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August 2009

Dan Pink: Rethinking the ideology of carrots and sticks

Below is a very interesting TED talk by my buddy Daniel Pink. In December Dan has a new book coming out called Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. In this TED talk from the summer in Oxford, Dan overviews some of the key ideas in the new book. This talk will make you (re-)think about work, management, and what motivates you — and those you work with — to excel. Watch it below.

We don't need sweeter carrots and sharper sticks, Dan says. We need a whole new approach, an approach that puts more stock in intrinsic motivation. Dan identifies three elements that comprise a new way of thinking about management:

Autonomy: The urge to direct our own lives.
Mastery: The desire to get better at something that matters.
Purpose: The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.


Traditional ideas about management are great, Dan says, "if you want compliance; but for engagement, self-direction works best." Dan focuses here only on Autonomy and gives a few good examples, and touches on the ROWE (Results Only Work Environment). People working under a ROWE system do not have fixed schedules per se and can work at any time. They can show up when they want, essentially. This would not work for all professions due to fixed schedules (teachers and airline pilots come to mind), but it works for a lot of folks in design and software and other creative fields.


The last time I had a real job was about six years ago in Cupertino, California. Many of the people I worked with (in the company and out) were working under a sort of quasi ROWE system, depending on their manager. In my case, my schedule was largely up to me, but still I worked long hours and got in early and left late. It was great, however, as I felt in control. It almost did not feel like work, yet I was more productive and worked more than when I was employed in Japan. But I had freedom to go to the gym anytime, take lunch anytime, work at home if there were no meetings that day, etc.

When I worked at Sumitomo in Japan through most of the '90s, I experienced the opposite spirit of ROWE. Results were important, but just as important — and sometimes more important — was just to be there in the office and be seen as a good member of the team. Sometimes the motivation in Japan is a different kind of carrot and stick, the stick is really the fear of being an outsider or being labeled as one. Things are changing in Japan, but the idea of giving workers loads of freedom with their schedules is something that is hard for a lot of managers and firms to do (some in software/IT here seem to be a bit more flexible). ROWE is not a panacea, but I would like to see at least the spirit of it applied more. Companies need to lighten up and give more room for their talent to be creative.

Letting go: A new management style?
A key tenet of Zen is that we must learn to let go of things (the past and the future, for example). One of the hardest things for managers to do is unclench their hands from the many things they think they control, like people's time. Control over people — assuming we actually have it — can itself become an object of attachment for us. Sometimes "control" is just a feeling that we have in management that people are in line and doing what they are suppose to, and if they are, we worry about them not doing so in future.

Yet a lot of stress for managers is over things they can not control and should not need to worry about. What if we just held people accountable for results? Managers could become more of a coach and less of a referee, more of a mentor and less of a taskmaster. Letting go is not only good for managers' personal well-being and productivity, it also fosters the type of environment that allows workers to use intrinsic motivation rather than external motivation. In the end, doesn't the company benefit from letting go just a bit?

(Dan's point about intrinsic motivation reminded me of Lesson number 4 from his last book, Johhny Bunko. I made a Slideshare book review presentation about the book last year. Below is just the 4th Lesson.)

• A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future
•The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need

In Defense of Helvetica

Helvetica If you were a typeface, what would you be? Today I took a quiz called "What Font Are You?" — you can take it too. I never thought of myself as reliable and ubiquitous, but the quiz results said I was "Helvetica." Many in the design world hate Helvetica, yet others are enamored with it and use virtually nothing else. Helvetica is certainly ubiquitous, but ubiquity is not always a bad thing. The ubiquity could just be a sign that it’s a design that is working well, that it’s a part of a civilized society. Personally, I like Helvetica. I don’t think of the typeface as dull or boring, I think of it as neutral, but not in a colorless, noncommittal way, but in a way that’s helpful and intentional. It’s almost like there is a sort of Zen in the way Helvetica is perfectly, beautifully bland (and yet, not bland).

