The power of the visual: Learning from Down Under promotion videos

Aus_poster1 People are always asking me how they can learn about graphic design and photography or make better visuals, etc. The first step, I answer, is just to look around you and really see what there is to see. You can learn a lot, I tell them, by really taking the time to see and examine the visuals around you. Design is everywhere. Even non-designers can learn a lot by simply opening their eyes and observing the works of professionals. You just never know where inspiration or good examples will turn up. Sometimes, even a TV commercial or two can demonstrate just what it is that makes visuals effective and powerful.

Some bloody excellent promotional videos
The New Zealand and Australian tourism TV commercials are fantastic examples of the power of visuals. They've been airing on Japan's cable networks for quite some time, especially the spot from New Zealand. Both the New Zealand Travel and Australia Tourism website are great places to catch these videos too. Both sites are well done.

  Seevideo_au     See_nz

Visceral and memorable
Visuals that surprise people, touch them, delight them, and support your story are best because they affect people in an emotional way. People are more likely to remember your content in the form of  stories and examples, and they are also more likely to remember your content if your visuals are unique, powerful and of the highest quality. Yes, a 60-second TV spot promoting tourism is quite different from a 30-minute live conference presentation. I am not suggesting they are the same. But the 60-second TV commercial is a presentation, and most of them are utterly unremarkable and forgettable. The lesson I get from watching these two promotional video "presentations" from Down Under is simply this: If you are going to use visuals, then for crying out loud, make them insanely great visuals.

Watch these videos a couple of times and ask yourself which one is more memorable. Which one is more effective in telling a story and making a pitch? For TV spots to be effective they need to run a lot. We need to be exposed over and over. In that context, then, which one works better? Both videos are very well done and will prove to be effective. But I particularly like the New Zealand commercial simply because no words are spoken at all. There are a couple of advantages to this. For example, the NZ video is ready as is for most markets with no translation needed. In Japan, the Australia video has translation on screen adding noise to the screen visually. Nonetheless, the "Where the bloody hell are you?" spot does capture the brand perfectly, and perhaps the spoken word was necessary to pull that off. Both make great use of the visual element.

What makes some images so powerful and others unremarkable?
Nz_poster1 One of the first lessons visual artists and designers learn early is the basics of composition, including the rule of thirds and the Golden mean, etc. I'll focus on the rule of thirds as it is the easiest to apply (I introduced this in a previous post as well). The "rule of thirds" says that images (video scenes, etc.) may appear more interesting, engaging, dynamic, compelling, etc. if the subject is not placed in the center. Of course dead center is where beginning photographers or novice videographers tend to put their subject. If you try moving your subject away from the center, however, perhaps nearer to one of what are called "power points" (where the grid lines intersect), you can create a more powerful or interesting visual by creating a bit of tension or even drama. Try experimenting with this.

In the case of the tourism commercials, notice when you watch how many scenes are shot with the subject outside the middle of the frame (at least at the beginning of the scene). If you were to freeze many of the frames you would notice that the subject is often near one of the "power points" or placed far from center. To show this I've placed a grid over a few screenshots from both commercials below. This is a simple thing, but it is one of those very basic things that the pros do so well. We too can design better visuals — take better snaps, shoot better video, etc. -— by keeping the principles such as the rule of thirds in mind. The "rule" is not a rule at all but a simple guideline. And while it's important to understand, the rule of thirds is by no means a panacea for poor design, but is simply one more principle for you to be aware of as you strive to improve your own design mindfulness.

Screenshots from "Where the Bloody Hell are You?

Aus_beach1   Aus_camel

Aus_pool   Aus_woman

Aus_pilot  Aus_waiter_4
Above: Notice how many of the subjects are aligned vertically along a "power point" or in the outer or lower third. In the shot featuring the boy (top left), you can see that two walls in the background follow the horizontal lines of the upper and lower thirds. In the shots with the pilot and the waiter you'll notice how the horizon follows along one of the horizontal lines.

Screenshots from "100% Pure New Zealand"

Nz_horse  Nz_rest

Nz_massage_1  Nz_woman_closeup
Stills from the 100% Pure New Zealand commercial. Placing the subject in the outer third can give a visual more tension and drama and attract you into the scene.

For the next few days try to pay attention to posters, billboards, etc. Or watch a film and notice how scenes are shot to create mood and tension.

Quick slide example
Grid_surfer Learntosurf_1

Above:The example slide above I made in PowerPoint quickly using an iStockphoto image. I created a "Rule of Thirds" grid by manipulating the Guides in the Master slide. The text rests directly on the upper third horizontal line; the line extends through the surfers midsection. A viewer would notice the surfer first and be carried immediately with the implied motion toward the text along the horizontal line near the upper left "power point," typically a strong focal point in a slide.

