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)

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.

Creative video presentations

Here are a few video presentations to enjoy as you sip your morning cup of coffee Monday.

Italic This first video below will surely wake you up. This is a provocative treatment of layering text over dialog. Text appears as every word is spoken but done in a way to accent and emphasize and highlight. Obviously I'm not recommending you do something like this for every second of your presentation, but this little piece of work is a creative, inspiring text treatment that will give you ideas for working with your own text, images, and narration. It is worth repeating, however, that I never say we should do it like this presenter or that presenter. We have our own styles, our own needs, our own audiences. But if we want to improve our abilities in all aspects of presentation — including visual communication, which is under valued and misunderstood by the masses — then we've got to open our eyes and learn from the traditional, the classics, and the famous, as well as from the bleeding edge and the avant-garde.

Typography is a beautiful, powerful thing; too bad it is not really taught in schools much. See the treatment below or go here on
Jarratt Moody's site to see a QuickTime version in higher quality. I recommend watching it 3-4 times (or more) to really appreciate it. Short and sweet, creative, brilliant.(Clip contains adult themes and adult language; you've been warned.)

Pulp Fiction put to type 

Here's another text animation of the same Pulp Fiction dialog.

Below is another interesting treatment of text and images (sans narration) to tell a story. This has been popular on the net for a couple of weeks now. At first I did not appreciate it because the size (and speed) of the text was hard for me to catch (ah, the joys of being over 40). But after watching it several times I realized it is a brilliant simple online presentation which sort of explains "web 2.0" in a very novel way. Those who understand html a bit may especially enjoy the presentation.

"Web 2.0"

Speaking of html, here is a very interesting treatment of combining html tags within images, a way of (sort of) illustrating the tags visually. (H/T BoingBoing)

Is this the future? Watch this cool video on Multitouch from Jeff Han. (H/T Mac Rumors)

"Net Neutrality"
Below is an interesting video presentation on "Net Neutrality."

Save the Internet | Rock the Vote

Bullets and "delusional" briefing slides

Briefing_1 Another set of PowerPoint briefing slides was released to the public recently. The slides, which were obtained by the National Security Archive under the Freedom of Information Act, show what planners in 2002 projected might occur if the US invaded Iraq (get all slides in PDF). The slides contain "completely unrealistic assumptions about a post-Saddam Iraq..." according to National Security Archive Executive Director Thomas Blanton. These PowerPoint Slides were used to brief the White House and Donald Rumsfeld in 2002. (See CNN article and video report.)

These slides were likely never projected on a screen. PowerPoint decks like this are instead often printed and used in the US government and military as a kind of document. (See earlier posts related to slideumentation here, here, and here). Slides like these would not make for good visuals, but they do not make for good documents either. Even though the title of the slide (err, "page") below is "Key Planning Assumptions," the problem with presenting bullets like this is that important assumptions about each bullet point are left unstated and unexplained. Since printed slides like these are acting as de facto documents to be left behind and examined later, why not present the information with more written explanation and greater clarity in a properly written document which adheres to the principles of good writing and good document design?

Is the last bullet the most or least important?

In a document like the one above, what is the relationship of the bullets? Is it sequential from the first to the last in order? Or is it priority from the most important to the least important? (Or the other way around?) Or is it that the bullets are just related in some way. When most people look at such a long bullet list like the one above it's only natural to assume (whether consciously or not) that the last bullet may be of lesser importance than items higher up on list. In this case the last item, "Iraq regime has WMD capability," looks almost as if it were a parenthetical addition following the two-line acronym-filled bullet (number nine out of ten if you're counting) on "forces in Turkey" placed above it. WMDs, of course, would apparently move up the bulleted-list chain on future PowerPoint decks in Washington.

In the Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, Edward Tufte, citing the 1998 Harvard Business Review article ("Strategic Stories: How 3M is Reviewing Business Planning"), suggests that bulleted lists "can make us stupid" because bullet lists (1) are too generic, (2) they leave important relationships unspecified, and (3) key assumptions are left vague at best. These briefing slides seem like pretty good examples of the kind of "documents" we should avoid subjecting our audiences to.

