I spent last weekend in Western Massachusetts, visiting my parents and enjoying a summer performance in the fresh mountain air at Tanglewood.

Freed from the seemingly endless To Do list of my Cambridge life, I embraced one of those projects that nearly always ends up at the bottom of the pile. I descended into my parents’ basement to winnow a few boxes of personal memorabilia. They were mostly grade school and college notebooks, awards certificates, and personal essays assigned by voyeuristic middle school “English” teachers who know they’re panning for gold during a rush.

Even a media girl will tolerate only so many boxes of dormant paper, because someday her parents will make her store them herself. At least computers arrived partway through this lifelong accumulation of paper, creating the illusion that one is a minimalist (and then making it a reality through malfunction or obsolescence). But, with the paper that remains, it’s so hard to know what to keep and what to throw.* 

However, there was no question as to the fate of one yellowed 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheet of paper. In 1987, a summer school teacher wrote a brief evaluation of my participation in a class where we made our own magazine:

Rekha was a fast learner in the art of “lay-out” and “paste-up.” She has a good logical mind for organizing material, and likes to add her own creative touch to the format of a magazine. I appreciated the leadership she provided as editor and enjoyed working with her on her own articles.

I was thirteen years old. In the years that followed, I considered careers in interior decorating, environmental law, medicine, architecture, photography, international diplomacy, or something that would fulfill my eighth grade class designation as First to Make a Million. I eventually faced my destiny and went into media… and here I am, 20 years later, laying out digital objects and curating content with logic and creativity. I might have saved myself a lot of searching if I had paid attention to these little indicators. Then again, what I do now didn’t exist back then.

ADDENDUM
[Because I was reminded that truth, edited for narrative flow, will still be treated as truth (see comments).] There’s another story about how my earliest memories include sitting in the back of my parents’ car, listening somewhat involuntarily to NPR. And how, while a teenager, lots of people told me I had a great voice, and that I should be a journalist, and how I agreed but for many years I was too scared to try. But that’s going to have to wait until I find another artifact to peg it on.

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*I would be curious as to other people’s criteria for retaining or letting go of personal artifacts over the years.

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I attended Edward Tufte’s “course” on information design a few weeks ago. The hundreds in attendance were clearly hungry for answers to the problems of everyday life. (It reminded me a bit of the time I saw Sri Sri Ravi Shankar when my friend tricked me into it by failing to correct the natural assumption that a Ravi Shankar at a performance hall in Washington, DC, would be bringing his sitar.) Tufte stokes their hunger by titling his events “Presenting Data and Information: A One-Day Course Taught by Edward Tufte” and by styling himself as professor-guru. He holds “office hours” during breaks. He does not invite questions from the audience, nor does he acknowledge those that are occasionally blurted out anyway.

I sat between a guy who designs machines that cut steel, and a woman who works in medical informatics for a hospital. They wanted to learn how to make their presentations better. Instead, they learned that the Napoleon took his soldiers on a death march through Russia and that Boeing engineers were afraid to sound the alarm when astronauts’ lives were on the line.

Ok, I’m being a little snarky. I actually have a lot of respect for what Tufte has done. His beautiful books are full of examples that show the artistry and breadth of information design. But his course is little more than a book tour that participants get to pay to attend. It’s fun, but it’s not a course.

Tufte spent a little too much time on a pet idea of his called sparklines, “data-intense, design-simple, word-sized graphics.” Actually, they’re pretty cool. Sparklines at RetailMeNotMy only concerns were that they pack *too* much information into too small a space, and in the wrong information intake context. If I’m in a text-reading rhythm, will I — or can I even — break that rhythm, switch to a graphics-reading mode, and then switch back again? I wasn’t so sure, though I remained open to the possibility.

When I got home that evening, I did a bit of online retail therapy to wind down. As ever, I visited RetailMeNot before closing a purchase. And there I saw sparklines, used perfectly.

I’ve never quite understood why a coupon code with a 30% success rate would work for me, and why one with a 90% success rate wouldn’t. I still don’t understand it, but with sparklines, I get a better picture of that strange phenomenon. Because I can see where in the sequence the successes and failures are, I also have a better sense of which coupon to try first. That appeals to my desire for efficiency in the service of optimum discount achievement.

What I like about this usage of sparklines is that it doesn’t break my rhythm. On RetailMeNot, I’m not in a fluid text-reading mode. I’m scanning the page and evaluating several different color, graphic, numeric, and textual indicators to decide which coupon code to try. In that context, the sparkline graphic fits right in.

Now, enough about consumerism. Can sparklines save the world? (At a discount?)

Last week, I watched the “60 Minutes” segment about chain restaurants and the growing pressure by New York health officials to prominently display calorie counts.*

My mind turned an ashamed eye back to a Starbucks in Washington, DC, which fed me a small mocha frappuccino a day for an entire, hot summer. Urban legend has it that a frappuccino has ‘as much fat as a Big Mac.’ I never motivated to research this until now… <researching>… actually, the small one isn’t as bad as that. Phew. Apparently hyperbole goes both ways in the Obesity Wars. But I’ll stick with tea.

Back to “60 Minutes”. Lesley Stahl accuses a calorie count board hanging at a Wendy’s of being “drab and easy to miss.” From what I saw in the video, that seemed a bit unfair. True, the text is small. But there’s lots of stuff to show (which is probably why the Starbucks site is very interactive).

From the show’s online summary:

[A Wendy’s spokesperson] says that because Americans love to customize — adding cheese or extra mayo — providing accurate information is nearly impossible… [He] showed 60 Minutes a Wendy’s menu board that lists the combos.

He then showed Stahl what it would look like [with calorie counts]: a dense, cluttered board, with tiny type. “Obviously … no one can read it. And you would have to see this from eight feet away,” [he] explains.

“Let me see. This is absurd. Oh my gosh,” Stahl remarks.

Seeing the board, I saw an information design problem. A problem for:

Edward Tufte.

As far as I know, Mr. Tufte has never tackled this. How would he — or any information designer — present calorie counts in a way that is accurate, comprehensive, and easy to read at a glance?

Would it change how people order? Would it change how they eat?

In other, more dramatic terms: Could good information design fight obesity? (Has it already, in supermarket labeling?)

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*The logic that targets the chains is a bit bizarre, according to “60 Minutes”:

The calorie labeling in New York would not apply to “calorie Meccas,” like Chinese restaurants, delis, and fancy French bistros. The chains were singled out because they already publish nutritional information about their food…

Would I want to be confronted with calorie counts wherever I eat out? No. Would I want to know, when choosing where to eat, that the worst of the offenders had been banned? Sure. For example, while it would be naive to trust that the FDA vets everything, there’s a reason it exists.