Several articles on photography and the Golden Mean.

Golden mean to rule of thirds (Presentation Zen).

Rule of Thirds (

Duarte Design helps Al Gore "go visual"

Goreduarte1Duarte Design absolutely kicks butt when it comes to presentation design. Duarte helps their clients clarify their content, differentiate their core message, and create the most compelling presentations on the planet. Duarte gets visual storytelling. And just who are Duarte's clients? You've probably heard of a few of them: Apple, Adobe, Kodak, Google, Cisco, Symantec, Sun,...Al Gore. Al Gore?

When I posted about Al Gore's one-man traveling slideshow last week, I had totally forgotten (misremembered?) that it was Duarte Design that helped Al Gore create those compelling slides that are so crucial to his live presentations. Then I received this comment from Ted Boda, a Duarte designer who worked with Al Gore on the project

"Al Gore's presentation was in fact using Apple's Keynote presentation software (the same software Steve Jobs presents from) and did so for a number of reasons. As a designer for the presentation Keynote was the first choice to help create such an engaging presentation."

Apple's Keynote anti-aliases its fonts and graphics, scales vector objects and supports QuickTime videos easily and without any plug-ins. Duarte used a combination of Keynote's graphics and graph tools, Illustrator, Photoshop, AfterEffects (for more complex animations) and dropped in numerous videos from different sources to complete his presentation. Some of the videos dropped were up to 1920x1080 (HD), they played and scaled extremely well and was something our team could not even begin to think about doing in PowerPoint."
                                                -- Ted Boda

Of course! Now I remember...and it figures. One look at Al Gore's live show and you can see he got help from the best. And Duarte's the best I've seen. Last December I had the pleasure of spending a few of hours at Duarte Design, located in the heart of Silicon Valley. Nancy and Mark had invited me in to their office to share my experiences in Japan and to look at some of the Duarte Design "special sauce" that makes their process and design work so good (and their clients so happy). The Al Gore project came up in conversation, but (with my jetlag at the time) I completely forgot about it until I heard from Ted.

Duarte helped take Al's visuals up several notches
Yesterday I asked Nancy Duarte a few questions about working with Al Gore. Here's what she said.

Q: How did Al Gore find you guys?

A: "We were referred to Mr. Gore from Apple's graphic design group because of our mastery of Apple's Keynote application. Keynote really was the only option since it handles image, video and animation so well. He had just joined the board so our office location was very convenient."

Q: What was the process like?

Algoreted1A: "We had been working closely with him on his presentation for a while before the concept of a movie was proposed. He would call us with ideas and take us in a direction. Once we'd identified stories or images and had them animated, he would come in for a review. He was brilliant, charming and affirming. Our Account Manager and Designers put their own sweat into the piece because he (and the cause) were very contagious. He would call their cell and say "I heard about these bees in South America, check it out for me" or "I came up with a way to make this section more powerful, why don't you think about this or that." He was refining the file each time he presented it and calling us with feedback and we'd go for another round. As we researched facts and resourced images, people were very helpful when we told them who wanted the images and what it was for."

Q: It's not every day that a global leader stops by the office, what was Al really like?

A:"We always try to pretend that folks like him come by every day. We'd have a cold Diet Coke ready for him and then he'd get right to work. Even though he is one of the most powerful men in the world, he was consistently kind and thoughtful. Each time he delivered the presentation locally he acknowledged our firm which was astounding to us. He would make sure we had seats and invitations to the swanky presos too. It's funny, because he's actually one of the most thoughtful and gracious clients that we have."

Churn, baby, churn

Gore_audienceOne good piece of advice found in Guy Kawasaki's Rules for Revolutionaries is the idea of constantly striving for improvement, or churning. In Japanese we might refer to this idea as "kaizen" or an attitude of continually looking for ways to improve, even the smallest of details. It is interesting to see that Al Gore was constantly learning from each presentation and refining his message and his visuals along the way. This is a good lesson for all of us. If we present often, we should always be looking for ways to tweak our content or our supporting visuals to make it better. This does not always mean adding more; often it may mean subtracting or simplifying. Experience can be a great editor for us, helping us to churn our message over the weeks, months, or years.

Unseen Al Gore Campaign Video
A lot of people have been commenting on the "new Al Gore" in 2006. Although he won the popular vote in 2000, one of the knocks against him was his "wooden" communication style. Some said he was boring, stiff. As far as his "wooden" presentation style of the past, part of it may have been his fault. Perhaps he played it too conservative, held it back too much. But the media played a part in creating and perpetuating the dull, stiff, Gore-as-a-robot persona, a great distraction from the substantive issues of the day.

