Thursday, November 1, 2012

Shokunin Kishitsu

More on making real things.

I follow Daniel Pink’s twitter feed, where he recently mentioned “the best 82-minute movie on mastery I’ve ever seen.” He pointed to a documentary about Jiro Ono, one of the world’s greatest sushi chefs. In a clip, Jiro mentions the term shokunin, that I recall from some other corner of my brain. A search leads to a 37signal’s Signal vs Noise (really good blog) post, that in turn points to another site’s (iA) post on Japanese aesthetics.

I don’t speak Japanese, but as far as a I can tell, Shokunin Kishitsu is more than just great technical skill (the 10,000 hours sort that Gladwell wrote about). It also is about a deep sense of purpose and pride in doing something as well as one can because that’s what the craft demands, not just because the client or customer requested it.

The respected Japanese woodworker Toshio Odate says:
“The Japanese word shokunin is defined by both Japanese and Japanese-English dictionaries as ‘craftsman’ or ‘artisan’, but such a literal description does not fully express the deeper meaning. The Japanese apprentice is taught that shokunin means not only having technical skill, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness. These qualities are encompassed in the word shokunin, but are seldom written down. … The shokunin demonstrates knowledge of tools and skills with them, the ability to create beauty and the capacity to work with incredible speed. … The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people. This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, the shokunin’s responsibility is to fulfill the requirement.” 
This can be challenging for some folks to understand. For some, they haven’t done the 10,000 hours. They may be young, or impatient, or young and impatient. I trust that will work itself out. More problematic are those that lack an actual craft or don’t recognize there is an actual craft to what they do. Such are the awful presentations we all suffer through. If you don’t know a better way, and those around you don’t value a better way, why would anyone expect things to change?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

What Mr. Rogers Can Teach Us About Presenting

I recently watched Mister Rogers & Me, a wonderful documentary about a wonderful man. Fred Rogers has always had a special place in my heart – and I suspect many people feel the same way – and it got me thinking about the lessons we can learn from the humble and wise master of children’s television.

1. Respect the audience. Though most of us knew Mister Rodgers from speaking to children, he always respected the ability of his audience to understand what he was talking about. He used simple language, but was never simplistic.

2. Tell the truth. Even for difficult subjects, Fred Rogers spoke honestly about whatever the subject was. He didn’t try to “dumb it down” or speak in euphemisms – he spoke honestly and directly.

3. Be authentic. I never met Fred Rodgers, but everything I have ever seen, read, or heard makes me believe that the public person we knew was the real person he was – and that his authentic character came through in all his work. There is a deep power in being that genuine.

4. A great presenter doesn’t have to be a big personality. When writing or discussing great presenters, many people (including me) often cite larger-than-life personalities like Steve Jobs, or masterful storytellers like Aimee Mullens, or great orators like Barack Obama; but Mister Rodgers shows us that you can also be a simple, deep, and humble presenter and still make a heck of a dent in the universe.

To paraphrase a line from the documentary, Mister Rogers was completely present, absolutely authentic, and made even the most difficult subjects seems safe. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of better praise for any presenter.

Thank you Mister Rodgers (and Benjamin and Christofer Wagner) for reminding me that great doesn’t have to be grand.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Venn Diagrams, SmartArt, and A Call for Graphic Excellence

Two unrelated items converged for me today:
  • Recent failure of the Romney campaign to create a valid Venn diagram. (Ezra Klein reviewed on the Rachel Maddow show July 3rd, referencing fantastic post on Upworthy.) 
  • Proliferation of meaningless “SmartArt” diagrams and bad charts in files that come through my inbox. (SmartArt: neither smart nor art.) 
Both represent a bad and growing habit in business, politics, and culture that involves “spicing up your text” without the requisite critical thinking about why and how to do it. It’s part of a broader trend that I call the template culture that confuses actual design skill with the ability to use hackneyed software features and bright colors to create something ”that really pops.“

Unfortunately for all of us, cardboard cutout designers get it wrong. Frequently.

It’s bad for their clients and customers, it’s bad for the design profession, and it’s bad for civil society at large when flash and bullshit take the place of good design – the kind of design that helps clarify and reveal ideas instead of clouding and concealing them. At best, this kind of graphic nonsense is an amusing and colorful waste of space, but at worst it can actually do harm. It can misrepresent ideas and facts, confuse audiences, and generally muddy any topic.

Edward Tufte, the patron saint of information graphics, used the term Graphical Integrity to describe a sort of Hippocratic oath for designing charts and diagrams. It’s pretty simple: don’t lie. Of course, to not lie, one first has to think about and understand some things before jumping into Powerpoint world, such as:
  • What does the data mean (if you don’t have data, this could be an issue)? 
  • Who is the audience? 
  • What is the goal of the overall piece, the goal of the graphic? 
  • What s the most effective way to present that information graphically to help clarify an idea? 
Sadly, none of these questions can be answered with the SmartArt selector (or similar tools in Keynote, Prezi, etc.). It’s not Microsoft’s fault, they do a great job – and have gotten much better – at trying to embed some of this thinking into their products. But templates, no matter how well-designed, aren’t a substitute for a critical-thinking person, like an experienced graphic designer.

