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December 2008

Structure & spontaneity: Lessons from the art of jazz (part II)

Kindofblue There is a line of thinking that says if I tell you the meaning of the word Zen, then it wouldn't really be Zen. The same could be said concerning the meaning of Jazz as well. "What is Jazz?" in a sense is like saying "What is Zen?" Of course, we can talk about them and label them, and with our verbalization we get close (and the discussion may be interesting, even helpful, inspiring, etc.). But we never experience the thing itself by talking about it. Zen is concerned with the thing itself. Zen is about the now — right here, right now. The essence of jazz expression is like this too. It's about this moment. No artificiality, no pretending to be anything you're not. No acting. No wishing at this moment to be anywhere or with anyone except where you are. There are many forms of jazz and jazz expression, but to my mind if you want to at least get close to the essence of jazz, then listen to this album: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis (I talked about this album here a few months ago). This is one of my favorite albums of all time and is considered to be one of the best albums (if not the best album) ever recorded. Listen to this cut of "So What?" off the Kind of Blue album below on YouTube.

Billevans_notes I always thought that there was a sort of aesthetic to the Kind of Blue album that expressed the tenets of restraint, simplicity, and naturalness. In the music you hear a kind of free yet structured spontaneity, an idea that seems oxymoronic until you study one of the Zen arts...or jazz. Then recently I read the liner notes again from the Kind of Blue album, notes that were written by the legendary pianist Bill Evans. In these notes (copies pictured in photo on the right and are included in the 50th Anniversary box set) I found that he actually makes a direct reference to a traditional Japanese art form (though I'm unsure if he's referring to shodo or sumi-e). As you read these notes below, think of how Miles Davis's approach to the Kind of Blue session can be applied to live presentation in all its myriad forms, and for that matter, to the art of life.

Bill Evans's liner notes from Kind of Blue

"There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.

The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation.

This conviction that direct deed is the most meaningful of reflections, I believe, has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique disciplines of the jazz or improvising musician.

Group improvisation is a further challenge. Aside from the weighty technical problem of collective coherent thinking, there is the very human, even social need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result. This most difficult problem, I think, is beautifully met and solved on this recording.

As the painter needs his framework of parchment, the improvising musical group needs its framework in time. Miles Davis presents here frameworks which are exquisite in their simplicity and yet contain all that is necessary to stimulate performance with sure reference to the primary conception.

Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played. Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances. The group had never played these pieces prior to the recordings and I think without exception the first complete performance of each was a take."

Recorded in 1959, its impact still grows
Recently, I purchased the 50th Anniversary of Kind of Blue from Amazon. It's a bit expensive, but certainly for an organization or a school I think it's a good purchase. You can see a clip from the documentary DVD included in the package below — this should give you a feel for the contribution this special album has made. The package also includes copies of Bill Evans's hand-written notes which later became the liner notes for the original album. The copies of his notes alone for me make the purchase worth while.

Moving to higher ground: Lessons from the art of jazz (part I)

HighergroundbookOne my favorite reads of 2008 was Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life by Wynton Marsalis and Geoffrey Ward. The lessons found in jazz — its meaning, its history and its relevance for life, business, and education — run deep and wide. It's really quite amazing. Every student should have a good exposure to jazz (and classical music for that matter) in their education — music education is not a nicety, it's a necessity. Organizations and schools are always talking about the need to foster creativity and innovation, the need to encourage dedication and self-discipline, and the importance of developing skills for collaboration. Yet the arts — especially jazz — teach all these things. In his book, Wynton illuminates the deep beauty that is found in jazz and why and how it's relevant for us all. Here's a line from Chapter seven:

"Our desire to testify through some type of art is unstoppable. A palpable energy is released when inspiration and dedication come together in a creative art. The energy is transformative in an individual who is innovative, but it is transcendent when manifested by a group. There are no words for the dynamic thrill of participating in a mutual mosaic of creativity."

