Being fully engaged in the moment seems increasingly hard for people to do these days. Our lives are not just filled with business but with "busyness." We spend much of the day "living in our cluttered heads" and fail to see, I mean really see. We miss so many moments each day, moments which may have been teeming with inspiration, stimulation, beauty, art, emotion, perhaps even answers to our questions if we had only noticed. But we were not aware, and we did not observe. In Buddhism Plain and Simple, Zen priest Steve Hagen reminds us that "We tune out much of the world — and much of ourselves as well. And we don't even realize how removed we are from what is going on." Hagen says that most of us fail to live life to its fullest because we freeze our lives into a certain view.
When you think about it, the really great creatives — designers, musicians, even entrepreneurs, programmers, etc. — are the ones who see things differently and who have unique insights, perspectives and questions. (Answers are important, of course. But first comes questions.) This special insight and knowledge, as well as plain ol' gut feel and intuition, can only come about for many of us when slowing down, stopping and seeing the world for what it is in all it's complications, in all its simplicity, and in all its reality there before us.
Life as Art Practice
This may sound like new-age gobley gook, but it really is just a matter of slowing down. Yet, this is easier said than done. What got me thinking about this is a new website by a buddy of mine, Kyoto-based Swiss designer and artist Markuz Wernli Saitô. Markuz is in the middle of a very cool relational art (what's that?) project which is related to this idea of slowing down, taking time and "being in the moment" — and he's sharing it with the world. Go to the Momentarium website set up by Markuz for this project to read his idea behind the project. Says Markuz: "Each moment of the everyday, every action of living, poses the question: how it might be lived differently, more truthfully and respectfully." With this in mind Markuz offers up his services, one hour a day, every day, for about twelve weeks in various Kyoto locations. This is being done, says Markuz, "...in an effort to ignite our streamlined, hyper-functional lives with meaningful encounters and fresh discoveries...."
Each day of the week brings a new "creative treatment in urban environments" and you are all invited to join Markuz or watch the episodes unfold from where ever you are around the world in QuickTime. I love the simple way Markuz has presented his ideas on the website including the video recordings which have been edited (no audio needed) to give us the essence of the daily happening. I really like his simple use of graphics for the calendar. You may download the calendar in PDF as well. Bookmark this page to follow the daily video updates of the Kyoto encounters.
Markuz's seven "meaningful encounters and fresh discoveries" in many ways are simple things we can remind ourselves to do ("practice") at least once every week. I rephrased them a bit to fit my own individual circumstance below. By remembering these (among others), I feel I can remain more aware, more connected, and perhaps more creative.
• Take a break, enjoy a simple cup of tea in a different setting than ever before. • Express your gratitude to someone whose important contributions go unsung. • Take a walk off the beaten path. • As you walk in your city, ask yourself how the contributions of many might make a difference on a sterile infrastructure. • Gain an even greater appreciation of trees. These Oxygen producing, Carbon Dioxide absorbing trees are, as Markuz says, living chronists of urban development and human activity." • Take time to sit down outside and take in the scenery. No book. No laptop. Just sit and take it all in. • Tell your story. And listen to the stories of others.
Still another cool Kyoto artist
Last week at the Apple Store, another Kyoto-based artist, Karl Escritt from the UK, gave a wonderful and highly visual talk for the September Design Matters meeting. What I found interesting is that although much of the final output of Karl's work may be in, say, Adobe Illustrator, his process is very much organic in the sense that he uses a great deal of material from the "real world" — such as duct tape, clips from 1970s fashion catalogs, old photos, photocopies, yarn, etc. to create much of his work. Karl said that he usually starts projects with the Mac off. For him it is best to leave the computer off while trying to come up with ideas and forming concepts and treatments for communicating an idea. This was refreshing to hear, especially from a young designer/artist who grew up with technology. I also work this way and advise others to think about "going analog" in the initial stages of designing a visual story for example. "Going analog" is one way to sort of step off the grid and slow down. With this comes greater clarity I believe.
Speaking of inspiration Graphic designers know that a great source of inspiration and ideas can be obtained by keeping an on-going scrapbook of great (or really bad) examples of design that they find. Many of you may have such a scrapbook. Well, here is a great young blog featured on Typepad that acts as one big scrapbook for you.
