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March 2007

Happiness, decisions, & the paradox of unlimited choices

Decide If some choice is better than no choice, and more choice is even better than that, then how can still even more choice — a seemingly unlimited array of choices in fact — not be a kind of decision-making nirvana where people make both better decisions and are happier about those decisions? Do not more choices and a greater number of options lead to better decisions? And if so, why then are people unhappy with their decisions even when a decision is a good one? Why do people feel regret even when they choose well?

Barry Schwartz’s TED talk in London (2005)
Book_ Here is a good presentation from TED (watch below) which is a great follow-up to the previous post on the liberating effects of constraints. A couple of PZ readers reminded me that Barry Schwartz, in his 2004 book called The Paradox of choice, put forth some very interesting ideas about how pursuing the maximizing of choice is not as liberating as one may think, in fact he believes it’s one cause of unhappiness. I read the book two years ago and liked it (and then sort of forgot about it, though the ideas stayed with me). Creatives know through experience that no freedom is to be found purely in the maximization of choices (as we talked about in the last post). In The Paradox of Choice, the author makes a similar claim that having an unlimited array of choices and few constraints is not liberating or enabling and is in fact often (not always) a burden and a bondage. Here Schwartz is not coming from the point of few of design and creativity but rather speaking from the point of view of the consumer (that’s all of us) and the paradox we face today: that having choices is essentially very good but that having a huge amount of choices does not make us necessarily more productive, nor does it always improve our decisions or make us any happier.

Learning to love constraints
Narrowing At the end of the book Schwartz ends with 11 ways we can end the crippling effect of too much choice or  “the tyranny of small decisions.” The last one in the list is simply this: “Learn to love constraints.” I recommend the book, but you can save your money and get a pretty good feel for the book’s content by watching this 2005 presentation by Barry Schwartz at TED (below). This is a good presentation, though you will surely have some tips to offer him on both slide design and on the issue of making appropriate fashion choices on the day of your presentation.

(More video/audio download options here on the TED site.)

Back to design: What does “more is less” feel like?
Learning2c Schwartz gives us a lot to think about related to freedom, constraints and choices in our daily lives, but what does “more is less” feel like when it comes to interacting with the design of such everyday things as software, cell phones, or street signs and other forms of visual communication? What does it feel like to be confronted with too many options or to use designs made without adequate thought to and use of constraints? I found a good description of what “it feels like” from one of the photography books I’ve been reading recently, Learning to See Creatively by Bryan Peterson. The author in this case is talking about how inexperienced photographers often snap photos that have too many points of interest, too many elements which alienate the eye causing it to move on. This lack of direction in the composition, says the author, fails to engage or satisfy the viewer causing him to look elsewhere. The viewer is left feeling a bit of confusion which may feel something like this according to Peterson:

“Imagine finding yourself lost on the open road. You finally see a lone gas station up ahead, you’re hungry to discover the route back to the freeway. You ask the attendant for directions, and he begins to offer plan A and plan B and plan C, each with varying degrees of specific detail. Rather than finding the clear, simple, and concise directions you were seeking, your brain is now swimming in a sea of even greater confusion. Clear, simple, and concise directions are all that you want.”

We've all had a similar feeling while using a poorly-designed website, application, or even a cell phone that did everything under the sun except make calls that didn't drop halfway through a conversation.

Simple, clear, concise

SignsAs daily life becomes even more complex, and the options and choices continue to mount, making designs which are clear, simple, and concise becomes all the more important. Clarity and simplicity — often this is all people want or need, yet it’s increasingly rare (and all the more appreciated when it’s discovered). You want to surprise people? You want to exceed their expectations? Then consider making it beautiful, simple, clear…and great. The “greatness” may just be found in what was left out, not in what was left in.

Creativity Loves Constraints (Business Week)
Recent articles by Barry Schwartz
Marketing: Too Much Hype Backfires (Science Daily)
Happiness vs. number of choices (flickr photo)
Opportunities, Constraints and Barriers affect Creativity (Design at the edge)
Poster of Schwartz's main ideas from the presentation/book

Can limitations and restrictions be liberating?