Al_gore3_1 In this unseen footage filmed by Spike Jonze during the 2000 campaign (also see part II), we see an Al Gore that is funny, relaxed, and engaging. This piece was never widely seen in 2000. Some say that if it had aired, the election may have turned out differently. Who knows. But it is a wonderful little documentary-like piece with the vice-president. This is the man the media mocked as wooden and stiff? In part I and part II Gore addresses his reputation for being stiff on several occasions. The same guy we see hanging out with his family in this video is the same guy we see giving Keynote presentations about global warming to packed houses across the US. In both cases he seems different from the Al I saw on TV six years ago. Maybe he's just learned to take "the real Al" public. Maybe he's just learned to be himself in front of the public. Whatever the reasons for his transformation, he is today quite the speaker. And thanks to Duarte, Al Gore is a pretty savvy visual communicator as well.

Note: Duarte Design has spent a lot of time helping Al Gore with his live Keynote presentations. Additional firms played a role, of course, with graphics in the film and with the trailer for the film

• Duarte: The purple cow of presentation design firms.
• Checkout Duarte's cool examples of presentations and implementations of motion graphics (as well as web, etc.).
Contact info for Duarte Design


"Unseen Al Gore Campaign Video" Part I
"Unseen Al Gore Campaign Video" Part II
• "Al Revere" (Interview with David Roberts). "For the most part, I think Gore gets the science right."
• Gore on climate skeptics (with video)
• The resurrection of Al Gore (wired magazine)

Noise and elimination of the nonessential

Tokyo_noiseIn informal usage, the signal-to-noise ratio represents the ratio of useful and relevant information to superfluous or irrelevant information. We want to keep the noise down and the signal up, and the content must be rich enough and appropriate enough for the context. But each context is different. Though borrowed from the engineering field, the SNR principle can be applied to most communication design situations, too, such as building a webpage, a presentation slide, a poster or billboard, etc. The details of how much text and other visual content you actually use depends on your medium and what you're aiming to do, but the principle is the same: make sure your target audience gets the key message easily and quickly and don't tick them off with superfluous detail that amounts to no more than distracting noise.

Japan: the land of Zen simplicity and visual overload
Japan is a wonderful place. Some of the best graphic design treatments in the world are done right here. And some of the most chaotic and mad examples of graphic design and communication are also right here. If you have been to Japan you know exactly what I am talking about. Every student of design should take a study trip to Japan for a month or a year. In Japan we have a 2000 year-old culture steeped in aesthetic appreciation and tradition juxtaposed with modern, fast-paced city centers which give one the feeling of living inside a pinball machine. Insane and yet stimulating and even inspiring...most of the time.

In Japan I have found some of the best (worst?) examples of visual noise. Noise is so common in many retail settings that it's simply accepted as the norm. It's no wonder some of the ugliest, most confusing PowerPoint visuals are also found in Japan. It's all around us.

Reefer madness
One example of clutter and noise that both fascinates and annoys me is the point-of-purchase displays found in many electronic shops. Yesterday, for example, we were out shopping for a new refrigerator. We want it to be energy efficient and with a beautiful stainless steel finish. It must look good and fit with our current interior design. But as you can see from the photo below, it's very hard to imagine how this expensive appliance will look or "aesthetically fit" in our kitchen. Moreover, while the price is easy to find, it was often hard to locate the most basic information such as its exact size or energy consumption, etc. in the sea of crap pasted to the front of the appliance. The information was there, but it took effort to find it. Besides the visual noise, of course, there was the loud background music featuring the store's theme song and the shouting of enthusiastic salespeople with megaphones -- if you did not speak Japanese, you'd swear by their tone and non-verbal cues that they were yelling at you to get the hell out of their store!

Above: A snap taken at Yodobashi Camera in Osaka. How long did it take you to figure out you were looking at two refrigerators?

Above: The dining table in a design-oriented furniture store gets it. We need to imagine how the piece will look (and feel) in our home. The specs and details are there in a small sign, easy to find without searching.

Poster design: the noise continues...
Advertising posters also run the gambit in Japan. The picture below is of a poster on an Osaka train that I snapped yesterday on the way home. The poster (about 60-70cm wide) is encouraging passengers to take a trip to Gold Coast, Australia. Some of the type is no bigger than 10-12 points; I had to stick my nose to the glass to even read all that detail. Good poster design should (1) be noticed, (2) be understood, and (3) be remembered (and hopefully get the viewer to take action). I have no evidence or proof, but I can not imagine this poster was very effective at getting more business. At the very least, though, this poster deserves to be in the hall of fame of ugly poster design.


