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October 2009

Presentación Zen: Por fin! La versión en español ya está disponible

I'm happy to announce that the Presentation Zen book is finally available in Spanish. The book follows the same design and layout as the original English version. Spanish was the most requested translation so we're delighted that it is finally on sale. I'm not sure exactly where you can get the book in your area, but here is info on the Pearson Educación website.

Above: A photo of the front and back covers.

The Presentation Zen DVD on Amazon and elsewhere also includes Spanish (and Japanese and English) subtitles. Thanks to everyone at Pearson for their hard work and to everyone across the globe who kept requesting a Spanish translation. Muchas gracias!

Muchas gracias a todos los hispanohablantes de todo el mundo.

The art of control without controlling, doing without doing

Itay_ted As a leader — in business, education, or design — how much control do you need? How much can you give up? Is control even the right word? Is it possible to lead without leading? Here is a great TED talk that will get you thinking that has applications for leaders of all types. Former conductor Itay Talgam today runs workshops to help people develop a musician's sense of collaboration, and a conductor's sense of leadership. In this excellent talk at TED Oxford, Itay touches on the art of creating perfect harmony without saying a word by showing the unique styles of six great 20th-century conductors. I point to this presentation for the content, but the delivery and smooth use of video clips to illustrate his points is a good example of how to connect with an audience and get them to think differently.

Questions to consider
  • Can you lead with less control or a different kind of control?
  • Must "control" be a zero-sum game?
  • Is there joy in leading by helping other people tell their own stories?
  • Is leadership only about technique or is it more about meaning?
  • Are we using team members, employees, or students as instruments for our own ends or are they viewed as partners, where their development is a central consideration for us?
  • Is not leadership also about creating the processes, structure, and conditions that allow team members to perform autonomously? Can you still be "in control" and let people be/feel free? Can the structure create the conditions for that freedom?
The best line of the talk: Apparently when Strauss was 30, says Itay Talgam, he wrote the "10 commandments for conductors." My favorite commandment? "Never look at the trombones; it only encourages them." As someone who played trombone in the orchestra all through my school years, I greatly enjoyed that line.


Benjamin Zander on music and passion

Tokonoma and the art of the focal point

Tokonoma1 Every good design needs a focal point. This goes for the design of interior living spaces as well. In many Western homes, the mantel place in the living room is often a focal point from which other interior design elements are added in a more or less symmetrical fashion. In traditional Japanese homes or modern homes containing a washitsu (Japanese-style room) it is the Tokonoma (床の間) that serves as the subtle focal point for the interior. The tokonoma (lit: floor/bed + space) is a raised alcove in which Japanese art such as a hanging scroll (Kakemono) or a flower arrangement is displayed. A custom of having this built-in recessed space in a Japanese room goes back more than 500 years, and while the tokonoma has lost much of its early religious nature, it's still very much an honored part of the Japanese room. Standing inside the tokonoma is not allowed. When you gather in a traditional Japanese room, the most honored guest would be seated in front of the tokonoma. However, in another example of traditional Japanese refinement and humility, it's said that the guest should be seated facing away from the tokonoma so that you do not appear to be showing off the artistic content of the tokonoma. In the West, the mantel often has a large picture or other artifact hanging above it that remains for years or as long as the residents occupy the home. By contrast, the art work in the tokonoma changes throughout the year based on the season or the occasion.

Empty "small" can seem "big"
Washitsu2 Emptiness can create spaciousness and a feeling of openness even in relatively small areas. Regardless of the size of the washitsu, because Japanese did not use furniture but sat directly on the warm and comfortable tatami mats (historically at least), the rooms had a feeling of spaciousness. This is because there was virtually nothing else in the room to distract your attention. It is the emptiness or exclusion of nonessential decoration or other items that allows even the smallest rooms to feel more spacious and guide the eye to the focal point of the room. Because the room is not cluttered with myriad furnishings, souvenirs, and other possessions, the eye can more easily notice and then linger on the art contained in the tokonoma. A bare washitsu, built with natural elements, is a design with a close connection to nature. This harmonious balance with nature, and the garden just outside the walls of the room, is reflected in the seasonal contents of the Tokonoma itself. In a way, then, the spaciousness of the room extends beyond the room itself to the vastness of the outside world.