Choices Having grown up in the abundance of the US, I was basically taught that freedom is, among other things, the maximization of choices. The more choices the better. All those choices. All that abundance.157 kinds of breakfast cereal…how to decide? The freedom to choose, at least on things that matter most, is a wonderful gift indeed. Yet, in our daily lives we too often burden ourselves with petty choices, unimportant matters, and frivolous decisions. In today’s world we may have political/social freedom (if we're lucky), but often lack “a freedom of mind,” the very freedom that can matter most when aiming to construct creative solutions to complex problems. Our minds — even our lives in general — have become complicated by clutter.

Is freedom the maximizing of choices?

PlainsimpleSteve Hagen says in Buddhism Plain and Simple that " freedom lies in maximizing petty choices." We all know this, of course, but still we battle with the unnecessary and the nonessential, not just in our professional or creative lives but in life in general. No one likes the idea of restrictions or of “no choice,” of course. Having no options and no choices can certainly be a bondage, but choices — too many choices — can be a bondage as well. Too many choices — options, features, functions, etc. — can become a bondage that slows creativity. Choices are great, but many of us (me included) obsess about the pursuit of obtaining more and more choices.

"True freedom doesn't lie in the maximization of choice, but, ironically, is most easily found in a life where there is little choice."
                                               —   Steve Hagen

Ad critic Bob Garfield in his book And Now a Few Words From Me talks about the "tyranny of freedom" and the ad industry's obsession with "breaking all the rules." Garfield reminds us that in the case of a child, for example, "the lack of boundaries does not liberate, it enslaves..." Garfield's point is that what looks superficially to be confining can sometimes be the path to liberty. In the book Story by Robert McKee (part 3, principles of story design) the author uses a pointed quote by T.S. Eliot to kick-off his discussion on the importance of setting boundaries:

“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl."

                                                             — T.S. Eliot

Learning from the pros: the art of working with restrictions
Clock Last December my friends Jasper von Meerheimb and Sachiko Kawamura, designers for Universal Studios Japan (USJ) here in Osaka, gave an excellent presentation for Design Matters Japan on the issue of how restrictive conditions put on creative projects can lead to inventive solutions. In their presentation they talked about how one develops a concept and implements it under such constraints as limited time, space, and budget. For professional designers, the idea of creating great work under myriad constraints and limitations imposed from the outside is simply the way the world of design works. Whether constraints are good or bad, enabling or crippling, is in a sense irrelevant; constraints are simply the way of the world. Still, as John Maeda points out in The Laws of Simplicity, “In the field of design there is the belief that with more constraints, better solutions are revealed." Time, for example, and the sense of urgency that it brings is almost always a constraint, yet "urgency and the creative spirit go hand in hand..." says Maeda.

The need for creating our own constraints
Kid Using creativity and skill to solve a problem or design a message among a plethora of restrictions from the client, from the boss, etc. is old hat to designers. They live it. Daily. However, for the millions of non-designers with access to powerful design tools, the power and importance of constraints and limitations is not well understood. For those not trained in design, the task of creating presentation visuals (or posters, websites, newsletters, etc.) with today's software tools can make one either frustrated by the abundance of options or giddy in anticipation of applying their artistic sensibilities to decorate their work with an ever-increasing array of color, shapes, and special effects. Either condition usually leads to designs that suffer. What we can learn from professional designers, then, is that (1) constrains and limitations are a powerful ally not an enemy, and (2) creating our own self-imposed constraints, limitations, and parameters is often fundamental to good, creative work.

               “Such power there is in clear-eyed self-restraint."
                                                        — James Russell

In the world of presentation design, software gives us a huge amount of options, so many options that the novice is often either crippled by the complexity of choice, or indiscriminately applies tools and effects without restraint to suit his particular taste. On this point John Maeda says that "...while technology is an exhilarating enabler it can be an exasperating disabler as well."