You know my philosophy: Keep reading and keep looking — we just never know where we'll find inspiration and knowledge if we open our eyes and go off the beaten path. If we embrace the "beginner's mind" and keep our mind "empty" then it's ready to accept anything for examination. It was in this spirit, then, that I purchased a book on (gulp) comics. I first heard of the book from Cliff Atkinson about two years ago. Dan Pink also mentioned the book in A Whole New Mind which I just read a few weeks ago. The book is called Understanding Comics: The invisible Art by Scott McCloud. I highly recommend that you get this book. Frankly, you're nuts if you don't add this book to your library. Seriously, stop what you are doing right now and buy this incredible book. I'm serious — do it right now. (I'll wait....) You back? Good. Believe it or not, many of the principles and ideas discussed in this wonderful and highly visual book parallel the art of presentation. Now, comics are not the same as a presentation enhanced by slideware, but if you read McCloud's book with an eye toward presentations or any other form of storytelling and graphic design, you will find many fundamental concepts and techniques that will surely help you think differently about the power of visual communication and the art of combining words and images. This book is not just for fans of comics — not by a long shot.
Amplification through simplification McCloud explores many key concepts in his book. Chief among them from my point of view is the idea of "amplification through simplification." McCloud says that cartooning is "...a form of amplification through simplification" because the abstract images in comics are not so much the elimination of detail as much as they are an effort to focus on specific details. Says McCloud,
"By stripping down an image to essential 'meaning,' an artist can amplify that meaning..." — Scott McCloud
McCloud says that "Cartooning is not just a way of drawing, it's a way of seeing! The ability of cartoons to focus our attention on an idea is I think an important part of their special power, both in comics and drawing in general." Specific applications will vary, of course, but we can apply the spirit of "amplification through simplification" to creative disciplines outside the art of comics.
A key feature of many comics is their visual simplicity. Yet, as McCloud reminds us, while casting an eye to the wonderful world of Japanese comics, "simple style does not necessitate simple story." Many people (outside of Japan) prejudge comics by their simple lines and forms as being necessarily simplistic and base, perhaps suitable for children and "the lazy," but not something that could possibly have depth and intelligence. Surely such a simple style found in comics can not be illustrating a complex story they say. However, if you visit coffee shops around Tokyo University — Japan's most elite university — you will see stacks and stacks of comics (Manga) on the shelves. There is nothing necessarily "stupid" about the genre of comics in Japan at all, in fact you'll find "brainiacs" in all shapes and sizes reading comics here.
Still, most people in, say, the U.S. have a visceral reaction to seeing comics and fail to understand them as anything but "low" art at best. Perhaps this reflects a hole in the education system in the U.S. Perhaps visual literacy needs to be taught along with other fundamentals. In any event, the situation today is that most people have not been exposed to the idea of making an idea or a visual stronger by stripping it down to its essence. Less always equals less in most people's eyes. If we apply this visual illiteracy to the world of presentations, you can imagine the frustration a young "enlightened" professional must feel when her boss looks over her presentation visuals the day before her big presentation and says "No good. Too simple. Good lord! You have not said anything with these slides! Where are your bullet points!? Where's the company logo!? You're wasting space — put some data in there!!!" She tries to explain that the slides are not the presentation but that she is the presentation and that the "points" will be coming from her mouth. She tries to explain that the slides contain a delicate balance of text and images designed to play a supportive yet powerful role in helping her amplify her message. She attempts to remind her boss that they also have strong, detailed documentation for the client and that slides and documents are not the same. But her boss will have none of it. The boss is not happy until the "PowerPoint deck" looks like "normal PowerPoints," you know, the kind used by "serious people."
Applying the amplification-through-simplification concept In this 2004 cliff Atkinson interview with Scott McCloud, McCloud says that it is hard to give people concrete advice on how to use PowerPoint because each case is different. Nonetheless, it would be wise he says, for us to take advantage of "amplification through simplification" as much as possible. Beyond this, McCloud offers excellent advice for presenters:
"...trust in those aspects of what you have to say that excite you. Trust that they will excite other people. And try to distill for yourself what it is that seems urgent and potent in your topic. Have faith in your own passion for the subject. And if you have none, then consider a change of career. If you can isolate the aspects of your subject which genuinely excite you, then that can be the fulcrum for any number of effective points." — Scott McCloud
I am not suggesting that you become an artist or that you should draw your own images. But I am suggesting that you can learn a lot about how to present images and words together by exploring the so-called "low art" of comics. In fact, although presentation visuals were surely the furthest thing from McCloud's mind when he wrote the book, we can learn far more about effective communication for the conceptual age from McCloud's book than we can from any book on PowerPoint. For example, early in the book McCloud builds a definition of comics and finally arrives with this, a definition he admits is not written in stone:
"Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer." — Scott McCloud
It is easy to imagine, with some tweaking, how this could be applied to other storytelling media and presentation contexts as well. We do not have a good definition for "live presentation with slideware" but a killer presentation may indeed contain visuals which are comprised of "juxtaposed pictorial and other images." And many good presentations certainly have elements of sequence designed to "convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response."