Gohan.001 To me Helvetica feels to typography a bit like Japanese white rice feels to traditional Japanese cuisine. That is, on its own it may seem pretty bland to most people. Now, I love Japanese rice with any traditional Japanese meal, but just a bowl of white rice by itself would be quite boring and not very satisfying at all. Yet, as a balanced complement to all other elements in a washoku meal, rice is truly a delicious and harmonious amplifier of the entire culinary experience. Helvetica is a bit like this in that the typeface is a great complement to other design elements on a page or poster or slide, etc. Helvetica is a great amplifier of clarity without drawing attention to its own form.

Muji Because Helvetica is neutral and lacks a strong personality of its own you could say, its clean lines go well with many elements such as images, especially images with lots of detail where the text needs to pop out without stealing the show. I understand why some hate its use, but while some people just see blandness in its form others find it quite beautiful in its simplicity. Helvetica — although not new — is actually refreshing in its simplicity and neutrality. It allows the meaning of the words themselves, in the context of various designs, to express themselves with a feeling of trustworthiness and reliability. (Helvetica Neue is used in this Muji ad in Japan. Helvetica is a perfect fit for the Muji brand.)

Although Helvetica works well in designs with many elements like large posters or projected screens, and inside images that are quite busy or otherwise dynamic, the dignified yet humble typeface can also work in isolation at small sizes surrounded by large portions of empty space, and it can work well on its own at very large sizes. Helvetica may be neutral, but in a proper context it’s not bland, in fact it’s quite beautiful.

Below is a clip from the wonderful documentary called Helvetica (DVD on Amazon).

 "Helvetica was a real step from the 19th century typeface. We were impressed by that because it was more neutral, and neutralism was a word that we loved. It should be neutral. It shouldn't have a meaning in itself. The meaning is in the content of the text and not in the typeface."

                                    Wim Crouwel in the documentary Helvetica

Helvetica (the film)
PZ post about the documentary.

Apostrophes and quotation marks

Quote_2 Sometimes a mistake occurs so regularly that many people stop to even notice. One such error is the backward apostrophe. This is admittedly a small thing, but it's one of those little things we need to get right, like remembering not to put two spaces after a period (unless using a monospaced typeface). Believe it or not, there is an entire website dedicated to showcasing apostrophe abuse on a near daily basis. Most of the examples featured on the website show signs and other displays with words containing an apostrophe where an apostrophe is not needed, but there are many examples of the apostrophe in the right place but used backwards. First, you need to put the apostrophe in the right place. One of the most common mistakes is something like this:

CD's came out in the 80's.
This should read
CDs came out in the ’80s.

I took this photo below of a sign in Nagoya last year. Very creative apostrophe abuse. No apostrophe is needed in this case, but if you're going to use it, you might as well put it on the wrong side of the year.


Can you find the apostrophe abuse here on this page?

The "dumb" apostrophe

Wwdc_apostrophe_3 Most people know where an apostrophe goes, but they often unknowingly put in a "dumb apostrophe" (a vertical stroke rather than the proper mark designed for the typeface) when they type, for example, 2009 as ‘09. Your software may have thought you were beginning a quotation and thus gave you the open single quotation mark. To get a proper apostrophe you may have to use a keyboard command. On the Mac it's Option + Shift + ] to get the single closed quotation mark (apostrophe). Use Alt + 0146 on the PC. As you can see from the photo right, sometimes the backward apostrophe gets by the best of them.


Use proper quotation marks
Using "dumb quotes" in place of proper typographers' marks or "smart quotes" is something that irks many designers. In most software apps all you have to do is go to the preferences and turn on the "use smart quotes" feature. But this does not guarantee you will not see dumb quotes pop up in your work. For example, if you copy and paste a quotation from a website or an email including the quotation marks, it's very likely that dumb quotes will appear in your text (if they appeared that way on the website) even after you change your font in your application. This is what happened with the quote in the slide below which I copied from my email client.

Quote slides.005
Although "use smart quotes" was on in the slide app, the quotation marks remained the same after I changed the font and size.

Quote slides.006
It's easy work to retype them if you do not have too many slides (otherwise use "find and replace").

Quote slides8.008  Quote slides.009
Different ways to use quotation marks.