                                                    Wynton Marsalis

I found the book so relevant to my world that I could barely get through a page without underlining every other sentence. Good nuggets of wisdom in there. (Snapped in an Osaka Starbucks.)

Musicians at Google: Wynton Marsalis

I recommend the book, but first I suggest you set some time aside to watch this Musicians@Google interview with Wynton Marsalis and Geoffrey Ward below held at Google a few months ago. I discuss a few of Wynton's thoughts from the interview below.


On technology
Wynton Marsalis reminds us that technology is great because it allows us to do some amazing things, including coming closer together. But technology is only a tool. Technology itself does not offer any panaceas. PowerPoint, for example, has gotten better over the years but presentations with the software have largely not improved (though things are getting better...slowly).

"I don't think we should feel that because our tools have become more advanced, we are more advanced. The technology of the soul has not changed for a long time. Many times we use technological advances to stand in for *we* are more advanced. Jazz is not like that. You can come up with all the synthesizers you want, it's still not going to be able to swing....This music celebrates human beings and *our* creativity."  
                                                          Wynton Marsalis

Marsalis: Jazz adds the sticky-sweet to the dry facts of history
Wynton1 Data itself is always dry without meaning. Yet, you can add the spirit of jazz to it in a presentation. By "spirit of jazz" I mean the complete opposite of how people usually use the term jazz as in "jazz it up" (that is, decorate it up). If the intent is pure and the message clear then that is all you can do. Jazz means removing the barriers and making it accessible, helping people to get your point (your message, your story). This does not necessarily mean you will always be direct (though this is often the clearest path). Hint and suggestion are powerful too. The difference is hint and suggestion with intent has a purpose and is done with the audience/user in mind. Hint and suggestion without intent or sincerity may merely result in simplistic, ineffective ramblings or even obsfucation.

If you approach the presentation of the data like a jazz musician approaches a piece of music then you will indeed be true to the message and the meaning of the data and you will make it "sticky and sweet" and not dry in the sense that you are understood. You will know you are understood when you see the heads nodding just like the musician sees the feet tapping. The audience may not agree with you — but they understand you. Understanding is the first step in persuasion. It's OK if people disagree with your results or interpretations — that's all part of the conversation, part of the process. What is not OK is for people to be confused by your words.

Hans_pic Presentation example
A good example is Hans Rosling (see his TED talk). It's not just the visualization of his data that are compelling. More importantly, he is compelling. He's "adding the sticky-sweet" to data by adding context and meaning and by emphasizing and pointing the way.
Rosling also shows his passion and engages the audience with the data by the way he speaks: "Do you see that? Look here! This is amazing! What do you think happens next? Wasn't that surprising?" and so on. It usually is not enough just to show numbers. If you are in front of us, tell us what you think they mean and why, and compared to what? etc.

The power of naturalness
Wynton2 Jazz is smart and it's deep but also simple and accessible. Jazz makes the complex simple through profound expressions of clarity and sincerity. It has structure and rules but also great freedom. But above all, jazz is natural. It is not about putting on a façade of sophistication or seriousness, in fact humor and playfulness are also at the core of jazz. You may be a dedicated, serious jazz musician or you may be an appreciative fan, but either way you also understand that to be human is to laugh and to play — play is natural to us and natural to the creative process. It's only through our formal education that we begin to doubt the "seriousness" of play. When this happens we begin to lose a bit of ourselves, including our confidence and a bit of our humanity. I've found through my parallel studies of jazz and the Zen arts that both have structure and practice at their core, as well as a strong component of playfulness and laughter.

"It's sophisticated but it's down home too, [jazz] celebrates a naturalness."

                                                  Wynton Marsalis

The importance of being a good listener
I wonder how many leaders could be better leaders if they listened more than they spoke. As Wynton points out, jazz is about listening. Much of the music is improvised so you always have to be listening to the logic of what the soloist, for example, is playing so you will know how to respond. You can not be a good jazz musician and be a bad listener. Can't you say the same thing for a leader or anyone giving a presentation?

