Bill Gates and visual complexity
The sound of one room napping

Gates, Jobs, & the Zen aesthetic

As a follow up to yesterday's post on Bill Gates' presentation style, I thought it would be useful to examine briefly the two contrasting visual approaches employed by Gates and Jobs in their presentations while keeping key aesthetic concepts found in Zen in mind. I believe we can use many of the concepts in Zen and Zen aesthetics to help us compare their presentation visuals as well as help us improve our own visuals. My point in comparing Jobs and Gates is not to poke fun but to learn.

A key tenet of the Zen aesthetic is kanso or simplicity. In the kanso concept beauty, grace, and visual elegance are achieved by elimination and omission. Says artist designer and architect Dr. Koichi Kawana, "Simplicity means the achievement of maximum effect with minimum means." When you examine your visuals, then, can you say that you are getting the maximum impact with a minimum of graphic elements, for example? When you take a look at Jobs' slides and Gates' slides, how do they compare for kanso?

"Simplicity means the achievement of maximum effect with minimum means."
                                 — Dr. Koichi Kawana

The aesthetic concept of naturalness or shizen "prohibits the use of elaborate designs and over refinement" according to Kawana. Restraint, then, is a beautiful thing. Talented jazz musicians, for example, know never to overplay but instead to be forever mindful of the other musicians and find their own space within the music and within the moment they are sharing. Graphic designers show restraint by including only what is necessary to communicate the particular message for the particular audience. Restraint is hard. Complication and elaboration are easy...and are common.

The suggestive mode of expression is a key Zen aesthetic. Dr. Kawana, commenting on the design of traditional Japanese gardens says:

"The designer must adhere to the concept of miegakure since Japanese believe that in expressing the whole the interest of the viewer is lost."
                                  — Dr. Koichi Kawana

In the world of PowerPoint presentations, then, you do not always need to visually spell everything out. You do not need to (nor can you) pound every detail into the head of each member of your audience either visually or verbally. Instead, the combination of your words, along with the visual images you project, should motivate the viewer and arouse his imagination helping him to empathize with your idea and visualize your idea far beyond what is visible in the ephemeral PowerPoint slide before him. The Zen aesthetic values include (but are not limited to):

  • Simplicity
  • Subtlety
  • Elegance
  • Suggestive rather than the descriptive or obvious
  • Naturalness (i.e., nothing artificial or forced),
  • Empty space (or negative space)
  • Stillness, Tranquility
  • Eliminating the non-essential

Gates and Jobs: lessons in contrasts
Take a look at some of the typical visuals used by Steve Jobs and those used by Bill Gates. As you look at them and compare them, try doing so while being mindful of the key concepts behind the traditional Zen aesthetic.

Above. Does it get more "Zen" than this? "Visual-Zen Master," Steve Jobs, allows the screen to fade completely empty at appropriate, short moments while he tells his story. In a great jazz performance much of the real power of the music comes from the spaces in between the notes. The silence gives more substance and meaning to the notes. A blank screen from time to time also makes images stronger when they do appear.

Also, it takes a confident person to design for the placement of empty slides. This is truly "going naked" visually. For most presenters a crowded slide is a crutch, or at least a security blanket. The thought of allowing the screen to become completely empty is scary. Now all eyes are on you.


Above. Gates here explaining the Live strategy. A lot of images and a lot of text. Usually Mr. Gates' slides have titles rather than more effective short declarative statements (this slide has neither). Good graphic design guides the viewer and has a clear hierarchy or order so that she knows where to look first, second, and so on. What is the communication priority of this visual? It must be the circle of clip art, but that does not help me much.

Dr. Kawana says that "to reach the essence of things, all non-essential elements must be eliminated." So what is the essence of the point being made with the help of this visual? Are any elements in this slide non-essential? At its core, what is the real point? These are always good questions to ask ourselves, too, when critiquing our own slides.

Above. Here Jobs is talking to developers at the WWDC'05 about the transition from the Power PC RISC chips to Intel. Sounds daunting, but as he said (and shows above) Apple has made daunting major shifts successfully before. (He also said sheepishly earlier in the the presentation, that every version of OSX secretly had an Intel version this is not a new thing. The crowd laughed.).

A note on having an "open style"
One thing that would help Mr. Gates is an executive presentations coach and a video camera. One unfortunate habit he has is constantly bringing his finger tips together high across his chest while speaking. Often this leads to his hands being locked together somewhere across his chest. This gesture makes him seem uncomfortable and is a gesture reminiscent of The Simpsons' Mr. Burns. By contrast, Steve Jobs has a more open style and at least seems comfortable and natural with his gestures.    

Above. Mr. Gates needs to read Cliff Atkinson's Beyond Bullet Points, ironically published by Microsoft Press. Atkinson says that "...bullet points create obstacles between presenters and audiences." He correctly claims that bullets tend to make our presentations formal and stiff, serve to "dumb down" our points, and lead to audiences being confused...and bored. Rather than running through points on a slide, Atkinson recommends presenters embrace the art of storytelling, and that visuals (slides) be used smoothly and simply to enhance the speaker's points as he tells his story. This can be done even in technical presentations, and it can certainly be done in high-tech business presentations.

The "Microsoft Method" of presentation?
The approach we've seen in Microsoft's last public presentation we can label the "Microsoft Method." This method is not different than the norm, in fact it is a perfect example of what Seth Godin and others call "Really Bad PowerPoint." Here's the rub: A great many professionals see the absurdity of this approach, even a great many professionals on the campus of Microsoft in Redmond. But change will continue to be slow, especially when the executives of the company which produces the most popular slideware program in the world use the program in the most uninspiring, albeit typical way.
    Bullet_by_ozzie_2    Pocket_ozzie
Above. Chief technology Officer, Ray Ozzie follows the "Microsoft Method" too. (Left) Bullet No.3: "...interfaces through...interfaces"? (Right) Fundamental presentation rule: Do not stick your hands in your pockets. Informality is fine, but this is inappropriate even in the USA (and especially in cultures outside the U.S.). 

Refrain: It all matters!
We've talked about many presentation methods here at Presentation Zen, methods that are different than the "normal" or the "expected" but also simple, clear, and effective. Who wants to be "average," "typical," or "normal"? Ridderstrale & Nordstorm say it best in Funky Business: "Normality is the route to nowhere." I'm not suggesting you "present different" for the sake of being different. I am saying that if you move far beyond what is typical and normal in the context of presentation design, you will be more effective and different and memorable. Maybe Microsoft can afford lousy PowerPoint presentations, but you and I can't. For "the rest of us," it all matters.

Can we learn from a Japanese garden?
Looking for inspiration in different places? Find a book on Japanese gardens (like this one from my friend, designer Markuz Wernli Saito) or visit one in your area (if you are lucky enough to have one). You can learn a bit here about the Zen aesthetic and Japanese gardens in this article by Dr. Kawana. Living here in Japan I have many chances to experience the Zen aesthetic, either while visiting a garden, practicing zazen in a Kyoto temple, or even while having a traditional Japanese meal out with friends. I am convinced that a visual approach which embraces the aesthetic concepts of simplicity and the removal of the nonessential can have practical applications in our professional lives and can lead ultimately to more enlightened design.


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