Design lessons from the art of washoku

Kyoto.001 A few years ago, on a late Autumn afternoon, I was walking with a friend along Tetsugaku no Michi (Philosopher's Road) in the city of Kyoto. After our walk we stopped in a local restaurant for a traditional Japanese meal. Japanese-style meals are called washoku. The kanji for washoku (和食) are literally “harmony” and "food," and harmony does indeed seem to be a key principle embodied in Japanese traditional cooking. In Japan, food is not about fuel, it’s about an experience as much as it is about sustenance. Although this particular restaurant was nothing extraordinary for Kyoto, as always, I was impressed by the presentation of the meal. How can the presentation of it be so profound, I thought, and yet there remain hardly a trace of decorative elements or the nonessential? Clearly the presentation matters.

Washoku_bookWashoku is guided by simple principles that lead to harmony and balance in terms of both nutrition and aesthetics (this is explained well in a wonderful book simply called Washoku). For example, go shiki (five colors) is a principle that says the meal should have a variety of colors: red, green, yellow, black, and white. This is related to insuring good nutrition and it also leads to a visually appealing display. The principle of go kan (five senses) suggests that the cook should think not only about taste and nutrition but also touch, sound, smell, and, of course, sight. How the meal looks in many ways is as important as it tastes. “We are nourished by the presentation as we nourished by the food,” says John Daido Loori in The Zen of Creativity. There are other guiding principles of washoku including go mi (five tastes) leading to a balance of flavors, go ho (five ways) which encourages a variety of cooking methods, and go kan mon (five out looks), guidelines concerning respect and appreciation for the meal and the spirit in which it is to be consumed. In Japan, lessons about the art of presentation are everywhere, sometimes in very unexpected places indeed.

Balance, harmony, simplicity
Simple_washoku If we open our eyes and are willing to think differently, we can see that there are presentation and design lessons all around us, even in something like a beautifully prepared traditional Japanese meal. Like a designer, a preparer of washoku is guided by principles that help in the careful decisions of what to include and what to exclude. Ingredients may depend on many things including the season and occasion. Portions are measured with restraint and are in balance. Above all, elements are chosen and arranged visually to be balanced and in harmony from the point of view of the customer. Balance, harmony, restraint, simplicity, and naturalness. These are some of the guiding principles behind the preparation of washoku, and they are also fundamental principles we can apply to design and to the art of presentation in our own world outside the culinary arts. In either case, the visual matters.

Zen and the Art of Cooking (Video). Nice 24-min segment, especially for foodies. 
Pics from my washoku dinner tonight in Osaka.


10 Tips on how to think like a designer

Designer_japan Most people do not really think about design and designers, let alone think of themselves as designers. But what, if anything, can regular people — teachers, students, business people of all types — learn from designers and from thinking like a designer? And what of more specialized professions? Can medical doctors, scientists, researchers, and engineers, and other specialists in technical fields benefit in anyway by learning how a graphic designer or interaction designer thinks? Is there something designers, either through their training or experience, know that we don't? I believe there is.

Thinklikeadesigner_slide Below are 10 things (plus a bonus tip) that I have learned over the years from designers, things that designers do or know that the rest of us can benefit from. When I speak around the world I often put up a slide that asks people to make as many sentences as they can beginning with the word "Designers...." The goal of this activity is to get people thinking about thinking about design, something most of us never do (it also gets people in the audience talking, loosening up a bit; always a good thing). The sentences they generate range from "Designers wear black" to "Designers use creativity and analysis to solve problems" to "Designers make things beautiful," and so on. (Click on the "Think like a designer" slide to see the 11 tips in slide format on — feel free to use them if you like.)

These ten are broad and even a bit philosophical. Regardless of your profession, I hope there is an item or two that you can apply to your own work.

(1) Embrace constraints. Constraints and limitations are wonderful allies and lead to enhanced creativity and ingenious solutions that without constrains never would have been discovered or created. In the words of T.S. Eliot, "Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl." There's no point complaining about constraints such as time, money, tools, etc. Your problem is what it is. How can you solve it given the resources and time that you have?

(2) Practice restraint. Any fool can be complicated and add more, it takes discipline of mind and strength of will to make the hard choices about what to include and what to exclude. The genius is often in what you omit or leave on the editing room floor.

