Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A very orange moon

I'm up at 3:30 am on Tuesday morning admiring the moon during a total lunar eclipse (during the winter solstice).

Monday was also the anniversary of Carl Sagan’s death. Carl was a man who was so passionate about science that he inspired a generation of people to care about the physical sciences (a friend of mine says she had a crush on him, now she helps companies deal with their environmental impacts – coincidence?). Carl had an impact on me too, I vividly remember his visualization of the cosmic calendar, walking across a huge grid and kneeling by the last day in December, pointing to the last second of December 31st as the place that all of human memory resides. It is still powerful: if all of evolutionary history is the size of a football field, all of human history fits into the palm of your hand.

Carl didn’t use Powerpoint, but his impact still resonates 14 years after his death. Oh that our ideas could be so powerful.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Diagrams without meaning

This is a real diagram I encountered:

It’s not wrong, it just doesn’t mean anything. It could have easily been a bullet list or some other collection of shapes and lines, but I assume that somewhere along the way someone wanted a graphic to “liven things up” so here it is – the ubiquitous Microsoft SmartArt graphic. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve drafted more clever but equally silly things in my life to help people inject variation into their presentations.

But it doesn’t work.

It may break up 51 straight all-text slides and make the presenter feel a bit better, but a gratuitous diagram doesn’t help communicate. It may actually confuse things.

Jakob Nielsen discussed this in November. He was talking about images on web sites but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to include diagrams too. Louis Sullivan said form follows function,* and that sure applies here.

Useful diagrams reveal something better than just words alone, but a diagram doesn’t automatically have value just because it’s not words. The diagram needs to add something to the idea, something beyond the words. N.C. Wyeth talked about illustrating scenes that the author didn’t necessarily describe, and his illustrations were something beyond the words. So it is with a diagram.

Two resources:

1) Dan Roam has good ideas on developing good pictures. (Hint: start with paper and pencil.) His Visual Thinking Codex is very useful.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Good photos = useful ones

Jakob Nielsen’s latest research shows that users pay close attention to photos and other images that contain relevant information but ignore fluffy pictures used to “jazz up” Web pages.

Seems to me this also applies to presentations:
  • Maximize use of images that carry relevant information.
  • Minimize images that are just there to be pretty.
Full post is here.

(I’m sure I have drastically over-simplified things, but this just seems so inline with Tufte, Raskin, earlier Nielsen, etc.)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Update: AK-47 as story-telling success (or propaganda)?

In March, Dave Gray wrote a post where he referenced using the AK-47 as an example of good design thinking: designing stuff to work in the real world. He was not praising the gun, he was just using it as an example. He also mentioned that using the Kalashnikov as a subject for his speech probably gets people engaged better than some dry facts. I liked Dave’s post so much I pointed to it too.

Part of his story is retelling the development of the AK-47: how “Mikhail Kalashnikov designed the AK-47 because his homeland had been invaded by an enemy with superior weapons. He wasn’t a ‘hired hand of an industry, doing whatever was needed.’ He was a tank mechanic who saw fellow soldiers and civilians gunned down and wanted to ensure that it would never happen again.” It’s a great story, and one that has obviously succeeded for years. Only one problem:

It’s not true.

According to Wired, the AK-47 was the result of a multi-team effort to design a better gun. And the story about Kalashnikov? Soviet propaganda.

The “design for the real world” part of the story is still true, if not enhanced because it was a team (or teams) that created the weapon, not a lone genius. And in the real world, it’s often teams that need to create useful stuff, and that means checking your ego at the door sometimes and working together for the good of the client and the project.


It is a weapon, hardly what we would call “useful stuff.” And the story about a tank mechanic defending his country isn’t true. It’s a good story. It’s lasted 50 years. And it is stickier than “industrial complex invents better gun.” But it is a lie in service to a political cause. (Or a former political cause.)

I’m a big proponent of good story-telling, it’s at the heart of good presentations and good branding. But isn’t there also an ethical component to developing a great narrative?