Above: Traditional-style tea rooms (chashitsu) can come in many sizes but are typically 4.5 tatami mats in size. The materials to build the tea room (or a tea house) are simple and rustic in the wabi style. The tokonoma in a Japanese tea room is especially situated so that it is the focal point of the room. Because you enter the tea room directly across from the Tokonoma in most cases, the artistic content is the first thing in the room you will notice. As Okakura Kakuzo notes in The Book of Tea, as guests enter quietly into the tea room, they first make "obeisance to the picture or flower arrangement on the tokonoma." The walls of a chashitsu, and traditional Japanese-style rooms in general, are kept bare and simple.

Screens, Scrolls, and Tokonoma
In this video clip below you can view a good explanation of the traditional Japanese interior and see how screens, scrolls, and the tokonoma fit with the Japanese aesthetic concerning space. For example, the folding screen served a clear function for dividing larger spaces, creating private areas, and even blocking out drafts in the winter, but the screens also became objects of art and beauty in themselves. In large Japanese rooms, the screens could also be used to form a beautiful focal point and form a beautiful backdrop for the occasion.

Lessons from the Tokonoma
A few general lessons you can apply to presentation design and other forms of design as well.
  • A powerful focal point need not be overbearing or fancy.
  • Emptiness creates spaciousness which assists the viewer in discovering the focal point.
  • Subtle contrast can more easily create interest when there are fewer elements rather than many.
  • Exclusion of the decorative and non-essential from other areas allows a focal point to be created in a composition using only simple elements (or a single element).
  • An intentionally created area of contrast brings the viewer in to the primary focal point and guides the eye to the secondary focal point, the third, and so on without confusion.
  • Eschew symmetry in favor of asymmetrical balance where possible.

Samples: focal point in graphics
Below are a few before/after slides. The "after" slides are the kind used in support of live talks
where all of the words are coming from the speaker. The slides on the left show a rather arbitrary placement of elements and have poor hierarchy and dominance. There is contrast in the slides on the left but it is not clear why some things stick out and others do not. What are we suppose to look at first, second, third? The eye will tend to wander. The slides on the right have better design priority or focal point. First removing extraneous information from the slides on the left helped in the creation of better clarity for the slides on the right. The samples here are very simple, but the general idea can be applied to more complex slides as well. Just have it clear in your mind where you want people to go first (second, third, etc.) when the visual is shown.

Focalpoint.001  Focalpoint.002

Focalpoint.003  Focalpoint.004

Focalpoint.005  Focalpoint.006

Personal note: Mixing traditional with modern
Early this year, with the help of a great architect, my wife and I designed our new house in the Nara countryside. We'll soon leave the big city for a slower-paced and I hope more reflective life in the country. Although the house would be considered a more modern design, it is a design that includes lots of open space and natural light and includes a washitsu with a tokonoma. Below left you can see the floor plan for the washitsu; the highlighted part is the tokonoma. The picture below right shows the location of the washitsu and tokonoma (arrow) in the house which is still under construction. The elevated room is open to the rest of the house, but the screens can slide shut for privacy when the room is used to house a guest. Though it is a multi-purpose washitsu, we will indeed invite over local Tea Masters from time to time to experience chado or "the way of tea" (tea ceremony). Except for a work of art or two in the tokonoma, the room will remain always empty and free from clutter.

Washitsu  House

Sumi-e, color, and the art of less

Sumie_kathleen_scott A fundamental design and life lesson from the Zen arts is to never use more when less will do. This goes for the use of color as well. The problem with most slide presentations is not that visuals contain too few colors, it's that they contain too many. A common practice is to use several different vivid hues (colors) in presentation slides when even a single hue in various shades or tints would have been more effective. The ancient art of Japanese brush painting called Sumi-e (墨絵) provides a powerful lesson concerning the use of color, communication, and restraints. Sumi-e was brought to Japan from China and is an art deeply rooted in Zen, embodying many of the tenets of the Zen aesthetic including simplicity and the idea of maximum effect with minimum means. In Sumi-e, great works are achieved with only black ink on washi (rice paper) or silk scroll. Using the black ink to achieve several variations of tones, we learn that powerful visual messages can be created with a single "color" in the form of different shades and tints. (The painting on the right is by Kathleen Scott, a talented Sumi-e instructor at Kansai Gaidai University in Japan.)

