might actually be declining. Problems like this silly pie chart on Fox News, which adds up to 193%, are far too common.

When did we lose sight of the fact that data displays are about data, expressed clearly, accurately, simply, and meaningfully? When did Business Intelligence (BI) take a wrong turn down the path to business stupidity? In our efforts to do the unprecedented, to make ourselves look impressive by decorating our data in impoverishing ways, we’ve adopted practices that make us dumb. Most of the principles for doing this right have been known for a long time. Let’s save the unprecedented for situations that demand it. For most data sense-making and presentation, let’s do what’s needed and what works.

Take care,

9 Comments on “The Unprecedented is Overrated”

By Andrew. April 13th, 2010 at 6:28 pm

I think we live in an era where the phrase “business intelligence” can at times be viewed as an oxymoron. If it makes you feel any better, know that the field of visual business intelligence, or data visualization, by no means has the monopoly on dumb practices.

The US Real Estate industry is probably the worst offender of the last decade. The creation of a system where everyone is falling over themselves to makes high risk loans on artificially valued homes to people who have no capacity to pay for them is probably dumber.

By Larry Keller. April 16th, 2010 at 2:39 pm

Bravo Steve –

By Joe Oviedo. April 22nd, 2010 at 10:23 pm

Amen Steve. You may be furious of what happens in the US about data visualization or business intelligence. In my world, in Mexico, is Business what? Data what? LOL. For me is a golden land of opportunity.

By Dan Murray. April 26th, 2010 at 4:37 am

Your post reminds me of a book by John Allen Paulos call Innumeracy, Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences.

Perhaps someone needs to write a similar book about graphical illiteracy.

I’m continually frustrated by the lack of focus by most software makers on this “last mile” of business information.

By tom mayo. April 27th, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Thanks for always sticking to your guns. You remain credible by simple acts like these.

By Mike Smitheman. April 29th, 2010 at 3:55 pm

I couldn’t agree more. I have worked for BI vendors for over 10 years and now am responsible for delivering a BI module for an HR/Payroll platform…I have taken the approach of “back to basics” when it comes to data visualization and continually visit your writings as a sanity check!

We have gone as far as employing young maths/stats/engineering graduates who can bring an untainted view of what is effective vs ineffective and can keep me from forgetting that the data is what is important.

By Paul Hare. May 3rd, 2010 at 8:20 am

It was disheartening to hear about the theme of this year’s TED event. To me, it reinforces the perception(wrong or not) of elitism. You are spot on in your protest. It reminded me of the wise saying “The smallest deed always exceeds the grandest of intentions.”

By Stephen Few. May 3rd, 2010 at 8:38 am


Bear in mind that this was not a main TED event. It was one of the regional events, which are associated with TED central, but not directly run by them.

By David Herwaldt. May 19th, 2010 at 10:17 pm

i keep a commonplace book in which i collect thoughts on design. among my favorite quotations is one from charles eames: “innovate as a last resort.”