Learning to embrace and learn from constraints
Wabiabi Self-imposed constraints can help us formulate clearer messages, including visual messages. In the various Zen arts, for example, you’ll find that careful study, practice and adherence to strict guidelines (or “constraints”) serve to bring out the creative energy of the individual. For example, Haiku has a long tradition and strict guidelines, yet with much practice one can create a message (in 17 syllables or less) that captures both the details and the essence of a moment. The form of Haiku may have many rules, but it is the rules that can help one express their own “Haiku moments” with both subtlety and with depth. In Wabi Sabi Simple, author Richard Powell comments on wabi sabi, discipline, and simplicity as they relate to such arts as Bonsai and Haiku:

“Do only what is necessary to convey what is essential. [C]arefully eliminate elements that distract from the essential whole, elements that obstruct and obscure....Clutter, bulk, and erudition confuse perception and stifle comprehension, whereas simplicity allows clear and direct attention."

                                                                   —Richard Powell

Limitations as liberating filters
Curtis Hillman Curtis, in his book MTIV: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer, talks about limitations serving as filters that force us to make our designs/messages better. “Limitations can be seen as liberating frameworks that force you to streamline your work, making it accessible to the most people possible, both technologically and aesthetically.” Hillman talks about how their shop has learned through time a practice to view limitations not as annoyances but as "welcome editors" that keep them on track. This helps them boil designs down to the essence of what they are trying to communicate without the unnecessary or the extraneous. Self-editing is an important skill, though Curtis admits that all creatives (writers, designers, etc.) struggle with self-editing:

You may include things you believe to be crucial in a design, but those elements are often only crucial to you.”

                                                          — Hillman Curtis

I really love MTIV and highly recommend it, though I must admit that it is the wonderful design of the book itself that draws me in.

Setting our own restrictions

StoryRobert McKee in his book Story speaks of the importance of what he calls “The Principle of Creative Limitation.” McKee stresses that self-imposed limitation is vital and that the first step to developing a great story is to create a small, knowable world. McKee is speaking about the restrictions that the structure/setting relationship puts on the choices for the creator of a story. But this restriction does not inhibit creativity (for the writer in this case); “it inspires it.” Writing a great story or developing a compelling presentation (or website, etc.) is about making creative choices. A screen writer will write far more material than she can use. The genius is in what she leaves in and what she cuts out.

“Creativity means creative choices of inclusion and exclusion.”

                                                     — Robert McKee

The same can be said for crafting a presentation; success fundamentally depends on making good decisions about what to leave in or cut out. With presentation, you have to decide what little chunk of the thing it is you’re going to talk about and that is it. You can go deep or you can go wide, but you can not do both, and frankly you can’t even go that deep or that wide either. It is after all just a short presentation — an ephemeral moment in time — so think carefully about what will be included and what will end up excluded.

Life is about living with limitations and constraints of one type or another, but constraints are not necessarily bad, in fact they are often helpful, even inspiring as they challenge us to think differently and more creatively about a particular problem. While problems such as a sudden request to give a 20-minute sales pitch or a 45-minute overview of our research findings have built-in limitations — such as time, tools, and budget — we can increase our effectiveness by stepping back, thinking long and hard, and determining ways we can set our own parameters and constraints as we set out to prepare and design our next presentation (or next design project, etc.) with great clarity, focus, balance, and purpose.

A couple of good articles from A List Apart dealing with related issues (in the context of web design).
A Tao of webdesign
Much ado about 5K

Seth Godin: Ideas that spread win

Godin_pic While going through the Greater Talent Network site I stumbled upon a great 8-minute sampling of a Seth Godin presentation. This is a classic Godin presentation that is delivered with good energy, great clarity, and augmented with simple visuals that support his point and even introduce a bit of humor. I think you’ll enjoy this clip, which you can see on YouTube as well.

Tvindustrial     Tv_2
Slides from Seth Godin’s presentation featured on The Greater Talent Network.

Ben_cohenBen & Jerry
And speaking of “ideas that spread win,” here’s a short sampling of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (of Ben & Jerry’s Icecream) talking about how they got started in the business. Jerry starts off telling the story of their beginning. Ben chimes in later with the biggest pie chart I’ve ever seen. You can watch the video on YouTube as well.

