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.