(3) Adopt the beginner's mind. As the old saying goes, in the expert's mind there are few possibilities, but for one with the beginner's mind, the world is wide open. Designers understand the need to take risks, especially during early explorations of the problem. They are not afraid to break with convention. Good designers are open minded and comfortable with ambiguity early on in the process, this is how discoveries are made.

(4) Check your ego at the door. This is not about you, it's about them (your audience, customer, patient, student, etc.).  Look at the problem from their point of view -- put yourself in their shoes. This is not easy, it takes great amounts of empathy. Get in touch with your empathetic side. Empathy — an under valued "soft skill," can be a great differentiator and is key for truly understanding a problem.

(5) Focus on the experience of the design. It's not the thing, it's the experience of the thing. This is related to #4 above: Put yourself in their shoes. How do people interact with your solution? Remember that much of design has an emotional component, sometimes this is even the largest component (though users may be unaware of this). Do not neglect the emotional aspect of your solutions.

(6) Become a master storyteller. Often it's not only the design — i.e., the solution to a problem — that is important, but the story of it. This is related to #5 above. What's the meaning of the solution? Practice illustrating the significance of solutions both verbally and visually. Start with the general, zoom in to the detail, pull out again to remind us of the theme or key concept, then zoom back in to illuminate more of the detail.

(7) Think communication not decoration. Design — even graphic design — is not about beautification. Design is not just about aesthetics, though aesthetics are important. More than anything, design is about solving problems or making the current situation a little better than before. Design is not art, though there is art in design.

(8) Obsess about ideas not tools. Tools are important and necessary, but they come and go as better tools come along. Obsess instead about ideas. Though most tools are ephemeral, some of your best tools are a simple pencil and sketch pad. These are often the most useful — especially in the early stages of thinking — because they are the most direct. Good advice is to go analog in the beginning with the simplest tools possible.

(9) Clarify your intention. Design is about choices and intentions, it is not accidental. Design is about process. The end user will usually not notice "the design of it." It may seem like it just works, assuming they think about it at all, but this ease-of-use (or ease-of-understanding) is not by accident, it's a result of your careful choices and decisions.

(10) Sharpen your vision & curiosity and learn from the lessons around you. Good designers are skilled at noticing and observing. They are able to see both the big picture and the details of the world around them. Humans are natural pattern seekers; be mindful of this skill in yourself and in others. Design is a "whole brain" process. You are creative, practical, rational, analytic, empathetic, and passionate. Foster these aptitudes.

(11) Learn all the "rules" and know when and why to break them. Over the centuries, those who came before us have established useful and necessary guidelines — these are often called rules or laws and it's important to know them. Yet, unlike other kinds of laws, it may be acceptable to break them at times so long as you know why. Basic graphic design principles and rules are important and useful to know, yet most professionals today have a hole in their education when it comes to the fundamentals of graphic design. I try to do this a little bit with the book Presentation Zen Design to raise the design mindfulness and vocabulary of professionals who do not make a living in design per se, but who have a desire to get better.

This is not an exhaustive list (in fact, I started with about 25 items); there are many other things designers can teach us (and not only graphic designers as well). What is missing from this list? What would you add? Love to hear your ideas.

Dieter Rams: ten principles for good design (H/T Tom Moore for this link)

"プレゼンテーション zen" introduced in Japan

Pz_japan Today on page 2 of the Nikkei Shimbun (Japan Economic Times) you can find an ad announcing the debut of the Japanese translation of the Presentation Zen book. As you can imagine — and as the ad below from the newspaper may suggest — it can be hard to keep marketing communications such as advertisements from becoming cluttered in Japan. But the book itself is very true to the English version in terms of its design. In fact, the publisher in Japan told me this is the first business book they have published in Japan that makes so much use of empty space. My friend Mayumi Nakamoto did all the layout work for this book and she fought hard to keep the design essentially the same as the original; she did a beautiful job. The scale of the book is only slightly smaller than the original. It would have been easy to cave in and just do it "the normal way" by cramming it all in but we wanted to try something different. Will it be successful? I don't have a clue. But I'm delighted the book can finally reach a much wider audience in my home of Japan. The book hits the shelves in a couple of weeks but is available now for pre-order on the Pearson Japan web page and on  プレゼンテーションzen<日本語版>アマゾンで予約受付開始!はよこうてや〜

Above: Photo shows the bottom of Page-2 of the Nikkei Shimbun (Aug 9, 2009).