Related links
The Godin Method
Biz Gurus Present (Godin, Kawasaki, Peters)
Is it broken? (presentation by Seth Godin at GEL)

Slideshare announces cool slide contest

Slide Earlier this week announced their "World's Best Presentation Contest." They are offering some pretty cool prizes such as a laptop computer for the 1st prize, some Xboxes, and some iPods. People can vote on their favorite slide decks; the top vote getters will receive iPods. The "World's Best Presentation" winners will be decided by Slideshare and the four judges, Guy Kawasaki, Bert Decker, Jerry Weisman, and myself. Context is obviously important so take note of this section in the upload instructions:

While uploading the presentation file, you should tell us something about it in the description section. This will give the voters and judges some context as to your presentation. Specifically, tell us which of the below options describes how your presentation was or is meant to be used. "PowerPoint Deck as Leave Behind" OR "In Person Presentation Support" OR "Both" OR "Other".

I think "other" could mean the slideshare viewer itself. That is, you could rework your slides so that they are as clear and meaningful as possible on their own for online viewing and also take advantage of the slideshare features. I've talked a lot about slideumentation and the problem of trying to make visuals that are also meant to be handouts, this usually does not work very well. But you are free to be as creative as you can within the limitations of Slideshare, so why not experiment and see how powerful a message you can convey using the limited tools before you. I'm looking forward to seeing something great!

Slide design: signal vs. noise (redux)

Mackey A few weeks ago, the CEO of Whole Foods Market, John Mackey, gave a presentation called "Past, Present, and Future of Food" for an audience of 2000 in Berkeley, California (watch the video). You can read about the context and content of Mackey's presentation here in this UC Berkeley News article. Essentially, John Mackey was there to make a presentation and have a conversation that would persuade Michael Pollan (who was critical of Whole Foods in his bestselling book The Omnivore's Dilemma) and a skeptical Berkeley audience that his large company still has the credibility to lead the food movement into the future. Mackey (see his blog) gave a 45-minute talk "aided" by 67 text-filled slides followed by an on-stage conversation with the host Michael Pollan. Most people felt that the evening generally was successful given Mackey's sincerity, honesty, and general likeability, but John Mackey's "multimedia presentation" as it was billed, could have been so much more.

Live and learn
Mackey's presentation in Berkeley is a wonderful example of a presentation by an intelligent, personable, and passionate leader that easily could have been insanely great but was not. "[Mackey] raced through the slides like a Ph.D. student presenting his dissertation," said the UC Berkeley reporter in the audience. It was not a disaster by any means, based largely on Mackey's sincerity and the courage it took just to show up at all, but it's a shame the presentation itself was not better planned and delivered given the importance of the topic and the profile of the speaker. Frankly, when you're trying to change the world, there is no excuse for being dull.

How could it have been better?
There are so many ways in which John Mackey could improve his presentation. Here are just three:

  • It's a story. This topic screams "Story" yet there was no story that I could follow. There were bits and pieces (some of it interesting) and way too much history and data-without-purpose.

  • Make it shorter. Cut the presentation part of the evening to 20-25 minutes and spend more time discussing on stage with the host, taking questions from the audience, etc. This is when the evening really got interesting.

  • Make it visual. There are no boring topics, but this topic is especially interesting and provocative. There is no reason in the world to make this dull visually or otherwise, but he did. (Although the movie he showed in the middle was shocking and provocative.)

There are numerous other things to consider too, but I'll focus just on the slides here as it is a good follow-up to our discussion last time on the signal-to-noise principle.

Signal-to-noise ratio (redux)
Last time we were talking about the advantages of a high signal-to-noise ratio in presentation visuals. Mackey's slides are a great example of slides that did not really do anything to help the audience. The slides were stuffed with text, small photos with superfluous animation, and Excel-generated charts so bad and so ugly it's hard to imagine a cheetah with only a cursory understanding of PowerPoint making anything worse. Here you can download the slides (PDF) used in John Mackey's presentation.

A couple of samples

This slide was on screen for 10 seconds. John Mackey's only point: Mexico is first in organic tropical fruit production; Paraguay second, Ecuador third. Perhaps there was another way to support his point visually during that 10-second period? Did people remember this fact (among the scores of other facts), and how did it contribute to the story?

