Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Son of presentation landscape

In July, Nancy Duarte created a great visualization she titled Presentation Landscape. I really like her diagram, but as I showed to a few people there were questions about the X axis, particularly the slideument-preso continuum.

I thought about my own experience helping non-designers deal with the world of documents, slideuments, and presentations. The way that good visuals often start life as sketches on napkins or whiteboards, and the way those ideas often need to flow back and forth between different forms over the life of a project. (And the way that once something gets into Powerpoint, it often seems to get trapped there.)

Son-of Landscape PresentationWhen you think about the journey of an idea and how projects often evolve, it seems like it’s difficult to resist using existing slides that may have been fine for a working thinkpiece, but are really not up for the important presentation or executive briefing. And sometimes PP is not the right tool for making documents. And sometimes (gasp) no documents or paper are necessary at all (yikes, what am I saying?). Picking up on Nancy’s original point, the same slide or deck may not be worth fighting for one day, but may be ill-suited for a higher stakes presentation later in the project.

Anyway, this little diagram is trying to visualize what I was thinking, maybe build on Nancy’s brilliant original. I hope she’s not offended.

(Geek alert: you can hide the path layer to just see where different forms map.)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

One Little Thing

A little story about how one little thing makes a difference.

I am not a big TV tech guy. We watch TV, but are hopelessly non-digital, non-HD, non-Blu-Ray, etc. A month or two ago, our cable provider (a very large profitable company based nearby) sent us a nice note that said “if you’d like to keep watching your extended cable channels, you’ll need to get these little digital converter boxes for free, you luddites.” (Ok, they didn’t call us luddites.)

So I go online and get the boxes sent to us for self-installation. I’m fairly tech-savvy and figure that this will be pretty simple. The boxes came with good, clear instructions and setting them up was fairly straight-forward. So far so good.

I go online to activate the devices, and one out of three get turned on immediately. Still, no big deal, so I call the activation number and wait on hold for about 15 minutes. I’m ok with this – they let me know that their call volume is high, give me other options, so I’m patient and I wait. While I wait I look through their online FAQs and troubleshooting guide, but nothing about the situation at hand. I speak to a very friendly and helpful person who, after the requisite “is it turned on?” questions, activates both other boxes.

I think.

One of these boxes is larger and all the instructions clearly say “set your TV to channel 3” and “leave it be for 45 minutes while it loads your channels” and “it will turn itself off when it’s done.” So I eat, do some chores, come back. The box is still on, the TV is still nothing but static. I go online to see if this is normal. Back through the all FAQs etc., and find one that says: “if nothing happens after 45 minutes, try again.” So I do. And wait another hour. Still nothing but static. I call the support number again. This time I’m on hold for 30 minutes, maybe longer. When I finally get to a human being (also very nice), after I explain the situation (reset it 2 or 3 times, still no picture), the first thing she asks me is “is your TV on channel 3 or 4?” I switch to channel 4 and – wait for it – everything is working just fine. For all I know it was working just fine the first time, but in all my hunting I hadn’t seen one FAQ, instruction, troubleshooting answer, knowledgebase entry, or the like that said “try channel 4.”

I wondered if there had been something and I just overlooked it, so I went back to the site and hunted. Nope. I wondered if there was a hardware switch that I had overlooked. Nope. I looked back through all the simple instructions. Nothing there either.

This was not a huge big deal, just a minor annoyance. But my otherwise good experience (from getting the notice to ordering to setting up the hardware) was dramatically affected by one little thing (try channel 4). All the stuff I encountered was very helpful and explained very clearly what should happen and how do deal with certain known issues, but trying channel 4 wasn’t one of them.

If the company had included some additional tips online (the sort of thing I imagine is available to their call center staff), I could have been trying that at noon instead of 4:30, and my total experience would have been different.

One little thing.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The value of making real things

My father was a well-respected civil engineer. A colleague of his told me he was an “engineer’s engineer, the go-to guy when you had any question.” But he was also a craftsman who took pride in doing things well and paid attention small details. His father (my grandfather) was the same way: he did so many things with the intentional precision of a of a fine cabinetmaker.