"It's the blues and it tells a story...and it leaves more room for responding than for talking. That's another tenet of jazz — what other people have to say is equally or more important than what the person soloing has to say."

                                                     Wynton Marsalis

2009: The year of "the designful company"

Book_cover As long as we're talking about design, let me suggest another book. One of the books for 2009 (yes, already) that I highly recommend is called The Designful Company: How to build a culture of nonstop innovation by designer and branding guru Marty Neumeier. Marty understands that we're all very busy, so he designs his books to make a big impact in less than 200 pages. His previous best-sellers — Brand Gap and Zag — are provocative, informative, and inspirational books that I use every semester in my Marketing classes, etc. Like his previous books, The Designful Company is a lesson in simple, clear, and beautiful presentation that complements the content. This is not a graphic design book, but rather a why and how design matters book for leaders and future leaders (including educators, managers, etc.).

Pz_slide Innovation and design are key in the transformation of any organization, of course, but everyone says "innovation" matters. The term has become a mere platitude, a sort of tag-line for many organizations. But in part three of the book Marty explains how to actually build a culture of change that embraces design by focusing on 16 key levers such as weaving a story, bringing design management inside the organization, introducing parallel thinking, recognizing talent and creativity, and many others. One of the levers of change that I found particularly interesting (obviously, given what I do for a living) was the lever #8: "Ban PowerPoint." That is, ban the awful, death-by-PowerPoint approach in favor of a presentation method which is more engaging and powerful. If you have an innovative company that truly understands design and creative collaboration, then you have to abandon the dull, lifeless, and typical PowerPoint experience for compelling stories and conversations that are visual, simple (without being overly simplistic), and memorable.

Marty Neumeier on presentations today

"PowerPoint has become a full-blown epidemic.
Tragically, the victims are company values such
as collaboration, innovation, passion, vision,
and clarity."

"If you want buy-in, give PowerPoint a rest.
Substitute more engaging techniques such as
stories, demonstrations, drawings, prototypes,
and brainstorming exercises."

"If a business is a decision factory, then the
presentations that inform those decisions
determine their quality: garbage in, garbage out."

Below: A couple of sample slides from The Designful Company that illustrate Marty's idea.

Before   After

Three tips for better presentations from Marty Neumeier

Here are three design rules that Marty says they use at Neutron "to turn slide shows
into beacons of clarity."

1. EDIT TO THE BONE. "Most slide presentations collapse under the weight of words." Use as few words as possible on a slide (and make them big), this insures that the ones you use will be read and understood says Marty.

2. USE PICTURES. Use visuals were words on a slide just can't cut it. "...whenever you feel the text in your presentation can’t fully support your key points, insert a picture."

3. KEEP IT MOVING. "It’s better to break slides into bite-sized ideas—usually one idea per slide — than to squeeze everything on one slide. Slides are free, so use them freely. It’s preferable to see a hundred slides that move at a fast clip than be forced to stare a single slide for more than a minute."

• Checkout Marty's firm Neutron located in San Francisco.

Note: The archive of the Safari webcast is now available (they ask for a name and email only to watch it). I put the slides up on Slideshare too. I mentioned Marty's book in the presentation but Webex had problems showing all the slides in sync (and some were skipped), but the archive will still be useful for some of you (I hope a download option will be coming from Safari too).

Note 2: Marty and I have the same publisher and I received the reviewers copy early on, but that's not why I recommend this book. I only recommend books I believe in, period (regardless of the publisher).

Note 3: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all! I'm getting on a plane in a few hours bound for San Francisco from Kansai, hoping to change at SFO and get to Portland by Tuesday night. Portland is in the middle of a long snow storm and freeze; hope I make it to Portland. I'll be staying downtown for a few days until it warms enough to make it to the coast it looks like. I think this is going to turn into my favorite Steve Martin Movie. Update: Made it to Portland. Made it to the beach.

