Several hours into Edward Tufte‘s day-long seminar on visual communications in Chicago, he revealed what he really hates about our communications tools.
He briefly touched on the origin of the desktop with the Xerox Alto, a document-oriented computer. He said that users didn’t see applications – they saw lists of documents, and they chose which document to work with. The document held any kind of content – paragraphs, charts, pictures, etc – laid out as they would print out. He lamented that today, we don’t focus on documents – we go to “special rooms” to do each task. When we want to write text, we open Word. When we want charts, we open Excel. When we want to draw, we use Adobe Illustrator.
Tufte believes this application-oriented thinking has broken how we communicate. (Ironically, he thinks the app market in the iPhone/iPad are fixing this, but it’s quite the opposite. These systems sandbox each application’s files so that no app can open another app’s documents, even if they’re compatible.)
Since we’re conditioned to using PowerPoint to build presentations, we think of presentations as low-resolution, dribbled-out morsels of thought. Our six-bullet slides have turned into a children’s book:
- See Spot
- See Spot’s sales
- Spot’s sales are low
- Sell, Spot, sell
The Easy Fix: Newspaper-Style Delivery
Just ask the executives you’re presenting to – or better yet, just watch them. You’ll often catch them in their native habitats carrying around the newspaper’s sports page or financial page, poring over numbers.
They’re not getting paid to do that. In fact, it’s the other way around – they’re paying for the privilege. (Well, in less and less numbers these days.)
Tufte suggests that for really compelling presentations, you should throw away the slide deck format and think of PowerPoint as nothing more than a projector operating system. Build one strong high-resolution, ledger-size printout, hand it out to your attendees, and let their eyes and minds explore your beautiful design. Sentences, numbers, graphics, maps, and more – pile it all in, but do it artfully using the guidelines he gives in his design books. It’s a lot of work, but if you put enough effort into a reusable delivery format that covers a topic you need frequently, you can keep reusing that format for months or years.
This technique doesn’t work for everyone – if you have to keep rebuilding presentations from scratch every month to cover completely different topics, then you probably won’t be able to build up something this good in a short amount of time. Tufte has other tips that will help rescue your audience from slide deck hell, but the “supergraphic” concept won’t make for rapid presentation development.
I get it. I totally get it. In my mind, I immediately started designing an 11″ x 17″ handout for how to read and improve SQL Server execution plans. I knew exactly how I wanted it laid out, what I’d put on each side, and how I could reuse it for several presentations. I’d even use it when I show clients how to tune their database applications. I’d be rich and famous – okay, well, more rich and famous.
There’s Just Two Problems
I don’t have a tool that lay out something that complex, so now I have to go buy an expensive design/layout tool like Adobe Illustrator. I say the name of that product only because it’s the only one I know, so even just the act of researching it will take time. I glanced at the Wikipedia entry for vector graphics software and recoiled in horror. I need an easy button, especially as complex as the supergraphic will get. I can’t just take a screen capture of an execution plan on a 42″ monitor – I want to expand certain parts of it to make annotations easier and overlay parts that only show up when the mouse is hovered over it.
Even when I whip out my credit card and license something, I’m not done – I don’t have the skills to use it, nor the interest in spending the time to learn. I have to get trained or spend valuable time digging into what amounts to a drawing tool. I’m not an artist – I got into databases for a reason. Tufte suggests that you should have one artist/techie build a few key templates for you in Adobe Illustrator (or whatever), automate them so that you can change numbers in Excel or Illustrator, and then everything will be taken care of. The geek in me raises his eyebrows.
For solo consultants or people working in small departments, this expense of money and time might not make sense. Instead, I’m thinking about finding a local design consultant, writing out what I want, and entering into a business arrangement. For designs like my execution plan layout, it’s worth $500-$1,500 to me to have it done right – I’ll recoup that money in the first pre-conference session I do anyway. I can update it myself over time as I add more to my sessions.
For independent speakers, like DBAs and developers who are just getting started with community presentations, I don’t see an easy fix. (No, getting an open source design program, learning it, and building an 11×17 handout is not an easy fix.)
Tufte’s Seminar and Books: Still Worth It
The techniques he preaches aren’t easy, but boy, are they inspiring. In the one-day course I attended, he touched on subjects as diverse as the Gotti trial, the journal Nature, and the Music Animation Machine, shown here:
I highly recommend his work.
- Upcoming Edward Tufte seminars – the registration cost includes four of his books
- Edward Tufte’s books at Amazon
- Edward Tufte videos at YouTube – including videos of his landscape art
- Edward Tufte’s blog – in the strange form of a message board where he starts each message. Thankfully there’s an RSS feed, but of course he doesn’t include the content inside the feed. That would be too easy.