In defense of the designer, this poster is a classic example of design-by-committee; the actual designer probably became no more than a computer operator with the client saying "Add this!" "Don't forget that!" "Where's the &^*#@! koala bear?!" and so on. Sadly, this poster resembles some design-by-committee PowerPoint slides which I have seen all too often in Japan. Often the default is: "When in doubt, add more."

Graphic design -- good and bad -- is all around us. Even non-designers can learn by observing the various graphic design examples in the real world with a critical eye.

The "fish story" and conscious reduction of the nonessential

Fresh_fishSimplicity is the elimination of the superfluous. The best speakers present key messages that are simple yet not watered down, trivialized, or compromised. Their speech and their visuals get to the essence of what's important. They know how to give proper scope and yet also are skilled at going in depth and still making it all make sense. This kind of quality is usually only the result of (1) a lot of experience presenting on the same topic or (2) with a great deal of rehearsing, critique, and editing.

Through practice and experience, we can get the essence of our talk down. Here, MIT Professor, John Maeda, recalls an example of how a great deal of experience and practice helped a lecturer perfect his presentation. Recalls Maeda, "Through focusing on the basics of basics, he was able to reduce everything that he knew to the essence of what he wished to convey. This brings me to the Ninth Law of simplicity:

"Simplification most commonly occurs through conscious reduction; the more uncommon form involves subconscious compression."
                                  John Maeda, MIT

What can you do to consciously reduce the nonessential?
A few weeks ago I spoke for one of my favorite companies in Silicon Valley. One of the attendees, Deepak, wrote to me when I got back to Japan to share a story he heard while growing up in India. Here's what Deepak said:

When you talked about reducing the text on the slides, I was reminded of a story from my childhood in India. When Vijay opened his store he put up a sign that said "We Sell Fresh Fish Here." His father stopped by and said that the word "We" suggests an emphasis on the seller rather than the customer, and is really not needed. So the sign was changed to "Fresh Fish Sold Here." His brother came by and suggested that the word "here" could be done away with -- it was superfluous. doing?" Later, his neighbor stopped by to congratulate him. Then he mentioned that all passers-by could easily tell that the fish was really fresh. Mentioning the word fresh actually made it sound defensive as though there was room for doubt about the freshness. Now the sign just read: "FISH." As Vijay was walking back to his shop after a break he noticed that one could identify the fish from its smell from very far, at a distance from which one could barely read the sign. He knew there was no need for the word "FISH."

A presentation slide is different from a billboard or magazine ad (and very different from a document or website), but how can you apply the spirit of this story's message to the design of your visual messages?

Seth Godin mentioned this fish story recently as well.
MIT professor John Maeda's website on simplicity is a must read for anyone interested in design and simplicity.

A special thank you to Deepak for this great story. Does anyone know the origins of this tale?

"Slideuments" and the catch-22 for conference speakers

Slideumentation_1 Slides are slides. Documents are documents. They aren't the same thing. Attempts to merge them result in what I call the "slideument" (slide + document = slideument). Much death-by-Powerpoint suffering could be eliminated if presenters clearly separated the two in their own minds before they even started planning their talks.

Projected slides should be as visual as possible and support our point quickly, efficiently (good signal-to-noise ratio), and powerfully. The verbal content, the verbal proof, evidence, and appeal/emotion comes mostly from our spoken word. Our handout (takeaway document) is completely different. We aren't there to supply the verbal content and answer questions so we must write in a way that provides at least as much depth and scope as our live presentation. Often, however, even more depth and background information is appropriate since people can read much faster than a person can speak. Sometimes the presentation is on material found in the speaker's book or thesis, etc. In that case, the handout can be quite concise; the book or research paper is where people can go to learn more.

Do conferences encourage "slideumentation"?

By insisting that presenters submit their "PowerPoint slides" for inclusion in a future conference booklet or future download from the conference website, conference organizers force their speakers into a catch-22 situation. The presenter must say to herself: "Do I design visuals that clearly support my live talk or do I create slides that more resemble a document to be read later?" Most presenters compromise and shoot for the middle, resulting in poor supporting visuals for the live talk and a series of document-like slides filled with text and other data that do not read well (and are therefore often not read). These pseudo-documents do not read well because a series of small boxes with text and images on sheets of paper do not a document make. What results from trying to kill two birds with one stone is the "slideument." The slideument isn't effective and it isn't efficient...and it isn't pretty. Based on my trips to the US recently, the slideument appears to be a great burden on corporate America.

Slide Doc_6
Above left: a slide from a presentation on gender and equality issues in Japan. Above right: a single page from the handout. Below: how a typical merging of the two might look in the form of a "slideument."