I think there is. I think the basic story has to be true. Exaggeration or hyperbole is fine, making stuff up is not.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A few tools go a long way

New post by Jan Schultink is a great reminder of how few tools good Powerpoint pros actually use to create good PP files. (I’m not confusing good PP files with good presentations, but building the PP files is often a part of developing a good presentation.)

Of all the features available in Powerpoint (or in almost any design-related program), there are only a few that get used regularly by most pros. Not exclusively, but used enough that it’s worth customizing the toolbar to save a few clicks. Jan’s are typical: align (x5), distribute (x2), flip (x2), rotate, send to back. As a typophile, I add type-related buttons: text alignment (x3), font color, sub- and superscript, and change case.

I think there are two messages here:

1) Customizing the toolbar in PP by adding your most-used commands (and removing the ones that you don’t use) is a great time-saver.

2) Focusing on the basics often means using a few tools very well, not using every tool available all the time.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Maine and emotions

I’ve been reasonably quiet online for the last five weeks in part because I’ve been on vacation, one week at a Delaware beach and another on the Maine coast. On my return from Maine, I sat through a presentation almost entirely devoid of emotion, and it got me thinking about the deep feelings the Maine coast elicited in me and why it seems so hard for many to bring that kind of emotion into their presentations.

The emotionless presentation in question was given by a man who cares deeply about the topic he was presenting, but that passion didn’t come out. And for me – someone who is usually not the most emotionally sensitive guy – the contrast was huge between the strong feelings I had on the Maine coast and the lack of feelings I had listening to this presentation.

I work with lots of engineering types, and it seems like many have gotten this idea in their heads that passion and emotion don’t belong in their presentations – that only well-structured facts and logic are how one creates a speech. And it shows. Again and again I see too-long slide decks that seem to reflect too much thinking about evidence and logic, and not enough on emotion and story-telling.

I’m not suggesting technical people turn into touchy-feely therapists (think Stuart Smalley), or insert fake emotion into their presentations at the expense of facts and evidence, but some honest positive emotion can make a big difference in getting your message through (think Al Gore). And like any skill, it takes practice (especially for those of us who see ourselves as technical experts, where emotion is a secondary skill at best).

Some quick thoughts, more later:

1) For a given presentation, what do you care about? (If you don’t know, or you don’t care, neither will your audience.)

2) Why do you care about it? It’s not necessary that your audience know this, but it helps if you do.

3) Look through your presentation. As you rehearse your delivery (you do practice, right?), do these things come through?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Most US students think Beethoven is a dog

This year’s Mindset list is out:
In addition to being humorous and potentially depressing, it’s also a great list for presenters (or any author, really), reminding us about the continually changing nature of audiences and the assumptions one makes. Of course, this was the point of the original list. And though it was originally developed by professors for professors, it’s a useful touchpoint for anyone who is trying to communicate with people who are not you (see implicit assumptions).

It also helps demonstrate the fine art of headline writing. This blog post’s title is from rawstory (who may have lifted it from somewhere else). Others:
  • Class of 2014 Can’t Write in Cursive, Considers Nirvana ‘Classic Rock’ (Wall Street Journal blog)
  • Email is too slow and wristwatches are pointless for college freshmen (CNN)
  • The College Mindset List: No Cursive Skills or Cold War Fears (PBS Newshour)
Imagine having a similar headline in big type to open your next presentation.

(Interestingly, as I look through other headlines from Google News, there are lots of less-than-compelling headlines about the list – what a great opportunity for you to perfect your headline-writing skills, your great opening.)

Friday, July 30, 2010

Thinking like a customer

A request. If you are a business owner and you own a website, and you sell products or services directly to consumers through a physical place (a store, a garage, a car wash, etc.):

Please post your hours of operation.

I am your customer. I like your service. In fact, I like it so much I will travel out of my way to patronize you (maybe a long way out of my way). You have done all the right things: you have enthusiastic employees, you fulfill you brand promise every time I interact with you, your service is outstanding, you have earned my trust and I am an advocate for your business among my friends and social network.