If you could recommend only one book (on graphic design)

Non-designers Over the years I've read a lot of design books and I have recommended many of them here. But a lot of people have ask me if I would recommend just one book (proving again that the more choices you offer the harder it is to decide; the paradox of choice). It's difficult to recommend just one book for the non-designer interested in becoming more design mindful. But if you are looking to take a first step in learning about the fundamentals of graphic design with an eye toward becoming a better judge of what is effective visual communication and what is not, then I suggest The Non-Designer's Design Book, 3rd Edition (208 pages) by Robin Williams. This book has sold a ton over the years and is highly recommended by just about everyone. It's not an overly comprehensive book, but I like it because it's small and focused on a just a few fundamentals that, if understood well, can indeed make a difference.

If you don't mind a book twice as thick, then you could get The Non-Designer's Design and Type Books, Deluxe Edition (448 pages) by Robin Williams. This is a combination of the Non-Designers Design book plus the Non-Designer's Type book.

A bit more meaty
Elements If you want something a little bit more challenging, but still very much accessible and engaging, I suggest The Elements of Graphic Design: Space, Unity, Page Architecture, and Type (160 pages) by Alexander white. I like this book too because it's relatively small and easy to take with you as you travel. This is one of my favorite graphic design books and is a good complement to Williams' books on the basics. White goes into a bit more depth on space, unity, type, etc. and features a discussion on "the seven design components (including Gestalt, etc.) which I summarize here on my website.

Your recommendations?
Right, so I said I would suggest just one book and then went and mentioned two (or three, depending on how you're counting). Another great book is Universal Principles of Design (216 pages) by William Lidwell et al. I love this book but it's a larger hardcover. At some point you will want to get this one for your bookshelf. So, do you have a design-related book that you can recommend? In other words, if you could suggest only one book on graphic design, what would it be? What one book has been the most useful for you?

10 rules for making good design

Design_elements I picked up a book recently called Design Elements: A Graphic Style Manual by Timothy Samara* that is quite good. Samara starts off his book — after a short discussion on what is meant by design and graphic design — with a list of "Twenty Rules for Making Good Design" which includes a brief but good elaboration of each of the rules. Now, as Samara points out, rules are important to understand but it's certainly permissible to break the rules (he even shows how later in the book). What is not permissible is to remain ignorant of the rules. Samara quotes Typographer David Jury here: "Rules can be broken — but never ignored." I tend to think in terms of Principles rather than Rules, though this is really just a matter of semantics. This stuff is old hat for longtime designers, but for the rest of us Samara's list of 20 Rules is a useful reminder. Here are just Ten of Samara's twenty rules below just as he wrote them (though not in this order). I chose the rules (principles) which I think are both the most important and yet easiest to grasp without much or any explanation. Keep these rules in mind when designing your next presentation or website, poster, etc.

10 design rules to keep in mind
   (1) Communicate — don't decorate.
   (2) Speak with one visual voice.
   (3) Use two typeface families maximum. OK, maybe three.
   (4) Pick colors on purpose.
   (5) If you can do it with less, then do it.
   (6) Negative space is magical — create it, don't just fill it up!
   (7) Treat the type as image, as though it's just as important.
   (8) Be universal; remember that it's not about you.
   (9) Be decisive. Do it on purpose — or don't do it at all.
   (10) Symmetry is the ultimate evil.

This list of ten above which I pulled from Samara's list of twenty are self-explanatory for the most part; let me clarify just two of them. Number 3 (Type). Remember that even within one family there is lots of variation possible (e.g., regular, light, ultra light, narrow, italic, bold, extra bold, and so on depending on the typeface), so consider even working with just one professional typeface family for a project and see what you can do. I have a preference for san serif typefaces but a combination can work well too in display type (such as Apple using Helvetica and Apple Garamond together). Number 10 (Symmetry). OK, symmetry isn't evil, in fact it can be quite beautiful, and calming, (or serious, etc.). But symmetry can also be rather dull and predictable. Asymmetrical designs are more dynamic generally and can allow for a bit more freedom of expression. Like the author, I have a thing for asymmetry myself (maybe because my nose is crooked from playing American football). The Zen aesthetic is all about asymmetry as well (Fukinsei 不均斉). 