If possible, make two sets of slides
We can't fight city hall and we can't change the conference presentation guidelines quickly. But if a conference instructs us to "submit PowerPoints" to be used as documentation of our talk, one way to insure that our live presentation visuals are the best they can be is to simply use one set of simple, clear slides for the live performance and a different set for the conference booklet or webpage download. The latter could include more written explanation, helping the slides to stand better on their own. We can include written detail in the notes view of each slide; hopefully the conference will produce PDFs of our PowerPoint slides which reveal the notes along with the slide. This is not ideal, but a work around, perhaps, if the conference requires a copy of our slides.

Example from the 05 WOMMA conference
Here is an example (pdf download) of simple slides (used for the live talk) that are saved with notes to a PDF. This is not as good as a well-written document, but it's better than a typical "slideument." And the simplicity of the visuals for the live talk was preserved. The example is from Troy Young, VP of Interactive Strategy, Organic. See more presentation slides from the WOMMA conference.

Resisting "slideumentation"
Conference guidelines and corporate rules and corporate cultures concerning the "correct way" to make presentations reinforce the legitimacy of the slideument. But the slideument is an illegitimate offspring of the projected slide and the written document. By the end of the decade, let's hope that when a typical knowledge worker in New York or New Delhi asks a colleague for an informal update on the project that she gets a speedy reply in the form of a phone call, a face-to-face conversation, or a clear email message, rather than a 20-page slideument attachment so popular today. The world will be a better place.

Related articles
How to run a useless conference (Seth Godin)
The sound of one room napping (Presentation Zen)
Resources for scientific presentations
Guy Kawasaki's tips for presenters

Clear visuals with as little text as possible

Bored_2In his book Multimedia Learning, University of California professor, Richard Mayer, discusses the idea of using on-screen visuals that are above all truly visual, with little or no text. Mayer offers good evidence that this approach is in many cases the most effective. This can be understood by examining two effects outlined by Mayer: The Modality effect and the Spatial Contiguity effect.

Under the Modality effect we can say that people understand multimedia presentations better when words are presented as narration (i.e, presenter speaking) rather than as on-screen text. Mayer says that we have two channels for processing information from a multimedia presentation: a visual channel and an auditory channel. In many cases, says Mayer, a person's visual processing channel will become overloaded if text is added to the on-screen image/animation resulting in less understanding. This contradicts conventional wisdom (and practice) that "more is better" -- many times it is not.

But this is not to say that you can not place a limited amount of text with an image or on-screen animation. Mayer notes, too, citing the Spatial Contiguity effect, that there are clearly occasions when people can benefit from text being included on-screen, so long as the text is near the image or animation, allowing learners to make clear, quick connections between text and images.

Jean-luc Doumont, an engineer with a doctorate in physics from Stanford University, speaking specifically about "PowerPoint presentations" says something very similar about using text and images on a slide in the February issue of Technical Communication (article available on Amazon). Doumont advocates maximizing the signal-to-noise ratio and advices presenters to " a message unambiguously with as little text as possible." Says, Doumont:

"Because visual codings are in essence ambiguous, effective slides almost always include some text: the message itself, stated as a short sentence (thus including a verb). Beyond this text statement, the message should be developed as visually as possible...."

I have said it repeatedly, as have many others before me: slides (if you use them at all) should be as visual as possible. The words come out of your mouth. An important on-screen word or two, or short declarative sentence placed near the image is sometimes helpful. But bulleted lists are almost never preferable; and they certainly need not be the default slide format as they are today in both Microsoft's PowerPoint and Apple's Keynote.

There are myriad ways you can use text along with images. Below are just five slides from a talk I gave on blogging in 2006. These five visuals represent about 60-90 seconds. The first three slides appeared for a total of about 10-15 seconds; the Microsoft slide was on screen longer as I explained the difference between a company's website and a blogger's website who also happens to work for that same company. Later, I went on to explain what a "good blog" is covering, such areas as the importance of updating regularly (using the shark analogy, one often used).

1. Conversation  2. Onsen

3. Naked   4. Difference
(Sample narration):You have heard me say before that "presentations are like conversations." Which is true, but (slide1) blogging is like "conversation" in a sense as well because.... But not just any kind of conversation (slide 2), "Naked Conversations"... In fact, that is the name of (slide 3) this great book.... But what's the difference between, say, (slide 4) Microsoft's website and famous Microsoft blogger, Robert Scoble's website....

5. Shark
(Sample narration): Blogs are like sharks. Sharks have to keep moving...or die. A blog has "to keep moving," keep progressing, be consistently updated...or it will die (as many blogs have)....