Sumi_brushIn Sumi-e, much is expressed through a combination of empty space and monochromatic strokes that range from the extremely light gray to black. Yet a red seal is placed in the composition when the work is complete in such a way that it contributes to the balance of the picture. Red, of course (it's more of a reddish "flesh tone" called shuniku), would pop out in a sea of black, gray, and white empty space and draw much attention to itself. But in the Sumi-e paintings the stamp is small and stands out in a far more harmonious way that serves to anchor the flow of the composition. Sometimes the stamp is meant to be the first thing that attracts the eye; in other works it may be created to serve more as the end point. Either way the lesson is clear: few colors carefully selected and positioned can be more effective than many colors indiscriminately placed.

The value of light-dark
Enso2 Nōtan (濃淡) is a Japanese concept describing the use of light and dark aspects of a design in a balanced and harmonious way. Whether you use many hues or just shades of gray in your own design work, the effective creation of light and dark elements in a design is fundamental to its clarity. Imagine, for example, a colorful painting that still maintains much of its clarity even in very low light conditions. It was the careful use of light and dark in the composition that contributes to the picture's interest and expressiveness even when the hues become nearly imperceptible. Using colors can be very effective for establishing emphasis or setting a mood, but it's the careful use of the visual's light and dark elements that will contribute most to the visual's clarity. Although the sumi (ink) is black, it is possible through technique to create many shades of gray or many "colors." This use of color and arrangement of light and dark is effective for creating depth and movement in a composition. The lesson from Sumi-e regarding color is simple: more can be achieved with less, not more. 

Expressing the essence with less
InkThe objective of Sumi-e is not to recreate the subject to look perfectly like the original, but to capture its essence — that is, to express its essence. This is achieved not with more but with less. Therefore, useless details are omitted and every brush stroke contains meaning and purpose. The minimum amount of strokes or lines are used to convey meaning. Each brush stroke is meaningful and has a purpose. There is no dabbling or going back to make corrections. The ink is indelible and you have one chance to get it right. The strokes themselves, then, are said to serve as a good metaphor for life itself. That is, there is no moment except for this moment. You can't go back, there is only now.

Sumi-e is another example of an art that embodies the very essence of simplicity and yet is in practice complex and takes a lifetime to master. This aspect of the art of Sumi-e too is a metaphor for life: One never truly masters the art of life or achieves perfection. The pursuit of perfection is the journey, and the journey is what it's all about.

8 key lessons from Sumi-e

  1. More can be expressed with less.
  2. Never use more (color) when less will do.
  3. Omit useless details to expose the essence.
  4. Careful use of light-dark is important for creating clarity and contrast.
  5. Use color with a clear purpose and informed intention.
  6. Clear contrast, visual suggestion, and subtlety can exist harmoniously in one composition.
  7. In all things: balance, clarity, harmony, simplicity.
  8. What looks easy is hard (but worth it).

Applying the lessons to the common slide
Below are two different designs of the same simple bar chart. If we remove the hues by changing the slides to grayscale we can then see the luminance values and the contrast — or lack of contrast — between light and dark areas of the slide.

ABOVE The first "colorful" slide is not only a bit unpleasant to look at, it's not clear what part of the chart is emphasized. If we change it to grayscale, the bars for USA and UK look almost the same. For those with some form of colorblindness, it may be unclear which bar is being emphasized, if any. In such a simple chart this may not be a big problem, but for more complex charts this lack of clarity will be an issue. There is a cool website called Vischeck that can check your images or webpage to see how they might appear for people with various forms of CVD (color vision deficiency). Test your images here.

Simple_slide_color   Simple_slide_gray
ABOVE The orange used in the first slide clearly emphasizes the top bar. When turned to grayscale, the difference in value still makes it clear which bar was emphasized (although the bottom three have more contrast, the top bar is clearly different). Again, with such a simple chart, it may not seem like the biggest thing in the world to get right. But it all matters. And for more complex information graphics, it is essential that we use light and dark effectively.

As color expert Maureen Stone has said: "Get it right in black and white." That is, pay attention to the luminance or value in a graphic, not just the hues (colors). "Remember," says Maureen  "most ideas can be well-presented in black and white. Add color carefully and for a purpose, and your results will be both beautiful and functional." I highly recommend Maureen's wonderfully detailed book called A Field Guide to Digital Color. This is the definitive book on digital color.

Checkout Master Sumi-e artist and jazz musician Drue Kataoka's website and blog. Impressive person. I always love jazz musicians who see the connection between Zen and jazz (or the other way around).
Go here on Google to see myriad videos on how to do Sumi-e.