Last week a reporter writing for the New York Times, Wendy Lee, contacted me to get my opinion on the issue of graphical clutter displayed in TV shows. Earlier in the week comedian Lewis Black put the issue on the front burner again by lashing out at TV executives during his three-minute rant at the Emmys. The reporter asked me if there was going to be a backlash against on-screen clutter from viewers (my comments did not make it into the online version at least of the article). I don't know about a backlash I said, but if you want to irritate or confuse people, or hide and obfuscate, then a good approach is to just keep putting all that clutter on the screen. Here's part of what Lewis Black said at the Emmys:
"Your job is to tell stories, it's not to tell us in the middle of the story what show is coming on next or which one is premiering two weeks from now! What do you want me to do, stop and get a pencil and write it down? Do you want me to stop watching and prepare myself for the next show?"
Watch Lewis Black's entire rant at the Emmys below.
What cable news can teach us?
It's the same deal for presentations in business or at conferences. Audiences need to hear someone's story not read it or try to decipher it from on-screen clutter that gets in the way of listening. We come to hear someone speak. And if they use great visuals (like Steve Jobs, etc.) then so much the better. The key is simplicity, harmony, and restraint in design, and naturalness in delivery--something cable news channels have little of.
The cable news networks proclivity for displaying daily on-screen clutter extravaganzas do more than just make viewers irritated, the practice--which everyone is surely used to by now--has influenced a generation to believe that visual displays should necessarily have more not less elements crammed in to a small screen. This surely has influenced how people view their own PowerPoint slides (and other multimedia). When possible, put more "stuff" in there--more glitter, more boxes of info, more colors, more, more, more. Is this where "bad PowerPoint" comes from? Do we say to ourselves "Well, if CNN (FOX, MSNBC, etc.) does it I guess more text and lines and boxes, more logos and 3-D graphics in assorted colors must be how it's done. That's how serious presenters with serious tools do it," we say.
The cluttered TV displays make sense in airports and waiting rooms when the sound is off. But when we are listening to someone speak, visuals make sense only when they augment and enhance the message or illustrate the particular point the speaker is making. Graphics and effects completely unrelated to the topic are simply a distraction.
I've all but given up on cable news and instead get my information from newspapers and myriad online sources. The only "TV news" I can watch is The Daily Show. At least they are being ridiculous on purpose.
Lewis Black tells CNN to get the clutter off the screen live (video).