Bullet outlines dilute thought, says, Tufte. Certainly if we are going to make a document to be left behind as a handout we have to do better than printing out slides of bulleted outlines. Says Tufte:

"Instead of showing a long sequence of tiny information fragments on slides, and instead of dumping those slides onto paper,report writers should have the courtesy to write a real report (which might also be handed out at a meeting) and address audiences as serious people. PP templates are a lazy and ridiculous way to format printed reports.(Emphasis mine.)      
             – Edward Tufte, The Conitive Style of PowerPoint

Above: POTUS = President of the United States. SECDEF = Secretary of Defense. The first bullet reads much differently if it is written "George Bush/Donald Rumsfeld directed effort; limited to a very small group."

I am not arguing with the content of the briefing slides, there are plenty of sites for that. I am saying that the way in which it was presented is something that we ourselves should avoid doing at all cost. Presenting paper documents like this — which violate rule after rule of good document design and good writing — will obfuscate our message, not clarify it.

You will need this: List of acronyms used in War Planning Slides (PDF).

Thanks to my buddy Les in Australia for the heads up on these slides.

Japanese "smoking manners" posters redux: simple graphics in a sea of clutter

While working on my proposal for the Presentation Zen book this weekend I spent some time going through all the archives of the PZ site. I came across this post I wrote back in September, 2005 on finding design inspiration from ads inside Japanese commuter trains. The posters from Japan Tobacco on the "Smokers' Style" campaign are still a very interesting example of mixing text, simple graphics and simple color to get a message across in a sea of clutter. Take some time to go through the posters. You can see each poster in a larger size here and even get a pdf version of each poster.

See many more posters from the series here.

I love the posters in a weird sort of way which I can't quite explain, and they were remarkable while they were displayed in public over a year ago. However, I don't think they did anything at all to improve the habits/manners of smokers in Japan.

NOTE: The "Smokers' Style" campaign was not an anti-smoking campaign; it was a "manners" campaign sponsored by (ahem) Japan Tobacco. If you are interested in the anti-smoking movement in Japan (such as it is), there is some info in English here. In 2002 the Health Promotion Law (Article 25) was enacted to protect people (employees and customers, etc.) from passive smoke in public buildings, restaurants, etc. The problem is establishments currently only have the "duty to endeavor to take necessary measures to protect users." Much more info about the Health Promotion Law and the protection of non-smokers in Japan here, and here in Japanese.

Film explores the omnipresent PowerPoint culture in search of its philosophical potential

A PZ reader yesterday pointed me to a very cool online video — a short film really — which many of you will surely enjoy. If you are interested in visual communication, PowerPoint/slides, and appreciate a good fix of irony, then you will love this creation from two very clever design students studying at the Linz Kunstuniversität, Clemens Kogler and Karo Szmit (narration by Andre Tschinder). Here's what Clemens says about the visual presentation called Le Grand Content:

Le Grand Content examines the omnipresent PowerPoint-culture in search for its philosophical potential. Intersections and diagrams are assembled to form a grand 'association-chain-massacre'. which challenges itself to answer all questions of the universe and some more. Of course, it totally fails this assignment, but in its failure it still manages to produce some magical nuance and shades between the great topics death, cable tv, emotions and hamsters.

Maybe I've just had too much coffee this morning (curse those ¥100 refills at Starbucks!), but I find this short four-minute presentation absolutely brilliant (and hilarious). Watch below on Youtube, or go here to see the video directly on Clemens' site.

Read more about Le Grand content here. You'll also see many stills of the motion graphics used in the presentation (sample below).


You will see loads of diagrams in the presentation which they say were inspired by another very cool blog site called Indexed by Jessica Hagy. The diagrams on Jennifer's site are not only amusing, but they may give you some ideas for presenting your own information in a more visual way. Definitely adding Indexed to my RSS feed.