I’ve been thinking about this recently as I try to discover meaning in the second half of my own life, and trying to better articulate the organizational value of craftsmanship and good work when good enough seems to be the measure for many in business.

Soft issues like feelings, intuition, aesthetics, style, or behavior really matter to an organization’s health in ways that are difficult to measure. It’s not that smart people don’t understand this (intellectually), it’s that they can’t act on it (emotionally). And I think there’s a connection between that emotional engagement (or lack of it) and craftsmanship.

Fewer and fewer people today actually make stuff – real tangible things, not abstract ideas like wealth or solutions – and so fewer and fewer people have the opportunity to develop an appreciation for the meticulousness that is required to excel at a craft and do really good work.

When you enter a craft, you quickly realize that it takes both patience (time) and persistence (effort) to master it. The idea of building fine furniture or cooking a world-class meal is straight-forward, but actually doing it exposes you to feelings and emotions that don’t ever appear in the measured drawings or recipe. And the only way to get good at it is to keep trying. And trying. And trying (that is, just because you’ve tried something 50 times doesn’t mean the result is going to be wonderful).

In many business activities, good enough seems to be sufficient – the presentation, brochure, report, website, product, event is good enough. Good enough to make it to the next stage, meet the immediate expectation, satisfy the boss, check it off the list. Which is fine – but that doesn’t mean it’s good (or great). Think Oldsmobile.

Don’t get me wrong, there are times when good enough is just fine. When the stakes are low it would be silly to use limited resources to produce world-class stuff. The slide show on the company picnic probably doesn’t need the $300/hour agency treatment. Of course the challenge is if one can’t really distinguish between good enough and good (or excellent), then how can one know when good enough isn’t?

My theory is that those with little experience in making real things also lack certain emotional experiences that help them understand and act on the softer ideas that help give an organization meaning and soul.

Well, that’s my theory (or maybe half-theory). I’m still working on it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Steve Jobs on design

Came across this last week from a 1996 interview by Gary Wolf in Wired magazine (more than 15 years ago). A classic.

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You have a reputation for making well-designed products. Why aren’t more products made with the aesthetics of great design?

Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. The design of the Mac wasn’t what it looked like, although that was part of it. Primarily, it was how it worked. To design something really well, you have to get it. You have to really grok what it’s all about. It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that.

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.

Is there anything well designed today that inspires you?

Design is not limited to fancy new gadgets. Our family just bought a new washing machine and dryer. We didn’t have a very good one so we spent a little time looking at them. It turns out that the Americans make washers and dryers all wrong. The Europeans make them much better – but they take twice as long to do clothes! It turns out that they wash them with about a quarter as much water and your clothes end up with a lot less detergent on them. Most important, they don’t trash your clothes. They use a lot less soap, a lot less water, but they come out much cleaner, much softer, and they last a lot longer.

We spent some time in our family talking about what’s the trade-off we want to make. We ended up talking a lot about design, but also about the values of our family. Did we care most about getting our wash done in an hour versus an hour and a half? Or did we care most about our clothes feeling really soft and lasting longer? Did we care about using a quarter of the water? We spent about two weeks talking about this every night at the dinner table. We’d get around to that old washer-dryer discussion. And the talk was about design.

We ended up opting for these Miele appliances, made in Germany. They’re too expensive, but that’s just because nobody buys them in this country. They are really wonderfully made and one of the few products we’ve bought over the last few years that we’re all really happy about. These guys really thought the process through. They did such a great job designing these washers and dryers. I got more thrill out of them than I have out of any piece of high tech in years.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Edit > Paste Special

I think this is one of the true secrets of good communication online – give people something usable (and don’t create huge files/emails in the process). The good news and bad news about copying and pasting in Windows is the same: it’s easy. Unfortunately this seemingly simple act causes untold problems down the digital line. I address a few here (and how to avoid them):

Copying text or a table from Excel. If you are pasting into Word, no problem, but if you’re pasting rows and columns of text into any none-Microsoft product, you probably will end up pasting a picture of text, not real text. The solution: use Edit > Paste Special > Paste as Text (or sometimes Paste as HTML). Why does this matter: because someone else might like to actually copy and use that text, and cannot if you only send them pictures of letters.