"In our excitement to produce what we could only make before with great effort, many of us have lost sight of the real purpose of quantitative displays — to provide the reader with important, meaningful, and useful insight."

                                                             — Stephen Few

It would not have been hard at all to simplify Mackey's visuals so that they augmented his talk better. The slides below, for example, I generated in Keynote in just a few minutes (the same could have been done in PowerPoint 2007).

Break up the bullets

Many of John Mackey's slides were packed with several small bulleted points. Usually he only touch on one or two of the points written in each slide. The slide below (left) is not unusual in today's business world either. This is a poor visual (and a poor document). The slide on the right is an attempt to highlight just one of the points from the original slide to complement the narrative.

Profit  Sustain

No pie for you!
Few I am not against pie charts outright. In business, for example, we have become quite used to showing simple data like market share (our share of the pie). However, it is true that pie charts are over used and often inappropriate. Rather than making data easier to see, a pie chart (especially a 3-D rendering of one) can make data harder to understand visually and quickly. In Show Me the Numbers by Stephen Few the author says "I don't use pie charts, and I strongly recommend that you abandon them as well." Few says that pie charts communicate poorly. I tend to agree with Mr. Few. Take a look at the example below from John Mackey's presentation.

"Europe accounts for 66% of the world's arable land in organic production" — I think that was the main point. This was on screen for a very short time. Can you tell which slice is "2%"?

            "I come to a food event for pie, not pie charts!"

                        — from coverage in the UC Berkeley News

Let's look at a few example of alternative ways to show the same information below (though the best design choice may have been to omit the use of this and perhaps all charts entirely).

The colors were derived directly from the Whole Foods Market website using the eye dropper tool in Keynote's color picker. Asia, Africa, Oceania were combined because 1%x2 plus 2% were difficult to show without clutter (though it is very possible to do so).  A declarative sentence would be better, but I was not sure what the key point actually was.

A pie chart with many small "slices" can become tedious and cluttered. Below I put the data in the form of simple bar charts while experimenting with colors.

V_bar1  V_bar2
Generally, if the bars are a different color, there must be a reason. On the right N. America is highlighted.

H_bar1  H_bar3
Using horizontal bars to show the data it seems easier to make quick comparisons, but my designer wife disagreed favoring the pie chart for giving one "the feel" for how one part compares to the whole. Pie charts are ubiquitous in Japan as well.

Another possibility. This has good contrast, but the image may add noise for some audiences. Or does the image add an appropriate "emotion" and interest or serve as a kind of mnemonic which aids in memory?

The pie chart
Apple_ad Virtually every presentation book on the market recommends the use of pie charts to show how parts make up a whole. Some experts in the visual display of quantitative information, however, strongly recommend against using pie charts. The use of pie charts is ubiquitous in today's world, but we may want to re-think our usage of such charts. Sometimes the use of pie charts can indeed seem ridiculous such as when used to show 12-15 "slices." This Apple commercial pokes fun at the pie chart, and below is my version of the Pac-man pie chart that has been circulating around the internet for some time. Again, I think pie charts can be used from time to time, especially in business, but it's worth reexamining our old charts to see if there is a more appropriate way.


An example of a different way
Take a look at these slides below on the Sustainable Food Laboratory website (Keynote and PowerPoint versions available for download).  These slides were used in a similar kind of presentation to the one John Mackey gave in Berkeley. I would love to hear the presentation that goes along with these visuals.

Sustain1  Sustain1a

Kicking it up a notch
I have a lot of respect for John Mackey and I was a loyal Whole Foods customer when I lived in Palo Alto and Cupertino, California. If the Whole Foods CEO is going to do a lot of public presentations like this in future, with just a little coaching and presentation redesign, he can kick his overall impact up several notches. I'm hoping that he does.

"My Letter to Whole Foods" (by Michael Pollan)
"An Open Letter to Michael Pollan" (by John Mackey)
Many Eyes
Tons of great articles by Stephen Few

Signal-to-Noise ratio and the elimination of the nonessential

UniversalbookOne of the coolest, most useful books I have on my shelf is Universal Principles of Design. This is a beautifully simple book and one that is immensely useful, a must for professionals and leaders from any discipline. The subtitle of the book pretty much sums it up: "100 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach Through Design." Even trained designers will want this book somewhere on their shelf. Each of the 100 principles — most of them applicable to presentation design — is summarized with great clarity and with good visual examples in just two pages. References are given for each principle for those who want to go deeper, but for a quick reference, this book can't be beat.