But here’s the thing, your website doesn’t tell me when you’re open. I will drive 20 minutes out of my way to take advantage of your service, but I need to know if you close at 5 or 6 or 6:30 – it makes a difference.

Challenging one’s assumptions is hard. The more you “know” something, the harder it is to imagine that other people (like your customers) don’t. But it’s important, because even the best businesses (like a great car wash I go that’s 20 minutes away) need to continually look at themselves through their customers’ eyes.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Why corporate templates don’t work

An interesting thing, corporate templates.

The majority of Word or Powerpoint templates I encounter from our clients fall into two broad classes:
  • Those designed by administrative or IT staff, so they’re designed to be easy to use (sort of), but they don’t look good and they rarely reflect the way real people actually work. Or…
  • Those designed by designers or ad agencies, so the templates look great, but ordinary people can’t duplicate the examples because they’re not designers, so results based on these templates are usually disappointing (or worse).
Ok, so let’s forget about the first group altogether – well-meaning IT or administrative staff are not who you should be trusting your message to. They have other gifts.

The problem with the second group – templates-by-designers – is that (most) designers will create templates and related guidance for use by other designers, not for ordinary people. Compounding the problem is the curse of knowledge: designers creating the templates know a lot more about creating good-looking slides (for instance) than the people who will be using the templates.

Embed more knowledge.

One solution to this problem is to create richer templates that include much more detailed examples that people can use as-is, instead of abstract guidance.

If you are a designer creating templates for other people to use, include as many examples as you can where people can literally plug in their content (words, numbers, movies, etc.). Instead of just a single generic chart on a PP slide, include one page each for a column, stacked column, bar, stacked bar, line, area, doughnut, pie, etc. Not only a bullet slide (if you must), but also a two-column layout, a title, a few image-only slides with real images people could use, a table, maybe a few different table examples, a photo with a caption, a movie, an animation, etc. And don’t be satisfied with the Powerpoint default layouts – is that really what you would do? Get rid of the layouts that don’t make sense for your situation. You know your users, if they’re not going to use a vertical slide master, then delete it from the template.

If you are hiring someone to create a template(s) for you, be an advocate for your users and test things until they break. Use the tools yourself: if you receive a template that is difficult to use or doesn’t make sense, push back and keep pushing back until you get something that you can actually use in many different situations. Good designers will relish this challenge (no, really), they will see a committed client who cares about getting it right, about solving the real problem. And you’ll get a better result.

There are companies that get this. I’ve seen examples of well-done corporate PP templates that had over 30 slides, where people could literally copy their information into a template’s slide layout. And don’t confuse this with those idiotic presenting bad news templates that come bundled with PP, I mean files that have many different format examples for thinking people to duplicate and use to better illustrate their own well-considered presentation.

Of course, there is another approach: just turn the projector off.

May 2012 Update:

Since I published this in July 2010, I’ve had additional thoughts and revised some of my recommendations. See my newer post.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Google News: design for democracy

Bruce Tognazzini has a great post on the bad redesign of Google News. He raises lots of good points on both the interface (which has gone very much backward) and the process (which seems to have ignored all sorts of user feedback and UI design theory), but his number one reason that the new Google News sucks is the one I find most interesting: political drift introduced.

He suggests that Google News has (prior to the redesign) helped Americans find the political center of any story because it has presented so many different sources in a reasonably un-biased way. He also points out something I have long believed: that while customizing news is seductive, it ultimately hurts one’s perspective by presenting narrower and narrower viewpoints.

It is disappointing that a company that has gotten so many design things right over the years got this one so, so wrong.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

More on Minard

A few other thoughts came to mind after my last post.