Copying a graph from Excel. Even with other MS apps, Excel doesn’t always play well with others. Ever wonder why that PowerPoint file is 18 MBs? It might be all those charts you copied and pasted from Excel. The problem is that Excel not only copies the chart, but also the entire rest of the file (every tab, every worksheet). In addition to making your PP file huge, it can also reveal information you might not want other people to see. The solution: Use Edit > Paste Special > Paste as Picture. This ensures that only the chart comes in, not all the other stuff in the file.

Sometimes it helps to have an intermediary app to paste stuff into before going to the final destination. For example, a screen shot (Alt-Prnt Scrn) is often a 24-bit image (there’s a lot of information for each pixel), which equals a large file, especially if you have a bunch in a single Word file. The solution: Copy the screen dump into Paint first (Start > Programs > Accessories > Paint), unselect it, then recopy into your Word doc. The resulting copy will have less bit-depth, and result in a smaller Word file.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Japanese Industrial Design

Reading about the new Mac OS – how it’s a lot of under-the-hood improvements but not many sexy new features – I got thinking about this from Wired, September 2001:
“In Japanese design, every little part, every little line, every little button is well thought-out. It’s as if each element is saying, ‘I am a part of this machine and I have to do my job, too, no matter how small.’ Next year’s model may not seem new, but it’s improved. And it’s not just consumer electronics. Look at a company like Honda. They’ll make a convertible sports coupe that could eat a Porsche Boxster alive on the racetrack, but it will look like a slightly pointy Civic. As a culture they’re not necessarily choosing to innovate: They choose to perfect.”

Gray Holland is part of the brain trust at frog design, the firm responsible for everything from Apple’s early look and feel to the new Ford Th!nk, an all-electric concept vehicle.
Eight years later it still seems to be true.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Good type matters (part 6): dashes

Type is the single most important graphic element on most pages (or slides, or webpages, or emails).

Use En-dashes.

Admittedly this is bordering on the typographically compulsive, but I do feel it’s important to know the difference. In ordinary use, there are three kinds of dashes:
  • Hyphen. Technically a punctuation mark, it is the shortest of the three and the thing on your Qwerty keyboard next to the zero. ( - ) It is used for hyphenated words (duh) an to break words over multiple lines (a task often done by your computer, but the best results require some human intervention).
  • En-dash. A little longer than the hyphen (an en-space, to be exact), it is used in modern typography to set off phrases – use it with a normal word space on either side.
  • Em-dash. The so-called long dash—it is rarely used in modern typography. You may still see it used, but to quote Robert Bringhurst: “The em-dash is the nineteenth-century standard, still prescribed in many editorial style books, but the em-dash is too long for the best text faces. Like the oversized space between sentences, it belongs to the padded and corseted aesthetic of Victorian typography.”
Please note there is no double hyphen. The double hyphen was the typist’s indication when preparing manuscripts that a dash (probably an em-dash) should be set. Your typography will be more elegant if you unlearn this habit (or even easier, set Word and Powerpoint to replace “--” with “–” by going to Tools > Autocorrect > AutoFormat as You Type and select Symbol Characters with Symbols).

But as with quotation marks, consistency is more important than typographic rules. So if you are going to use double hyphens (or are assembling bits from people that do), then do so consistently. There are also times when a client or customer’s own style may call for using em-dashes instead of spaced en-dashes, so (obviously) one would follow the their style in such cases.

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This is the last of these for now (I originally started with only three items). Typography is an art that some people study for a lifetime, and these suggestions are ridiculously simplified guidance for one minor aspect of it. Still, if the reader is interested in getting their audience to actually read what they write, these issues are a place to start. For those that want to know more, the de facto reference has become Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style.