Slideshare and the "slideumentation" of presentations

Presentation Obviously I am missing something. I'm the first to admit that sometimes I just don't get it, so perhaps some of you can help me out. I want to get it, I want to understand, but I am having a hard time understanding all the buzz around Slideshare. Slideshare, according to their website, "is a free service for sharing presentations and slideshows." Sounds promising, but the only problem with this service today is that you can not actually share a presentation. What they mean — and what they should say — is that you can share slides generated in PowerPoint/OpenOffice. The site is appropriately named, however, because you can indeed share basic slides (sans animation, etc.). They were smart not to call it "presentationshare" because presentations are not yet something you can see on this site. However, it is early days so perhaps this will turn into something quite useful in future, but for now this is a real head scratcher for me. I think my designer friend said it best when she gave me her reaction after spending time using the site and looking at the user content: "They only post slides, no Voice Over, so it un-does the entire crusade we're on regarding Zen-like presentation. It goes against the grain of how I think presentations are to be delivered." Is all the buzz just the result of getting mentioned on TechCrunch and having somebody say you're the YouTube of something, or is there something really powerful there that's going to actually help people communicate more effectively?

Slideshare has a solid base of user activity.

Are slides "a presentation"?
Judging from how people are talking about Slideshare and presentations, many people apparently still believe that slides *are* the presentation, or at least "close enough." The idea that PowerPoint slides can stand on their own and communicate a clear message is widely accepted it seems. Many users are using the term "PowerPoint" or "Slides" as if they were the same thing as a presentation. So, if you want to share a great presentation you made last week, will uploading the slides used in the talk to Slideshare really help you make an impact? Perhaps, but the problem is, if your visuals were any good for the live talk they probably won't do much good by themselves, and in fact they may obfuscate rather than clarify your story without your own verbal (and nonverbal) input. The site has some potential, but for now at least this service is perpetuating the presentation-as-slideument problem.

How much can you really glean from presentation visuals?
Slides on their own often tell us little in terms of the actual presentation content or how well the material was presented. For example, here is a deck (below) that I uploaded on my Slideshare account from Swiss designer and conceptual artist Markuz Wernli Saito's presentation last month. Just by looking at the slides, which you may find quite cluttered and unconventional, you could surmise that the live talk was not so great. But you'd be wrong. Markuz's talk was one of the best presentations I'd ever seen; it reminded me of something Dana Atchley used to do. The slides served more as a backdrop to his great narrative. Of course, he also used a lot of video along with his compelling storytelling ability, none of which you can get from just the slides alone.

Don't get me wrong, there are some cool features in Slideshare. SlideShare does indeed make it easy to upload PowerPoint slides and it is quite cool that you can embed clickable slides into your blog or view them in good quality on a large screen. But without the possibility to include audio (or video and animation) with slides I just do not see what all the excitement is about (yet). Now if Slideshare can make it easy for me to do something like this Flash presentation by Lawrence Lessig, then they are on to something. Nothing on Slideshare comes close to communicating a message as well as Lessig's Flash presentation below.


Here's another presentation by Lawrence Lessig on Google Book Search given in classic Lessig style but this time uploaded to YouTube.

The future according to the pros

Everyone agrees that it is often best to see a presentation live if we can, but what if we can not? What does the future of presentations and presentation design look like? No one knows presentation design and delivery better that the folks at Duarte Design. Here's what Nancy Duarte said recently about the future of presentations in general.

"We’re seeing much higher demand for presentations to be extended beyond the ballroom. Requests for media-rich presentations deployed on the web are increasing exponentially. Options to have slides accompanied with video, presenters filmed on chroma interacting with their slides (a la Mary Poppins), rich-content that’s navigable, video podcasts and sales tools where star presenters walk through how to speak to a file are all becoming standard. Bandwidth is pervasive, digital natives are accustomed to viewing content on the web and virtual tradeshows are growing in popularity."
                                                    — Nancy Duarte

Checkout this example below from Sure, this is not easy to put together, but for the viewer this it is a million times (perhaps I exaggerate?) more compelling than an online PowerPoint deck.


How best to share slides? (Is this even the right question?)