I didn’t know Chuck Minard, but I speculate that if he were alive today and wanted to use Powerpoint to speak to large groups, he might look to Garr Reynolds or Duarte Design for some ideas on making the presentation experience meaningful and memorable (see Al Gore). If he was speaking to a small group or even a single person, he might follow some of Andrew Arbela's advice on conference room style presentations.

As it is, I don’t think he was doing either.

Charles Joseph Minard lived in a very different time than we do. Isn’t it a little silly to comment on a graphic dawn almost 150 years ago using today’s context where we use tools like Powerpoint and Adobe Illustrator and where every speech assumes a projected slide show?

I mean – really?

If Minard were alive today, maybe he would be making a movie about the senseless waste of 412,000 lives in 1812, or self-publish a book, or write a blog – who knows? Point is that we can’t really understand Minard’s 19th century world using our 21st century reference points.

Still, compare it to some other 1861 graphics to see how very good this was then, and how very relevant the lessons are for modern information design. Minard’s graphic is still a better image for conference room style presentations than much of what is produced today, and remains a useful model for a single image that could be spoken to and left behind – tangible evidence of a good story told in a small group.

Ok, enough of that. I’ll now let Minard rest in peace.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Minard, Tufte, Zelazny et al

An interesting discussion for information and presentation design geeks going on around Andrew Arbela’s recent post highlighting Gene Zelazny’s commentary on the Tufte favorite chart by Charles Joseph Minard documenting Napoleon’s march on Russia.

For those unfamiliar with the players:
  • Andrew Arbela, author of The Extreme Presentation Method, created a very good framework for the two fundamentally different styles of presentations: ballroom style vs. conference room style. He has plenty of research to back-up his ideas, and doesn’t get caught up in the quasi-religious debate around Powerpoint. 
  • Gene Zelazny is the Director of Visual Communications for McKinsey & Company and has written two presentation-related books. Up until now, his advice has usually been pretty good, especially as related to professional service firms, even if his graphic style has been underwhelming at times.
  • Edward Tufte is the eclectic statistician and Professor Emeritus at Yale who has written and self-published several seminal books on information design. It is difficult to overstate his influence on information design and the visual display of data (he teaches a one-day course, highly recommended). He is famously critical of Powerpoint.
  • Charles Joseph Minard was an obscure French civil engineer (1781–1870) who was one of the pioneers of information graphics. The particular diagram in question is an 1861 drawing that Tufte noted “may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn.” Over time, the amount of energy spent discussing this one graphic and Tufte’s original comment is amazing (read: silly).
Anyway, Mr. Zelazny wrote an essay (3.6MB pdf) to “concentrate on the virtues of PowerPoint as a tool,” presumably leaving the philosophical debate to others. He correctly points out how quickly one can create reasonably good graphics with the tools in PP, and reminisces about how labor-intensive creating these sorts of things used to be. So far, so good. He then poses an interesting question (essentially): how would one translate the chart into a presentation today (sort of what would Minard do?). Then things get weird:
  1. Mr. Z seems to fall into the all presentations are the same false logic that Arbela argues against. I find this strange as I’ll bet most of McKinsey’s own presentations and deliverables are much more like conference room style presentations (or what we used to call documents) than the examples that follow in the essay.
  2. The example slides in the essay are the very sort of thing that anti-Powerpoint zealots (like Tufte) point to as illustrations of what is so wrong with the state of presentations today (with the possible exception of the cartoons by the Archie Comics’ AD, which are at least humorous if not necessarily effective).
To me, the irony in much of the discussion, opinion, and alternatives about the original Minard graphic is that in his original 1983 book, Tufte discusses this graphic in the context of graphic excellence. The idea that graphical displays should reveal information clearly, precisely, and efficiently. They should start with good information and be well-designed, and they should avoid falsehoods (e.g. graphical distortions) and meaningless distractions (e.g., clip art).