Another good book
New_basicsAnother book I received recently that I really like is Graphic Design: The New Basics by Ellen Lupton and Jennifer Cole Phillips (a pic of my copy on posterous). This is a good book. It covers the fundamentals of graphic design, much of which has not changed over time (that's why they are fundamentals). But the author stresses some fundamentals such as layering and transparency that have become perhaps more important today for many reasons, including the fact that powerful digital design tools are ubiquitous and layering and transparency effects are easier to do now.

* I do not have Timothy Samara's newest book — Design Evolution: A Handbook of Basic Design Principles Applied in Contemporary Design — but it looks good. I'll let you know.

Montage of text and images tells powerful story, wins film award

Freedom We've been discussing here recently about moving type in visual presentations that create a narrative without the use of an actual voiceover or narration. I was reminded of another example that is a bit out of the ordinary. "Mankind Is No Island" by Jason van Genderen (Australia) is a short film that uses street images (people, billboard, signs, posters, etc.) to create a story of sorts with a simple and evocative message. Quite literally he spells out a story. What I like about it is that it required no expensive tools. All the footage was shot on cell phones in Sydney and New York. Simple. Brilliant. Effective. The film won the best film award at Tropfest NY 2008. Tropfest (the main event is held in Sydney) is known as "the world's largest short film festival."

Here are a few quick screen shots below to give you a feel for the treatment of text. (I added just a touch of Gaussian blur to some of the shots just to help the main word stand out a bit.)

I_love    But

What    Is

It    We

Love    Today

Shot all on a cellphone
Watch the 3.5 minute film below. It's evocative and may give you some ideas for your future stories (presentations) as well.

H/T Eric Tuason

A note about Monday's webcast.
Webcast_slide A special thank you to all the many people who tuned in around the world live to listen to the webcast from my hotel room in Tokyo Monday (my Tuesday at 7:00am). It's a real challenge speaking to hundreds or thousands of people live when you can't actually see or hear them, but it actually feels quite comfortable for me. If I had to do it over I would leave much more time for questions. Frankly, most presentation could benefit from more Q&A and discussion and less "presentation." Now, the thing that I am disappointed about is that for many people listening live, the visuals were a little (or a lot, depending on your pipes) out of sync with my speaking. On my Mac and in the studio back in the USA, it worked fine, and people with very fast bandwidth saw the preso as I delivered it (my buddies in Tokyo said there was no lag that they could tell). I had no idea that this would happen and I had no idea it was happening to people live (though it was out of my control). I am really sorry about that. The good news is that WebEx tells us the recording of the presentation has no lag problems (we shall see). If you registered before the event they will send you an email in a few days with the link to the archive (and I will post it here as well). Thanks again very much to those who watched live. (When the link is live I will post the slides on slideshare in PDF.)

Because it's Christmas: Two (OK, three) video presentations

Here are two Christmas-related video presentations that take quite different approaches to conveying their message (and a third video thrown in just in case you have not seen it and need to smile today). The two examples below contain at their core, messages which are evocative and provocative (and almost by definition will not be agreeable to all viewers).

Advent Conspiracy Promo Video
This is another example of a message being expressed with kinetic type plus images (mostly simple vector images) without any voice over. Yet, the message gets across. The Advent Conspiracy website. (H/T Brendon.)

Happy Christmas
I pointed to this last year. When I first saw it then I was not expecting this visual presentation and was surprised and then moved to tears (as most people are). Some images may be disturbing to some viewers, yet this visual treatment — as unhappy as it is — is surely truer to the original message contained in the song. (This is not a video for small children. A longer higher-rez version which contains documentary footage of John and Yoko is here.)

An animated White Christmas (The Drifters version)
While the first two videos make you think (and feel something), this video just makes you feel (good I hope). At one time there was a beautiful Flash version of this on the Internet, but this YouTube version should do the trick. (Update: Yeah! Flash version lives -- much better! Thanks Matthias!)