Photos are from iStockPhoto, where I get most of my images.

Visceral design: do looks matter?

Sushi_2In Emotional Design, author Donald Norman asks if good-looking things (physical products, user interfaces, etc.) work better. As he outlines in his book, there is evidence that they do. But beyond functionality, do aesthetics of, say, a package or presentation visuals really matter? What about our emotional reactions to the visual presentation of a meal? A master chef labors to make the food delicious, but also takes great care to make the visual beautifully appealing. Norman argues in his book that the emotional aspects of a design may often be more important to the design's ultimate success than the practical elements. Says Norman:

"Attractive things make people feel good, which in turn makes them think more creatively...positive emotions are critical to learning, curiosity, and creative thought."

Presentation visuals must be free of errors; they must be accurate. But our visuals — like it or not — also touch our audience on an emotional level. People judge instantly whether or not something is attractive to them or not. This is a visceral reaction. And it matters.

Package design & presentation visuals
Just like slides are not the presentation, a package is not the product. The function of a presentation slide, for example, is to support a speaker's message, making things clearer for the audience. Fundamental functions of packaging include ease of transport (such as bottled water or a FedEx box, etc.), protection, and of course, identity and communication. Yet, customers and audiences also have visceral reactions to visual design in each case. Unattractive visual design can overshadow otherwise good content that may lurk inside. Poorly-designed visuals speak louder than words.

Last week I received several emails from readers about this
parody video piece on YouTube. I first learned about the clip on Robert Scoble's blog. As Scoble said, "Honesty hurts. Ouch!" There is quite a discussion on Scoble's site and on Microsoft's Channel 9 site where Scoble first learned of the clip. While the piece is sardonic and exaggerated, many feel that there is a lot of truth in there as well. The video is certainly creative and a good bit of comedy. So what would happen if Microsoft re-designed the iPod package? Now you know. (Also here and here).

Above: These screenshots are from the video available on YouTube. Watch how the simple, clean iPod box goes through transformations that: "Make better use of empty space," and ensures the packaging is "on brand" and that the "richness of the product is communicated."

The dangers of design-by-committee
I work pretty well with people, but I'm not really a fan of committee work. Committees have their place, but often "design-by-committee" projects get watered down by excessive compromise as the great vision that may have been the genesis gets flattened so as to be more "marketable." Many people may have input into your presentation, but in the end, the presentation must have the look and feel of something designed by an individual (you) even if it wasn't. In the end, it's your presentation.

OK, this is not scientific or without bias, but I wondered how Microsoft executive presentation visuals compared with Microsoft's packaging? Is there an "on brand synergy" which subtly communicates consistently the brand's essence? And how might this compare with Apple? Below: Exhibit A (Microsoft) and Exhibit B (Apple).

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:



Microsoft is by no means the worst

Some of Microsoft's packaging is good. And even their "bad stuff" is not the worst in the world. For that you need to come to Japan and visit a computer store. Below are just two boxes I pulled off the shelf and threw on the scanner in my office. I showed these two boxes to a student of mine, a graphic designer from the US. She was speechless for about ten seconds as she stared incredulously at the boxes in my hand. "I wanted to hit you when you showed me those %^$#@! things!" she said. Obviously a visceral response.

When in doubt, cram as much in as possible

  Hd1  Hd3
Sample hardware packaging in Japan

Some of the absolute best packaging design is in Japan. Also, we can see some of the worst here. The graphic extremes are what make Japan a paradise for those interested in graphic design.

NOTE: Packages and presentations are indeed different. Slides are more ephemeral and meant for one-to-many communication. Packages can be picked up and read and examined on all sides. In this sense package surfaces are one-to-one. But packages are also designed to get attention on a shelf and to be remembered; in this sense they are more like one-to-many. Slides and packages have many things in common too. The front of a package (like a 2-D slide) needs to be (1) noticed and (2) understood regardless of the visceral impact. The aesthetic of the package should be attractive, inviting people to pay attention and to pick it up. And just as unattractive, death-by-ppt visuals can undermine great content, a lousy package can sell a great product short. Likewise, a great package will not save a crappy product in the long run, and beautiful, incredible presentation visuals will not save an otherwise poor presentation. Visual design matters, but it is not a panacea.

  • Package Design Magazine on clean, simple, design.
  • Article praising Microsoft package design.

Where can you find good images?