The CEO of Slideshare Rashmi Sinha wrote a very good article on her blog recently entitled The social life of PowerPoint where she provides a bit of background on her thinking with regards to Slideshare. Quoting Nina Wakeford, Dr. Sinha reminds us that presentations are "...actually much more about generating and sustaining engagement" than just getting people to focus on slides. She hits the nail on the head when she says a presentation (she calls it a "PowerPoint event") "...constitutes the speaker, the slides, audience present (and connected through audio conferencing), and any technological infrastructure. It occurs in a social context allowing for feedback, annotations, and comments from others." Dr. Sinha then asks the question "What should the social space for slide sharing look like?" This to me seems like the wrong question, however. Once again the focus is back on the PowerPoint slides. Perhaps the question should be "What should the social space for presentation sharing look like?" Slides embedded in a blog post may indeed have more supportive context that slides just passed along on their own, but I am looking for something more than just slides.

Dr. Sinha refers to PowerPoint slides as being documents (e.g., "PowerPoint documents") to be shared. But do slides-as-documents really meet the definition of what constitutes a proper "document"? If you look up "document" in any dictionary you will see that "proof" and "evidence" are often key elements of the definition of "document." Here's a definition from my old dusty Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary:

Document (n.) Something written or printed that furnishes conclusive information or evidence... (v.t.) To support by conclusive information or evidence...(emphasis mine).

Sure, definitions change and evolve, but should not a handout or other documents related to your live talk be able to stand alone with sufficient support? This can be difficult to provide clearly in a PowerPoint deck that is viewed without your own narrative. Slides were meant to provide a supportive role to the presenter, not the other way around. Most of the content now on Slideshare gives you "the gist" of the talk, but not much more (but perhaps that's the point).

Online presentations
Even the best click-through-my-deck experience would hardly compare to the actual presentation. What we need is the whole enchilada — we need to see and hear the person speaking in addition to seeing the presentation visuals. If that's not possible then a slideshow of sorts with narration and appropriate animation may work pretty well a la Lessig's Free Culture presentation. But clicking silently through slides while attempting to glean the message is not my idea of fun (or learning). In fact I hate it. If you're going to ask me to do all this reading of bullets, etc., why not just present the material in a proper downloadable document or in an easy to read online format with well-written text and embedded images, even videos? Is it a document or a presentation? If it is a presentation then I'd like to exercise my auditory channel as well as my visual channel. And squinting at 9pt type in the "Slide Transcript" window is not my idea of using my visual channel. (See
The Cognitive Load of PowerPoint: Q&A with Richard E. Mayer by Cliff Atkinson for more on what makes for an effective presentation).

TED presentations
Al_gore If I can't be there live, then I would would much rather see an on-line video of the presentation shot in such a way that I can see both the presenter and the visuals. TED does a great job of this (the three camera angles help a lot). Would you rather TED provide slides that the presenters used or would you rather kick back and watch and listen to these folks tell their stories and make their points. Sure, for those who see the video or the live talk access to their visuals may have some utility as they can remind the viewer again of the key points. But if we were not there and have no access to a video of the talk, surely a more detailed document with good graphic support would be more desirable. Below is one of my favorite TED presentations, this one by Sir Ken Robinson speaking on creativity, education, etc. (no slides were needed). I just love this 20-minute talk.

Who knows what the future will look like?
Again, it's early days so Slideshare may turnout to be a very useful service. I can already imagine designers, photographers, etc. using it today to show samples of their work. For this the embedded slides work well. For example, a couple of years ago I made this very "web 1.0" clickable slideshow
just to provide a taste of my seminars. Today I could use Slideshare for that and it would be a lot easier.


Much of the problem with Slideshare may simply be similar to the problems with PowerPoint (or Keynote). That is, it's not to tool so much as the inappropriate way it's used. I wish the folks at Slideshare well. If you have any examples of good implementations of their service please share those urls. I'd love to see the cool technology behind this service used in great ways.

Critical review of Slideshare by eelearning
What is Slideumentation?
Slideshare blog

It's hard to find any slide decks that can stand alone, but this one by John Moore is not bad. Of course, with John's narration I'm sure it's much better.