Signal-to-noise ratio
The principles are presented in alphabetical order, beginning with "80/20 Rule" and "Accessibility," and finishing 210 pages later with "Uncertainty Principle" and "Weakest Link." Between the principles of "Shaping" and "Similarity" you will find a good summary of the "Signal-to-Noise Ratio" (SNR). The SNR principle is borrowed from more technical fields such as radio communications and electronic communication in general, but the principle itself is applicable to design and communication problems in virtually any field. The authors sum up the signal-to-noise ratio this way:

The ratio of relevant to irrelevant information in a display. The highest possible signal-to-noise ratio is desirable in design.

Trusted_2  Platform_1
A couple of older slides (from a Steve Ballmer keynote in 2005) with rather low signal-to-noise ratios.

Above: Even Steve Jobs can present simple data in a way that complicates rather than simplifies (or did the faux marble texture and 3D help illuminate?). Note too that the baseline starts at 1000 (though it is hard to tell where the baseline is).

"Excess is noise"
Ensuring the highest possible signal-to-noise ratio means communicating (designing) clearly with as little degradation to the message as possible. Degradation to the message can occur in many ways such as with the selection of inappropriate charts, using ambiguous labels and icons, or unnecessarily emphasizing items such as lines, shapes and symbols, etc. that do not play a key role in support of the message. In other words, if the item can be removed without compromising function, then strong consideration should be given to minimizing the element or removing it all together. For example, lines in grids or tables can often be made quite thin, lightened, or even removed. And footers and logos, etc. can usually be removed with good results (assuming your company "allows" you to). In a nutshell, the authors put it this way:

Every element in a design should be expressed to the extent necessary, but not beyond the extent necessary. Excess is noise.

In Visual Explanations, Edward Tufte refers to an important principle in harmony with SNR called "the smallest effective difference":

"Make all visual distinctions as subtle as possible, but still clear and effective."

                                                                    — Edward Tufte

Related to the smallest effective difference is Occam's razor, which both Tufte and the authors of The Universal Principles of Design point out. Tufte sums up the Occam's razor this way:

"What can be done with fewer is done in vain with more."

Tufte goes on to say that a "...happy consequence of an economy of means is a graceful richness of information, for small differences allow more differences."

Above: This is a fake "Before" slide I made up rather quickly. The data being displayed is extremely simple, yet the eyes have to work pretty hard to get at the data. 98 new members in the first quarter of 2007 would be a very significant fact for the club, but perhaps a declarative sentence on the slide rather than a title would be more appropriate. The "noise" can be reduced in myriad ways (below).

Bar2  Bar3
Above: Examples of simpler ways to show the same data. Even the baseline was removed (left) since the bars define the endpoint, still a thin baseline may be appropriate as Tufte points out in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. There are many ways to display this kind of basic data; the two slides above are not necessarily "the best" way.

But is the non-essential always "noise"?
Maeda_cover_2 Do design elements which are not absolutely essential necessarily detract from a design? Occam's razor says that unnecessary elements decrease the design's efficiency and increase the possibility of unintended consequences. But does this mean that we must be ruthless and remove everything which is not absolutely "essential" to a design? There are those who say a minimalist approach is certainly best (and also beautiful); I tend to fall in to that camp. But efficiency itself is not necessarily an absolute good or always the ideal. (Would one admire the work of an efficient purse-snatcher for example?) Nonetheless, when it comes to the display of quantitative information (charts, tables, graphs, etc.), I strongly favor display designs which include the highest SNR as possible. With other visuals, however, we may want to consider including or retaining elements which serve to support the message at a more emotional level. This may seem like a contradiction with the principle of a high SNR, or the Occam's razor, and the idea that "less is more." However, sometimes emotional elements matter (sometimes a lot). John Maeda pointed this out in his book, The Laws of Simplicity. Maeda insists that the principle of reduction (removing the nonessential) is important, but he also admits that emotion is very important as well and that often more emotion is better than less:

"When emotions are considered above everything else, don't be afraid to add more ornament or layers of meaning."