A lot of people ask me where they can get good-quality images, so I thought it would be good to have one post that I could bookmark and send out to people. I mentioned before that I use the most (as well as more expensive sites — though I do that much less now — and high-quality photo discs from Japan). A few people gave links to their favorite free or inexpensive sites as well. Below, then, are links to both inexpensive sites and sites offering free images in searchable databases (but check terms of use). The quality ranges from "excellent" to "not too bad." If you can suggest some other sites which have worked well for you (free or inexpensive "but good"), please let me know and I'll add them below after I check them out. The sites below are not necessarily in order of quality, though iStock is my favorite.
(Updated August 22, 2006)

Inexpensive (but good)

One dollar for low-rez images and two-three dollars for higher-rez images. This is my favorite site.
(2) Dreams Time
About one dollar for high-rez images for members.
(3) Shutterstock
750 royalty-free downloads per month for $139 (US) subscription.
(4) Fotolia
One or two bucks an image.
(5) Japanese Streets

Excellent source for Japanese fashion, street scenes, people, and much more from right here in Osaka. About $1.50 per pic via paypal. 
(6) Photocase. A German site (English and German versions). Low-cost download options.
(7) Stockxpert. Great pricing and great images. Easy-to-use site. Uses credit system.
(8) From $1USD to $4USD for high-rez.
(9) Creative Express (Getty Images). With Getty's Creative Express you can buy one-month or one-year subscriptions and download up to 50 stunning images a day. The Express catalog has 75,000 great Getty images. The license works differently for subscription, but this may be a wonderful option for the right project (check out the FAQ). I will be using this for certain.

Free (but not bad)
(1) Morgue File
Providing " image reference material for use in all creative pursuits.
(2) Flickr's Creative Commons pool
Search the myriad photos people are sharing on flickr by the type of CC license.
(3) Image*After
From their site: "Image*After is a large online free photo collection. You can download and use any image or texture...and use it in your own work, either personal or commercial."
(4) Stock.xchng
Close to 200,000 photos. Some gems in there if you look.

(5) Everystockphoto. Indexing over 283,000 free photos.
(6) Studio.25: Digital Resource Bank.
(7) Freepixels. About 2000 photos.
(8) The Photoshop tutorial blog. This cool blog has a laundry list of free photo sites.
(9) Robin Good has a good page dedicated to helping you find good images.

Fonts (free or cheap)
(1) 1001 A lot of free fonts. You get what you pay for, but many are pretty good. Find by most popular, highest rated. Articles, message board, etc.
(2) 4000 fonts for $9.95 (download).
(3) iFree. This Australian site links to free stuff in Australia and worldwide, like fonts, freeware, etc.
(4) Indezine on fonts. There are so many font sites out there, I trust the folks at Indezine to narrow it down. They list about ten.
(5) Database of about 3000 free fonts.

("Elvis" image from

2-D or not 2-D? (That is the question)

Steve_jobsWe can learn how to be better presenters by observing the masters. I often say, for example, that we can improve our presentations by emulating certain aspects of Steve Jobs' presentation style. Today, though, I'd like to talk about one aspect of Steve's presentation Tuesday that we can learn from by not emulating. And that is the use of 3-D charts to represent 2-D data.

At Tuesday's Macworld keynote, Steve announced — almost parenthetically — that many new features have been added to the newest version of Apple's presentation software, Keynote. Long before the announcement, however, it was apparent that something was different about the slideware Steve was using. The first indication came when he showed a 3-D pie chart (complete with a wood-like texture) representing the market share for iTunes. Although the iTunes market share figure was the point, it was the pie chart that people seemed to notice more. Many of the new Keynote features are quite useful, but the 3-D tool, which was not available in previous versions, is one I could do very well without.

2-D simplicity

One idea I keep coming back to here is the notion of simplicity. But taking 2-D data and creating a 3-D chart does not simplify. In The Zen of Creativity, author John Daido Loori, commenting on simplicity, says that the Zen aesthetic "...reflects a simplicity that allows our attention to be drawn to that which is essential, stripping away the extra." What is essential and what is extra is up to you to decide, but stripping away the extra ink that 3-D charts introduce seems like a good place to start. 3-D representation of 2-D data increases what Tufte calls the "ratio of ink-to-data."

One reason why Keynote charts looked so good in the past, even if people were not conscious of the reason, was because graphs and charts were always 2-D. Users had no choice. Now Keynote users will have a choice. And while it's nice to have a choice perhaps, 2-D charts and graphs will almost always be a better solution. 3-D charts appear less accurate and can be difficult to comprehend. The angular relationship of the 3-D charts often make it hard to see where data points sit on an axis.

Is it decoration or is it design?
Slapping on tired textures such as marble and wood is not only decorative, it is ugly. I have received several emails and comments since Tuesday about the 3-D charts in the keynote. "It's so '90s PowerPoint," said one woman. "It's so non-Apple looking," said another. "Yuck!!!" wrote yet another reader.