I have a small poster of this on my wall. When people comment on it I remind them that it is essentially an anti-war poster. Napoleon left Poland with 422,000 men and returned six months later with 10,000. Is any treasure worth 412,000 souls? Isn’t that the story Minard was telling?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Business book mashup

Weird idea when you combine two recent business books’ ideas:

1. Design Thinking (Roger Martin). Basic idea: innovation requires balance of exploration and exploitation to move ideas from mystery to heuristic to algorithm. Organizations need exploration (creativity, few rules, etc.) to move stuff from one knowledge stage to the next, but need exploitation (classic business administration, streamlining, etc.) within the heuristic and algorithm stages to really make money at it and leverage an organization’s scale.

2. Drive (Dan Pink). Basic idea: traditional incentives (money, carrot, stick, etc.) only work as motivators for simple, straight forward, algorithmic tasks; but those motivators don’t work for more complicated, conceptual tasks that require creative thinking. Not only do they not work, they actually have a negative effect, proven again and again through countless psychology, sociology, and economic research.

This suggests that goals and metrics should depend very much on the context of a situation – more traditional metrics and rewards where exploitation is the goal (most easily applied when knowledge is at the algorithm stage), more intrinsic motivators when exploration is the desired outcome (that is, moving knowledge from one stage to the next).

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

New media, newer media

Interesting post by Seth a few days ago, his last line stuck out:
I saw a two-year old kid (in diapers, in a stroller), using an iPod Touch today. Not just looking at it, but browsing menus and interacting. This is a revolution, guys.
Whatever business you’re in, this applies to you. There may even be an inverse relationship between the strength of your disbelief or denial and the relevance to your job, business, industry.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

We have met the enemy, and it is first-draft design

Excellent commentary by Nancy Duarte on the recent NYT article. (A more readable version of the original alarming graphic is also available.)

A few things about the graphic:

1) This is an example of a diagram that was probably developed by analysts to help them understand something. Think brainstorming. The presentation mistake here (aside from the general bullet bullet bullet approach) was trying to use the same diagram to explain things to people who were most likely not part of the original discussion. Of course it stinks for that purpose. To build on Nancy’s commentary on our first-draft culture, it’s easy to imagine the excited consultants transposing this diagram from a whiteboard into PP, then – confusing the effort that went into drawing it with its value – it subsequently showing up in every PP deck that discussed the topic for the next year. What appears to be missing was the second (or third) iteration: translating the understanding into a diagram that explains the important points.

2) As a consultant, and not knowing the full story, I am disappointed and embarrassed that this diagram ever made it out of the working group and onto the screen of a client. On the surface this seems like a pretty serious delivery failure. In my own experience I have often seen (and created) some pretty confusing diagrams and models in the course of trying to understand a complex problem or system. But those things usually end their life on a white board or as a scan, they rarely survive in their original form as a deliverable because they were never intended to be such. The final deliverable often bears no resemblance to the original because after we think we understand an issue, the focus changes to explaining it. And those questions are different (see Dan Roam), so the results are usually different. I have referred to this as iterative design but for it to work, you have to actually do the next iteration.

So the moral of the story is: do the second iteration, your audience will thank you.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Are presentations a new type of media?

Think about it. Presentations are evolving into something that looks a lot like its own type of media experience. Neither speech nor document, they increasingly draw on multiple media skills:
  • Public speaking
  • Storytelling
  • Event planning 
  • Theater
  • Visual communication, 2D design
  • Document design
  • Web or online design 
  • Typography
  • Photography
  • Audio
  • Video
  • Animation
Thirty years ago, a speech was a speech. If you wanted to add additional elements (35mm slides, video, handouts, a survey beforehand, etc.), then you needed additional time and resources to get it done. It just wasn’t feasible for many ordinary people or organizations to create TED-like presentations with the skills and tools at their disposal.

(Yes, I know, you still needed the technical and creative skills, but you also needed access to the tools, and those tools all came with some non-trivial cost: either time, money, or both.)

Today the tools are ubiquitous. Not just Powerpoint, but almost everything necessary to create a great presentation (read: event) is widely available. And yet most presentations are so bad (bad to listen to, bad to watch, bad to look at).