                                                                  — John Maeda

Design makes things clear, Maeda says, but art — the stuff of emotions — makes us wonder. Design can bring clarity to a message, art can help bring meaning. "Sometimes...clarity alone is not the best design solution." Presentation design is as much art as it is science, and, of course, aesthetics do matter. The Aesthetic-Usability Effect (also in the Universal Principles of Design) says that "aesthetic designs are perceived as easier to use than less-aesthetic designs." First impressions based on aesthetics are important, for example, as the way people think about or interact with a design will be influenced at some level by how the design looks or feels (to them). Clarity and the reduction of the nonessential are important, but we need to remember too that how a design looks influences perception.


The Google website is often mentioned when talking about sites that have cut everything visually except that which is essential. Yet there is emotion there too; the logo is large, colorful, and even "playfully seasonal."

As with all things...balance

Understanding what is noise and what is excess is an important design consideration. As pointed out in this paper by Michael Albers on SNR in documentation, what is considered noise will depend on the context. "An excess of noise can occur from either too much or too little information," says Albers. "... much of the real difficulties in communicating information do not fall within the technical realm. [They] fall within the people realm which revolves around the contextual aspects of the information." Use depends, then, on our particular circumstance, audience, and objectives. Ideas like SNR are good principles, but not rules to be blindly followed. In my opinion, designs with a high signal-to-noise ratio are not only generally clear, they often look good as well. But in the end, SNR is one principle among many to consider when creating visual messages.

Related links from Presentation Zen
2-D or not 2-D
Noise and the elimination of the non-essential
Wabi-Sabi and Presentation Visuals (part I)
Wabi-Sabi and Presentation Visuals (part II)
Wabi-sabi simplicity as it relates to interface design (from 37 Signals)

Ira Glass:Tips on storytelling

Updated September 8, 2016


Ira Glass: What makes for a good story?
We are a storytelling animal. In fact, we are wired for story. The thing is, there is no single right way to tell a story or to use story elements in your presentations and other communications. There are many paths. The important thing is to be aware and open to the many lessons that are out there. About nine years ago I originally pointed to these four, short videos made by Ira Glass (in those days YouTube videos had to be shorter). Below are the four videos of Ira Glass, a veteran radio personality and host of This American Life, giving advice to those making short stories. There are good pieces of wisdom in there we can apply to presentation in the broader sense as well. All this time later and his advice is still valuable. If you have never seen these clips, I highly recommend you set some time aside to watch these this week. And if you have seen them, they are worth watching again. I have highlighted some of my key takeaways from his monologue.

Part 1 (on the basics...)

The old way, says Ira, looks like this: Have a topic statement then fill out the facts that support your statement. (This is not to say that logic and evidence and support are not important. Of course, they are important, but they're rarely sufficient.)

In storytelling there are two basic building blocks, says Ira Glass:

(1) The anecdote, a sequence of actions, a story in its purest form, one thing following from another (rather than just disjointed "facts").

"The Power of the anecdote is so great...No matter how boring the material is, if it is in story form...there is suspense in it, it feels like something's going to happen. The reason why is because literally it's a sequence of can feel through its form [that it's] inherently like being on a train that has a destination...and that you're going to find something..."

                                                                — Ira Glass

(1a) Raise questions. Provide the "bait." The anecdote should raise a question right from the beginning. Implied in any question that you raise, however, is that you are going to answer it. Constantly raise questions and answer them. The shape of the story is that you are throwing out questions and answering them along the way.

(2) The moment of reflection. What is the key point? What does this all mean? Why have I asked you to sit and listen for 30 min, etc. It is not just a series of facts/events. Many people get the first part, they tell an interesting sequence of events, but in the end it fails because it doesn't say anything new, it did not have meaning. And sometimes people have the reflection part and the question is clear in their mind, but they fail to put it in a sequence that compels people to follow and engage.

In a good story you need both -- you can flip back and forth between the two. The Anecdote and the Moment of Reflection are interwoven to make a story.