Gary Klass, from Illinois State University, has an older article called "How to Construct Bad Charts and Graphs" which is a summary of Tufte's ideas on this issue. Pay particular attention to the section on "Data Distraction" which compares a 3-D column bar with a 2-D bar. Here's an excerpt from the article:

"The primary source of extraneous lines in charting graphics today are the 3-D options offered by conventional spreadsheet graphics. These 3-D options serve no useful purpose; they add only ink to the chart, and more often than not make it more difficult to estimate the values represented. Even worse are the spreadsheet options that allow one to rotate the perspective."

                                                      — Gary Klass

Data is not to be feared
From the Keynote section of Apple's website: "Now neither you nor your audience need fear the appearance of a chart or two. Designing eye-catching (3-D) charts in Keynote 3 is as easy as creating them." What are they saying? That our heretofore 2-D visual representations of our data were necessarily intimidating? That our audiences are stupid? Apple seems to be saying that our audiences now "need not fear the appearance of a chart or two" because we can now make things easier to understand visually in 3-D. But 3-D charts do not simplify, they complicate, distort, and can give false impressions.

Blame it on marketing?
Software companies have to keep improving their products and feel the need to add "new and improved" features. Otherwise, why buy the latest version, right? Perhaps the inclusion of 3-D charting capability comes down to marketing and perception. For example, now no one can say "Keynote's no good — it can't even do 3-D charts!" Now it can.

Except for the three slides with 3-D charts in Steve's presentation, his visuals were good overall. Perhaps Steve used 3-D charts in the course of his presentation to not-so-subtly highlight Keynote's new capabilities. No matter the reason, we can take the occasion here to learn from this minor design miscue.

Above: Is this a pie chart or a picture of a coffee table gone bad? A skewed perspective and as aesthetically pleasing as brown shoes with a black tuxedo.

  Pie_color_1     Pie_wood
Above: A couple of simpler options which took about 30 seconds to make in Keynote. These are not necessarily perfect either (e.g., do the shadows add to the perceived area of the largest slice? Does the texture help or hurt? Contrast? etc.).

Above: Steve discusses how they've been trying to shoehorn a G5 into the PowerBook, but have been unable to do so due to the power consumption of the chip. It was not just about performance but "performance per watt," he said. The G4 chip has 0.27 "performance per watt." The Intel Core Duo has a much better "performance per watt." The third bar really "towers" over the other two in part due to the  higher position of the baseline on the right. But the first bar can also appear larger than the data would support since it appears closer and has a visible top.

  Chart1   Chart2
Above: Two possible treatments in 2-D (generated in moments in Keynote 2). Again, these are not without issues either (personally, I am not a fan of textures in bar charts). One option was to group the two bars on the left as they are of the same family (PPC). The point of the chart was to show the difference between the PPC chips and the new Intel chip in terms of performance per watt.

Above: This chart was on screen for about 12 seconds (built bar by bar). This chart is aesthetically challenged (though that may be a matter of taste) and has the usual problems of distortion and an increased "ink-to-data ratio" as a result of the 3-D perspective.

We also must be careful not to exaggerate differences by shifting the baseline to a higher number. In the chart above, Steve is showing Mac sales over the past year. To be sure, it was a very good year for Apple and Mac sales were up over the previous year (and iPod sales were up even more). But the chart exaggerates the growth which took place from quarter to quarter. It visually seems very dramatic because 1,000,000 is used for the baseline. As a result, it seems that 1.25 million units in Q4 is more than double the 1.07 million units sold in Q1.

  Baseline_1m   Baseline_0_1
Above: On the left is a 2-D version of the same data on Mac sales by quarter with a baseline of 1,000,000. On the right you can see how less dramatic the increase appears quarter to quarter when the data are displayed in a more straight forward manner (baseline is 0).

If it walks like a duck...
Don't let the visual display of your data turn into a "Big Duck." The term "duck" was inspired by the Big Duck and was used originally "to describe a building in which the architecture is subordinate to the overall symbolic form." In The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward Tufte uses the term to refer to graphical decoration and visual noise:

"When a graphic is taken over by decorative forms of computer debris, when the data measures and structures become Design Elements, when the overall design purveys Graphical Style rather than quantitative information, then the graphic may be called a duck in honor of the duck-form store..."

                                               — Edward Tufte

3-D charts can be stylistic, but mostly they are misleading. If you are considering using 3-D charts, always ask yourself "does this treatment help or does it just result in a 'big duck?'" In Visual Explanations, Tufte has many good examples on when and how to implement 3-D graphics. 3-D representations of cloud formations or spaces, etc. can be very useful.