And speaking of learning from comics
Checkout Wally Woods's 22 Panels That Always Work. Print this and hang it up near your desk for inspiration and guidance. The 22 panels were guides for comics illustrators, but they may also challenge you or inspire you to experiment with the way you display your visual information. For example, an application of "Big Head" and "Extreme Closeup" in my world is to make use of the entire screen and when possible making the slide space seem larger than it is. This effect can be achieved when you "bleed" images off the screen. With the ubiquity of digital still cameras and inexpensive-but-good stock photography there is no reason that one has to keep images tiny on screen.
Above. On the left is an actual slide used in one of my recent talks. On the right is the more "usual" way of presenting the text and image together.
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I have incorporated Dan Pink's "aptitudes for the conceptual age" in to part of my presentations on presentation design. To introduce Pink's aptitudes into my talk visually I first made the slide on the left (below). Yes, I know it's not very "visual" but I thought it would serve to summarize Pink's main points in one frame. Now, my application of the idea of "amplification through simplification" is different than what McCloud was talking about in Comics, but the basic idea is there. In some ways the revised slide on the right is more complex, but from the point of view of its Gestalt, it's more powerful, simple, and easy to grasp quickly. The first bulleted slide has 40 words; revised slide has 24. The revised slide is by no means a work of art or even the best possible graphical representation of the six key aptitudes, but it is far more visually supportive of my verbal message. And it was simple to do.
(Left) Yuck. (Right) Not great, but much better.
Scott McCloud: The Zen Master of comics At the end of the book, McCloud gives us some simple, Zen-like wisdom. He's talking about writers, artists, and the art of comics, but this is good advice to live by no matter where our creative talents my lie. "All that's needed," he says, "...is the desire to be heard. The will to learn. And the ability to see." This to me is the essence of his book.
When you get right down to it, it always comes back to desire, the willingness to learn, and the ability to really see. Many of us have the desire, it's the learning and seeing that's the hard part. McCloud says that in order for us to understand comics we need to "...clear our minds of all preconceived notions about comics. Only by starting from scratch can we discover the full range of possibilities comics offer." The same could be said for presentation design. Only by approaching presentations and presentation design with a completely open mind can we see that the options are virtually endless. It is just a matter of seeing.
A PZ reader recently pointed me to an article on the growing debate about issuing laptop computers to young students. I found these two snippets in the article on the positives of laptop programs interesting:
"...the laptop has helped her twelve-year-old son master critical professional skills like how to compile a PowerPoint presentation."
"...proponents of the programs argue that constant computer access teaches students skills critical to their success in college and at work, such as how to organize multimedia presentations and conduct research online."
Here's one citing a typical downside noticed by many parents today:
"... having a laptop has encouraged her thirteen-year-old son to spend more time dazzling up presentations with fancy fonts instead of digging through library books. "They need to be able to learn to research beyond what is accomplished by Googling a word or phrase."
Whether or not young kids issued laptops in elementary school get a better overall education by the time they graduate high school compared to students who never had their own laptop to carry around is debatable. To me it comes down to a question of whether or not we're asking the young students to use laptops to learn ephemeral applications (pull this menu down, copy here, paste there, etc.) out of our fear that they'll be "left behind," or whether we believe/know that all the time with the computer really helps improve a young student's mind, her critical and analytical thinking, her creativity, her knowledge of science and of the world, in addition to improving basic important math and reading/writing skills. If it's the latter, then I say fine. But does all that time with slideware as a kid teach her about design fundamentals, storytelling, how best to display data, how to edit effectively, etc? With the right teacher, perhaps it does. But I also wonder how much has changed since Alan Kay expressed these concerns in 1994:
"I think the thing that surprised me is that computers are treated much more like toasters, [with] predefined functions mainly having to do with word processing and spreadsheets or running packaged software, and less as a material to be shaped by students and teachers."