Part 2 (on finding great stories...)
Here Ira is talking about the importance of editing and choosing, choosing even to decide to not do something (because it is not meeting your standards, etc.). The hardest thing can be deciding to cut and even abandon, but it must be done.


     "Not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap."

                                                         — Ira Glass

Part 3 (on good taste, persevering...)
If you're going to do creative work, you may go through years of producing stuff that does not meet your own high standards. The way to get better is to keep you standards high and just keep doing a lot of work and getting a lot of experience. This applies to presentations too. Guy Kawasaki, for example, said that he used to be a terrible presenter when he was young. Today he's great, but it took years and lot's of experience.


Part 4 (on finding your own voice...)

Speaking in your own voice. Good advice applicable to live presentations or making podcasts, etc.

"Everything is more compelling when you talk like a human being, when you talk like yourself."
                                                                 — Ira Glass

So are there boring subjects?

Sure, some subjects may be sexier than others, but I don't buy the notion that there are necessarily boring presentation subjects. If you're presenting then there must be an important reason why you have been chosen to do so. If not, why on earth are you going to speak? If it's important, then what is the point in just getting through it and appearing effective when in reality the audience got nothing and remember even less?

Lecture Here's an example from my undergraduate days long ago: The most boring class I ever had in college was a course called Human Sexuality. I don't know how he did it, but the stuffy, boring, rambling lecturer managed to make the subject as dry as burnt toast. I received a final score of "B" for the class. "B"! Do you know how humiliating it is not to ace a class on sex? Yet, my Economics class — a so-called "boring topic" — was fascinating to me, largely because the lecturer was passionate about the topic (and showed it) and taught concepts and illustrated them with real stories and real examples. He also had a sense of humor. I liked the class and aced it even though when I registered for the class I hoped only just to "get by" and survive in what I thought would surely be a tediously dull, difficult subject. The moral of the story for me is that any subject can be boring and any subject can be quite interesting indeed, but no subject is necessarily either. Designing a story is not easy work, but it's worth it.

How to "lecture" and keep 'em engaged (PZ)
No excuses: There are no boring topics (PZ)
No excuse for tedium: Advice on giving technical presentations (PZ)
Dana Atchley: A Digital Storytelling Pioneer (PZ)
Lessons from the Cluetrain: Imperatives for presenters (PZ)

Don't make a speech. Put on a show.

Arden "Don't make a speech," says Paul Arden, "put on a show." Paul Arden is author of It's Not How Good You Are, Its How Good You Want to Be. Arden's little book is not long on expanded content, but it's a very visual book and for most who read it, it's quite inspirational and even provocative as well. There are definitely good nuggets of wisdom inside. The images in the book may even give you some ideas for combining text with images. The author's background is in advertising so creatives and marketing people, etc. may find the book especially worthwhile. Here's what Arden says about presentations on page 68 of the 127-page book:

"When we go to see a lecture, we generally go to see the speaker not to hear what they have to say. We know what they have to say. That's why we go see them.
How many speeches have you heard? How many of them can you remember?
Words, words, words.
In a song, we remember firstly the melody and then we learn the words.
In stead of giving people the benefit of your wit and wisdom (words), try painting them a picture.  The more strikingly visual your presentation is, the more people will remember it.
And more importantly, they will remember you."

                                                       — Paul Arden


Arden goes on to say that "...even a Financial Director's speech does not have to be boring."

Words are important, of course. And good and appropriate content is crucial. But these are rarely sufficient. Especially today. We should be continually asking ourselves how we can "think different" and do things differently, even when asked to do a presentation. Given the chance, why not be remarkable?

Your story with narration, text, and images
Masterplan This video presentation was released last month and is generating a lot of buzz on the net. You can see the lower-rez version on YouTube below, or download the video in high resolution in various formats here on the Master Plan website. This may give you some ideas for combining your own (verbal) storytelling with text and images. Like any 2-3 minute presentation, the "whole story" can not be told here. This "Master Plan" presentation leaves you with more questions than answers, which I am guessing was the point. I can imagine a presenter showing this video first and then beginning a longer presentation and discussion that goes deeper.