Inspiring visual presentations

Here are a couple of video presentations of a different sort. Both employ the use of strong visual elements, text, and audio; neither has narration. The first one is a great example of what can happen if you combine powerful, large images with text — text that is *in* the image not just near it. The second video presentation tells a very simple story with a positive message that I just love.

Appreciate what you have
You may have something similar to this in the past. This on-line slide presentation from Miniature Earth is a wonderful example which demonstrates the effectiveness of high-quality, full screen images combined with text. There is no narration with this, but you can imagine a speaker giving a talk with slides of this sort. Below are the links to the presentation (in three languages) and some sample slides. The slides are the same except for the language of the text.

English_1 Spanish  Portugese
Below are some sample slides from the online presentation.





There is a YouTube version with a John Lennon sound track for a different effect.

You can easily imagine how slides like these — powerful photographs with minimal text contained within the image — could be used to support a live talk as well. Perhaps the graphic below simulating a live talk will help you imagine yourself speaking in front of similar visuals. The key is not to narrate slides but rather to speak naturally to the audience. The slides appear naturally as well, in sync with your story.


Three years ago I used a very similar approach when I gave a presentation at United Nations University in Tokyo. Below are two sample slides from that 2003 talk. (Slides concern the issue of refugees in Afghanistan).

Un_1  Un_2

Free Hugs
The next presentation is of a very different sort. This presentation uses video, a bit of text, and a song to visually and emotionally tell a simple, memorable, and inspirational story. I absolutely love this music video presentation. Very raw. Very simple. Very effective. Enjoy. (YouTube link).

(UPDATE: A PZ reader points out that the myriad Free Hugs video uploads have been removed from YouTube. For the time being you can find many uploads of the video on Google, such as the one here. UPDATE 2: Embedded YouTube link above now working.)

Grande Presentazione Italiana

Marco_1 I received a note the other day from Marco MontemagnoBlogosfere CEO. Marco shared a recent 10-minute presentation he made in Italy on the evolution of blogging there. Marco told me he was inspired by the Presentation Zen website and mixed in the methods of Dick Hardt, Lawrence Lessig and even a little "Takahashi Method."  I'd say there is a little "Jobsian Method" in there as well. Even if you do not speak Italian, you will enjoy this presentation. This is a highly visual presentation with a good mix of images, simple (big) text, animation, and video. And Marco is obviously a personable figure. My friend and band mate Sebastiano ("Sebi") Mereu, an Italian living in Switzerland (currently in Japan), watched this presentation with me. Sebastiano said the presentation was exellent and could have been even better with 12-13 minutes rather than 10. "The information was great, the slides were informative and funny, and his voice was good. I have to admit, we Italians tend to speak fast without stopping anywhere, and Marco covered a lot of info in 10 minutes. Do it in 12 minutes with a little more variation in tempo and stress and it would have been even more awesome!" (See the video.)

For those who do not speak Italian
If you do not speak Italian, then you may want to read
these summary notes (pdf) from the talk. A big thank you to Sebi for jotting down these notes while listening to the presentation. There may be some typos or some small errors in there, but this is just to give you a better idea of Marco's verbal message. Obviously his vocal and visual you can pick up on pretty well.

(Speaking of Italy, an Italian business student of mine did a great presentation (in English) in the Apple Store a while back on the issue of color, design, and brand identity in Italy and Japan.)

Beppe Grillo (In English and Italian)
Marco Montemagno's blog

Urban life: Graphic design is everywhere

Design is everywhere. But if you live in a crowded urban environment, you are absolutely surrounded by it. Much of it may go unnoticed. Just paying attention to the ubiquitous samples of graphic design — for example posters, banners, billboards, etc. — could fill every waking moment of your day. This explains why we ignore most of it — we've all got stuff to do! Still, we can learn a lot by paying attention to our urban environment. Professional designers tend to be better than most people at noticing "the design" around them, but we all can improve our "design quotient" by simply opening our eyes and our minds and peer into the urban background that may have been no more than visual noise before.