11 ways to use images poorly in slides

Slides As digital cameras have become ubiquitous, and cheap (or free) photo websites plentiful, more people than ever are using images in presentations. Images are not appropriate for every kind of talk, but even when images are appropriate (such as keynote/ballroom style presentations), people are still making the same common mistakes. So here are some things to keep in mind if you use images in your next talk. (Get a larger version of the "slides" image here.)

Case study: a single slide
Let's imagine you are preparing a presentation for a large audience on current issues in Japanese education. One issue facing schools and universities in Japan today is the decreasing number of potential students due to fewer children being born. So our sample slide touches on the low fertility rate in Japan in this context. You could either use a full-bleed image like the one on the left below or a smaller image of a photograph of a school yard in Japan as seen on the slide on the right below. If you chose the slide on the right you could also have a simple line chart fade in as you talk about the declining rate as a long-term trend.

Poorexample.005   Poorexample.017

The common mistakes
For our sample here we'll use the photo on the left above as a starting point. How many different ways could we use the same image (at different resolutions) inappropriately or use a different image in a way that is less effective than the one on the left?  Here are eleven common mistakes:

(1) Image is too small
You do not have to go full bleed with an image, but this particular image does not work at a such a small size (The slide is 800x600, this image is 183x152.)


(2) Image is placed randomly on slide
The image may be large enough now to be seen easily, but it's put willy-nilly on the slide. Usually this results in the text getting lost in the background (though in this case the text is still legible). Looks accidental.


(3) Image is almost full-screen but not quite
Again, nothing should look accidental. This looks like they were going for the full-bleed background image effect but just missed. Now the software background template can be seen just enough to become a bit of noise


(4) Image is of poor quality (pixelated)
This is all too common. This happens when you take a low-rez jpeg (from a website, for example) and stretch it out. Oh, the humanity!


(5) Image is of poor quality & contains watermark
Even worse is to take a free comp from a photo website and stretch it out. This introduces distracting visual noise (and says you are either cheap, lazy, or both). If you cannot afford images (or do not have a camera, etc.), then it's better to use none at all.


(6) Image is stretched horizontally & distorted
This is all too common. This occurs when people stretch out an image to make it "fit."


(7) Image is stretched vertically & distorted
This becomes a distraction and looks odd. Are young Japanese students really 8-feet tall these days?


(8) Presenter tiles image
Just because the software lets you tile an image, does not mean you should use this feature. Now the background image has too much salience (even if it did not have watermarks).


(9) Clip art is chosen
Avoid off-the-shelf clip art (though your own sketches & drawings can be a refreshing change if used consistently throughout the visuals).


(10) Image is lame & has nothing to do with content
Not sure what two guys shaking hands in front of a globe has to do with the fertility rate in Japan. Yet even if we were talking about "international partnership" the image is still a cliché.


(11) Background image has too much salience (text hard to see)
Sometimes the image is actually a pretty good one but it just needs a bit of editing so that the text will pop out more. The slide on the left below is not horrible but the balance is off and the text does not pop out as much as it could. For the slide on the right below, the image is cropped for better balance, giving more space for the text to breath (and a transparent box is added to help the text pop out a bit more, though there are other ways to do this).

Poorexample.018   Poorexample.019

Text & images
Text within images is but one way to use text/data and images harmoniously. As always, much depends on the topic and the context. Images can be very powerful and effective if used with careful intention. The question is not do you have too many? or too few? but rather what's your intention? You can give a good presentation without any images at all, but if you do use images in slides, try to keep these eleven tips in mind.

There are clearly more than eleven ways to use images inappropriately, what are some of the ones that you have observed over the years? Would love to hear your stories.

Update: Here are a few different (though similar) ways to use images in a slide featuring a quote on my personal blog.