Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth won the Oscar for best documentary last week in Hollywood. Needless to say, this made the people behind the design of Al Gore's Keynote slides — Duarte Design — very happy indeed. "We are beside ourselves here," said Nancy Duarte, co-founder and principal of Duarte Design. Duarte Design began working with Al Gore in 2003 to build the
presentation used for his talks on climate change given around the
world, and later for "An Inconvenient Truth," which also won an Academy Award for Melissa Etheridge's "I Need To Wake Up," (see her music video on YouTube) the winner in "Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song." (The Inconvenient Truth DVD. The Book).
The Duarte approach
Duarte Design, founded in 1988, is unique in its presentation-design focus. The design firm, which has more than 60 employees, is able to cultivate an objective vantage point that helps their clients "uncover hidden value in their messages." Duarte calls this “making the invisible visible.” Experience and subject matter expertise are, of course, indispensable the designers at Duarte say, but sometimes this can actually block the formation of fresh perspectives. A new point of view usually arises, they say, from an unconscious shift in perception when the elements of the problem morph into the solution. "These insights are uniquely human and very personal," says Nancy.
The Duarte approach is for their designers and messaging strategists to understand and facilitate these unconscious shifts, to not only create powerful stories and aesthetics for their clients, but to manage them in such a way that allows their audience members to form individual insights. "Ultimately, that’s what makes communication the stickiest, allowing the recipient to experience epiphanies without being spoon fed," Nancy Said.
Forest for the trees
We are often so close to our issue (a product or research question, etc.) that we can not see the forest for the trees. This is where designers with open minds and open ears (and talent) can make a difference. But remember that design is not about decoration or making things pretty. Designers do not decorate, they make things clear, and they help the creator of the story make meaning.
In my visits to the Duarte office in Silicon Valley, I have always been impressed with the creative spirit and energy of the place. Their approach really seems to embrace the six aptitudes outlined in Dan Pink's A Whole New Mind (one of my favorite books): Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. These are aptitudes which are paramount in today's world. If a presentation is critically important, it is not just about giving information. More often than not it is a call to action (buy something, do something, change something, create something, etc.). And a call to action is as much about emotion as it is about logic and argument. Design, in the context of storytelling, helps to illuminate. Designers in this sense, then, are "illuminators" of a sort.
Nancy Duarte says that they are disciplined about harnessing the emotional value of visual grammar as well, orchestrating the aesthetic experience through well-known, but often neglected design practices such as grouping, isolation, and symmetry, etc. "It’s both art and science — and we’re seriously creative."
Helping Al Gore do his thing
When I visited the Duarte Design offices in December, Ryan Orcutt, one of their young designers, had just returned from helping Al Gore with his live TV appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show on the other side of the country.
Ryan said he was sent out on just a moments notice to the show to assist Al Gore in making edits or changes to his presentation before the show and also to assist the Oprah Show graphic designers in adapting the Keynote file into a new aspect ratio for the incredibly enormous screen on the set. The images where coming right from Keynote, in fact right from the MacBook Pro that was on stage with Al. Ryan said the Oprah graphics department did a great job adjusting images and movies so that they "looked amazing" on the screen and also on people's television sets. "It's been a very rewarding experience to work with Mr. Gore and his team," Ryan told me. "It's not often that you feel like the work you do is benefiting the world and it's been a real privilege to have that be a part of my job."