Marketing person, graphic artist, business person, journalist, educator – I’m talking to you. Here’s a challenge:

  • If you don’t know who Edward Tufte is, you should. Look it up, read one of his books, take his class. Dan Roam is a good substitute (less theory, more humor). 
  • If you’ve used SmartArt in any Microsoft product without first sketching something by hand, stop. Draw your next idea by hand first (a whiteboard is fine). 
  • If you have ever used the phrase “punchy” or “really pop“ when describing the need for a graphic, please avoid these and other similar phrases for the next six months. Instead, try this one: “what is the purpose of this chart or diagram?” 
  • If you don’t know how to edit every part of a Microsoft chart, including what to take out, please learn this skill and, more importantly, why you might want to do that. 
  • If you use charts and diagrams in your work, and you don’t know a genuine graphic designer, you should get to know one. They will help you succeed. (Hint: they often refer to what they do as “problem solving” and rarely lead with a list of software mastery or use terms like “innovative solutions.”) 
Let’s start a movement for graphic excellence. Everyone wins.

(I also discussed diagrams without meaning 18 months ago.)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Corporate Templates Still Don’t Work

Since my original post, I’ve received good feedback on this (thanks) and had 22 months of additional insights and frustrations. I am changing some of my original recommendations, but in general most corporate Powerpoint templates still have a long way to go to become useful and usable tools for their intended users. (I’ll consider corporate Word templates in another post.)

Why? There are many reasons, but I think they all have a common root cause: developers (those who make the templates) do not fully understand or appreciate their customers’ world (customers = users: people who use the templates). Some broad issues to consider:

• Too many cooks. Between Corporate Communications, marketing, IT, operations, HR/ training, and senior management, many enterprise-level template initiatives have way too many well-meaning but unnecessary people involved. It’s understandable, particularly in large organizations, but it has two unhelpful consequences: 1) templates designed by committee (see camel) where, 2) the committee is usually made up of staff people with little or no experience in the organization’s real product development, sales, or service delivery – that is, they don’t do what the company does.

• One size does not fit all. In many organizations, Powerpoint is used to produce lots of different types of outputs. At the least, most organizations would benefit by having one version for ballroom-style presentations and another for boardroom-style documents. When you also consider people’s individual skill level (e.g., ordinary vs expert), you could easily imagine a simple 2x2 (below). This suggests at least 4 different “base” templates.

Expert user

Ordinary user

• Built as a tool, not as a system. To be effective, good template files need to be part of a larger system that supports your organizations’ visual identity and brand. Depending on the size and culture of your organization, this might include: training and support materials (e.g., video how-to’s, reference documents, central repository/ website, etc.), a network of trusted internal advisers/ experts, and a change management plan (i.e., keeping up with customer and technology changes).

• Application development, not design. Today, templates are as much dynamic software as a branding tool, yet few marketing, communications, or even IT groups are comfortable with the rapid and continued iteration necessary to develop and maintain useful apps. A useful enterprise template cannot be a static file (or group of files) that doesn’t evolve or continue to change based on feedback from its user community and their needs, including those who represent the organization and its evolving needs.

• Not meeting people where they are. Many corporate templates that I come across are either too complicated or too simple for their audience. Too complicated: people ignore all the embedded wisdom or maybe avoid using the template altogether. Too simple: people make up their own rules about what to do under every circumstance, undermining one of the reasons for having a template. This is the audience/ user side of “one size does not fit all” – developers of effective templates really need to understand their audience (i.e., “customers”) and the everyday worlds they live in. Even in small organizations it’s worthwhile to map the various users and uses.

Designing for the organization or enterprise is a complex and artful process, no wonder we see so few successes.

Friday, March 30, 2012

I’m Back

For the few dozen of you who have followed me in the past, I apologize for not posting anything in the last five months. It turns out that Season Affective Disorder is real, and combined with depression, can really kick your ass. I have been wanting to write something for the last few months but just haven’t had the spark. All my creative mojo has been like listening to headphones muffled by a pillow – it’s there, but there’s no dynamic range. It’s flat and edgeless.

But I think I’ve turned the corner, at least for now. It’s spring, we’re back on daylight saving time, it’s getting warm here in the northeast (U.S.), and I even had to mow my lawn (ok, I had to mow down the onion grass in the front yard that was embarrassingly high). And I have a backlog of stuff to say (being depressed doesn’t mean you’re not thinking). Hopefully, in the next few posts:
  • Corporate templates, version 2
  • A plan and planning
  • Prezi: wow v substance
  • Brevity: skimming v condensing
  • and many more
I hope you’ll stay tuned. In the meantime:

Real beautiful science. In the U.S. these days, some people seem to think real science (you know, the stuff most people don’t really understand) is suspect at best. These people often like to pick on NASA – an extraordinarily good investment – as somehow unnecessary (seemingly oblivious that they live in a world enabled by the science and technology that NASA helped create). This is real science not only helping understand and solve real global issues, but also revealing some beauty and art in the world we live on.