It’s easy to blame Powerpoint, but maybe another explanation is because, as a new media form, presentations are still young. Early photography tried to copy painting (not so well), early movies copied theater (not so well), early television copied radio shows (really not well) – so maybe one reason that so many presentations stink is because the form is still trying to figure itself out.

Not an excuse to do a bad job, but if you do a great job, maybe you’re a pioneer in a brand new type of media experience.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Kalashnikov as good design (and good story-telling)

A great post by Dave Gray, not only making the case for the AK-47 as a great example of good design (designed for the real world), but also explaining how talking about an assault rifle probably makes for a better presentation than some less-dramatic example.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mr. Tufte goes to Washington

From the BusinessWeek Innovation and Design blog:

President Obama Appoints Edward Tufte – Big Victory for Data Visualization And Transparent Government

For those unfamiliar with Mr. Tufte, he has written a few seminal books on presenting information and is one of the strongest advocates for clarity and purpose in all sorts of information and presentation design. He also teaches an excellent one-day course on presenting data (highly recommended).

His appointment to the Recovery Independent Advisory Panel is a good thing for more transparency and usefulness in government.

Congratulations Edward.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Hello, I'm back

Sorry for the long absence. Just saw another fairly edgy band close Letterman, and it got me thinking. Even though Dave presents himself as a middle-of-the-road midwest guy, his actions (as least as far as music is concerned) usually support up-and-coming bands. And it occasionally surprises people, even long-time fans like me. I found myself just now thinking “wow, that's different.” 

So... how can you jiggle your audiences expectations? Given your audience, are there things you can do that (like Dave) not only shake people’s expectations about you, but also give them insight into your values?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Ubiquitous hyphens and dashes

In my work, I come across a particular subset of Powerpoint authors: otherwise smart people who start adding hyphens and dashes all over the place. Their slides become odd-looking typographic mazes with weird spacing and way-to-many little horizontal gashes. It’s as if they’ve forgotten about other perfectly good punctuation like commas, colons, and parenthesis.

I’m sure this is not intentional - it may just seem like the right character to use - especially when you’re composing your 10th bullet point - and you’re on a roll - and the content just keeps coming - and you don’t want to stop or you’ll loose your train of thought - so a hyphen is quick and easy.


It doesn’t really serve you or your content well. Dashes visually break the flow of a phrase, and that is often counter to the intention of the writer or presenter. Editing can help. Here are some alternatives to dash overload:
  • Use a colon instead. If you have a headline that states a fact followed by some consequence or effect, use a colon (e.g., Energy Inefficiency: Over 57% Energy Wasted in U.S.)
  • Use a period. Separate the item from its description in a bullet list with a period, such as this list. Using boldface for just the item also helps with legibility.
  • Parenthesis. If an phrase is parenthetical (i.e., supplementary to your main idea), put that phrase in parenthesis. In a headline, consider removing the phrase altogether, such as moving it to the body of the slide.
Of course the nature of slide shows means things are different than formal writing, but that doesn’t mean that an anything-goes approach really helps you communicate better.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Happy new year, present well

Hoping this post finds you well, and that you are looking forward to a new year.

For many of us in the modern working world, who are blessed with:
  • Love of our family and friends
  • Good health
  • Freedom of expression and religion
  • Lack of want or fear
  • Steady employment
  • Health insurance
  • [insert the thing you’re thankful for here]
... the winter holidays bring some time off, and a chance to reflect on the past and consider the future. And so I ask you to reflect on the most important presentation that you made in 2009, and consider what you might change if you had a similar opportunity in 2010. What thing or things would you love to change, if you could? Would you:
  • Research more?
  • Prepare and practice more?
  • Use less slides? Or more slides?
  • Use more pictures and less words?
  • Use real objects instead of pictures?
  • Take the whole thing more and less seriously?
  • Turn off the projector?
  • Ask for help?
Whatever it may be, I hope 2010 brings better things for you and your loved ones.