There's no question that a kid and a laptop *can* be a very good thing, but does time spent with an app like PowerPoint as a sixth-grader make it more likely that when the student is, say, 25 she'll be a better thinker and a better presenter, especially when the electricity goes off and she's left with nothing but a whiteboard and some pens? Or think of it this way: does a personal laptop in the school function as a bicycle for the mind, amplifying the student's own capabilities and new knowledge or is it more like a car with pre-packaged formulas that allow the student to become soft in the head while appearing to really go places? I suspect much depends on the specifics of the particular school and program, of course. I am by no means the best judge since I teach university and do not have children yet, so I'd love to hear your own personal experiences with this issue. Whether you are a teacher, student, or parent, what has been your experience?
The audience laughed at the Microsoft slide (right), but it was not a jab at only MS but at all software developers (including Apple) and us consumers as well. We can not rely only on the tools to show us the way much like a car with a navigation system. The best software in many cases does not so much point the way as it does a great job of getting out of the way, helping us to "amplify" our own abilities. Are you using your computer like a bike or like a car? This was my question to the audience.
The computer is like a bicycle for the mind More than twenty years ago, Steve Jobs and others at Apple were talking about the great potential of computers and how the tool should be designed and used in a way that enhances the potential that exists within each of us. Take a look at this video clip of Steve Jobs from Memory and Immagination.
"What a computer is to me is it's the most remarkable tool that we've ever come up with, and it's the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.” — Steve Jobs
Can computers teach kids how to think? Is the application of computer technology today helping kids learn how to think, reason, and create better than their parents or grandparents did when they were the same age? Picasso said that computers are "useless" because they can only give answers. I tell my college students that I am more interested in their own questions and their analysis than in their answers memorized from a book. The genius often lies in the questions students ask not in the answers they've learned from others.
"Most computers today are sold like cars, where as many things as possible are done for you. You don't have to understand how it works and, in fact, you don't have to understand how to think because the most popular stuff is prepackaged solutions for this and that."
— Alan Kay
"Understanding how it works" doesn't necessarily only mean knowing the nuts and bolts of hardware or writing software, etc. (although some understanding there too would not hurt even for non-techies). What I am suggesting is that in the realm of presentations it's important for students to understand principles of design not merely software application rules to be obediently followed or the "tips and "tricks" of the day. The fundamental principles of design and visual communication, etc. can be applied broadly and not limited to the narrow world of presentation design only. Teaching students about design from an early age, challenging them, and exposing them to wonderful examples from around the world from several disciplines such as graphic design, art, architecture, industrial designs, etc. is something that they can really build on as they develop.
"It's absolutely important to challenge [students'] internals — challenge their internal musculature, their internal ability to make images, their internal ability to think about things and to make representations of things."
— Alan Kay
Today business people are accustomed to enduring some pretty awful so-called PowerPoint presentations. I think there is hope for otherwise smart and talented adults who present badly. But the real hope long-term resides in the young students of today who have not yet learned the bad habits of their parents. As Alan Kay said over ten years ago, we've got to challenge the kids not just give them formulas and "time-saving" shortcuts to mediocrity. If a laptop in the hands of a 10-year-old child helps her develop her "internal musculature" long-term — if it serves like a bicycle for her mind — then a laptop is a very good thing. What say you?
A note about Japan I teach one marketing class to about 25 Japanese students, all about 20-years-old. Only four have a computer of their own and most have never used PowerPoint. As freshman they even "lack basic computing skills" by US standards (though their cell phone surfing aptitude surpasses anything in the US). But it does not matter. By the end of the semester most of the students give presentations (using PowerPoint for visuals) that are as good or better than those of foreign students here who may have had their own computer since childhood. The PPT tool itself is easy to learn, especially when students realize that they can ignore about 90% of its menu options and focus more on research and putting their findings together in a strong, compelling way. And given the freedom, Japanese students can be quite creative indeed. The so-called "PPT savvy" students have to struggle initially to unlearn bad habits such as presenting with slideuments. The business students with no real previous PPT knowledge spend more time on research and internalizing (not memorizing) their material; the visuals tend to serve a stronger supporting role.