Benjamin Zander at Pop!Tech 2008: How Fascinating!

Zander I've talked about Benjamin Zander and his inspiring presentations before (such as here and here), but I stumbled on another one today on the Pop!Tech website. (Pop!Tech is a wonderful resource for short presentations by some very smart and interesting people doing some amazing things; you can even see a nice talk by our buddy Daniel Pink at Pop!Tech.) This talk below has some similarities to Zander's TED talk (and the content is found in his book too), but there is a bit of a twist in this talk as he brings a very bright young musician on the stage to help illustrate his point about transformation, being in the moment, contribution, etc. If you have never seen Zander present before, then you owe yourself 20 minutes to take this in; the lessons are applicable to your work no matter what your field.

Above: Watch Benjamin Zander present at Pop!Tech 2008

The Zander method
Below are a few shots of Zander in action.

Benjamin Zander may start his presentation on stage, even using a visual or two.

But he does not stay on stage very long. Zander likes to get down and mix it up with the audience.

Back on stage: One minute he may be making a point at the piano about playing "on one buttock" and the next moment...

Zander returns closer to the audience and works the room again, engaged, passionate.

Working with a young student on stage: Make a mistake? "How fascinating!"

Zander brings his student down so that he may make a better connection with an audience member to show that music (and many other things) is not about technique only but about connection, and contribution, and full engagement with the moment.

The conclusion: Zander returns to the stage and the same visuals to make his case again.

Benjamin Zander is the Zen master of presentation. See more presentations on the Pop!Tech "Pop!Cast" site. This is a great resources, especially for classroom instructors. Fascinating!

Live PZ webcast December 15 (free)

Webcast On Monday, December 15 I will be giving a free live webcast for Safari Books Online. The time is 2:00pm on the west coast of the US, 5:00pm on the east coast. (This will be Tuesday, December 16 at 7:00am for me here in Japan.) Wherever you are around the world I hope you can join live as there will be a chance to ask questions. If the time is not convenient for you, the archive of the webcast will be available about 72 hours after the live event. Registration is free.

Screen_shot I have been asked to essentially talk about the contents of the book. I will indeed talk about the themes and ideas covered in the book, however, I have entitled the presentation How to Think Like a Designer (and why it matters). The applications of the items I discuss will focus on presentations, particularly presentations that are given with the aid of slideware, but the ideas can be applied to other types of presentations and even other types of disciplines such as web design and professional communications of all types. I have come up with a list of 10 ways to "think like a designer" with examples for each and applications for presentation design. Yet, there are of course more than 10 things we can learn from designers that may help us in our own work, so if you'd like to share your list — or even just a few tips of your own — please share those below. I appreciate your comments. Look forward to connecting with you during the webcast.

Safari Books Online. (See the archives of previous talks on the left of the Safari page under "previous events.")

Lance Armstrong video presentation: "Kickin' cancer's sorry arse."

Lance's livestrong website Below is a short video presentation by the Lance Armstrong Foundation. This is a wonderful, uptempo presentation with an important message that is inspiring people to action. I love the technique of splicing different pieces of numerous Lance Armstrong speeches and appearances over the years into a dynamic but clear narrative, followed by a similar splicing effect featuring several inspiring cancer survivors. Inspirational, clear, and memorable. It's the kind of video presentation that gets noticed, remembered, and moves people toward action. You can't watch this and not want to be part of the cause. Watch the video on YouTube below.

"We believe that unity is strength, knowledge is power,
and attitude is everything."

                                     — Lance Armstrong Foundation

Lance at Web 2.0 Conference
Below is a clip from a keynote interview Lance did at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco about a month ago. He talks about many different things including his comeback and the site (a wonderful site focused on health and fitness; the best I've seen.) The sound is a bit rough, but there are some interesting things in there for leaders and others motivated to achieve at their highest potential.

Live Strong  (.org)  — Lance Armstrong Foundation
Live Strong (.com)
health, fitness and lifestyle
Make a contribution

H/T Shawn