By slowing down a bit we will be able to see all of the graphic design that fills our daily lives. Living in Japan is a designer's dream in many ways; there is just so much to see. Some of the "best" graphic design in the world is right here in Japan, and so is some of the "worst." Much can be learned by examining both extremes and all the bits in between. We can even learn something during the morning commute. I usually spend a couple of hours everyday on trains, all of which are filled with an ever-changing tapestry of banners, signs, and ad posters. All most every day I notice something particularly good (or bad).   
Every time I step outside the door there is more graphic design to witness. I like to view the posters and billboards I encounter as if they were slides on a screen supporting a narrative. Now slides and posters/banners are different things, but we can — more or less — examine them using many of the same basic graphic design fundamentals. I outlined some of these principles on my website here. I also suggest Design for Non-Designers by Robin Williams; Elements of Graphic Design by Alexander White (which I have recommended many times before); or Exploring The Elements of Design by Mark Thomas. And I love Japanese Graphics Now! by Wiedermann and Kozak. This book will give you insights in to how Japanese think about graphics. The book includes a fantastic DVD featuring interviews with Japanese designers and 600 pages of colorful, high-quality real graphic examples from Japan. Excellent book.

"The Japanese style sensitivity is based, among other things, on a respect for balance... But Japanese design is not only about balance and proportion, or even minimalism, which is probably the strongest image people abroad have about Japanese design. Sometimes graphic design gets a little more chaotic..."                                                                                                               — From Japanese Graphics Now!

On the train to Kobe
Sunday we took the train to Kobe across the bay from our home in central Osaka to attend a charity walkathon. As you can see from the photo below, I joined attorney Jiri Mestecky (guitar/vocal) and Swiss musician Mereu Sebastiano (bass) for a set of blues on stage to entertain the crowd at the event. Performing music on stage is one of my favorite kinds of "presentation." The sound was actually great as we were lucky to have the American producer Aaron Walker from Music Japan TV volunteering his time as stage manager and sound engineer for the event. Anyway, below are some photos of signs I found noteworthy on the train ride in to Kobe.

Performing for a charity event in Kobe.

While walking in the rain near the Kobe Harbor I spotted this café sign (above). Simple pictographs with minimal text, two colors in harmony with the "green" atmosphere of the park. The design communicates a clear, noticeable message from a distance: this is a café where you can get something to drink and something to eat. No big deal. No big café brand. But it works. Signs, like posters or even slides, must (1) be noticed and (2) must be understood.

The banner ad (above) is advertising an event for used and vintage Rolex watches in Osaka. My wife, who received her formal design education from Chico State in California, pointed out this wonderfully cluttered poster to me on the train. She felt the narrow type face made the ad very hard to read (and don't get her started about the oblique treatment to this "Gothic" kanji). Every nook and cranny is filled with some kind of text, logo or map. Good poster design (or slide design) will have a clear hierarchy and one clear focal point. By featuring two watches of the same size rather than just one large image, the focal point is less clear. I'm sure you could think of many ways to improve the design. This is not a very attractive ad (though this is not the ugliest I've seen), and I do not think it was a very effective one. On the other hand, it is quite possible that the designer is just trying to entertain the passenger and give him something to read (so long as he is close enough to read it). In that sense it may "work." It is also possible that the designer was just following orders from the client to "Put in more info! Really sell it big!" Sadly, the banner reminds me of a lot of PowerPoint slides in Japan.

If you buy a new Softbank phone (and a two-year subscription) you get a free iPod. Talk. Rock. Simple. It's so simple in fact that it sticks out, it gets noticed, and it's understood. (Though there is still a bit of mystery in this design, which can be an attractive thing.)

On some of the JR lines they have replaced some of the paper banners with monitors featuring static slides (ads) that fade in and out. Recently I have been creating visuals similar to the slide on the right. Minimal text with a full-bleed photograph.

Noise and elimination of the nonessential (Presentation Zen)

Font Myths: italic and bold styles
Dot-font: Ten Tips for Top Type

Typeface tips
Japanese gothic typeface
Mincho (Japanese "serif" fonts)