PowerPoint Poison

Last week, I presented a two-day Interpretation By Design workshop in Jacksboro, Texas, with our mysterious and reclusive third author, die-hard Texas Rangers fan Lisa Brochu. I always love traveling to present IBD workshops, as it affords me the opportunity to partake of local fare. In Texas, I got to eat a meal at a real City Drug soda fountain counter, see a game at a new (to me) Major League Baseball stadium, and learn exactly what 106 degrees feels like. (On a serious note: The IBD workshop took place just before the wildfires started. Our thoughts and best wishes are with our friends in Texas.)

There’s a facial expression I’ve seen a lot in recent years. As a frequent traveler and a parent of young children, I am very familiar with the look of dismay that dawns on airplane passengers’ faces when they see me approaching their row with my kids in tow.

I have seen this same look on the faces of conference attendees when they walk into a session room to find a presenter firing up an LCD projector and checking the batteries on his laser pointer. It’s bad enough when you’re faced with one or two hours with a PowerPoint show, but two days would be torture. During our two-day workshop in Texas, Lisa and I used PowerPoint slides for less than half the time.

The first morning of the workshop was conducted entirely without PowerPoint, then we fired up the projector after lunch that first day. So imagine you’re a participant in a two-day workshop. It’s roughly 1,000 degrees outside in the hottest summer Texas has had since the earth was an unformed ball of magma, you’ve just eaten chicken-fried something with fries and a milkshake for lunch, and you walk into a room to find the presenter turning off the lights and firing up the ol’ projector. What would you think? You’d think, “Oh no. Those kids aren’t going to sit by me, are they?”

Here are some tips I follow to keep from crushing the souls of IBD workshop participants with PowerPoint:

Make it image-intensive. I project images, usually with no words, and I talk about those images. Sometimes a single slide generates 10 minutes of conversation, sometimes it’s 10 seconds. The image above is a slide from my PowerPoint that I use as a springboard to talk about how different people use grids in different ways. (Look how adorable my children are. Don’t you feel bad about rolling your eyes when you saw them get on the airplane?)

Get the words out. At the moment, there are 166 slides in my slide show. (It changes frequently.) Only 15 of those slides have words, and most of those are introducing new sections. There are fewer than 50 total words in my entire slide show. (For the record, the word count goes up when I’m presenting with Shea. He can’t tell you his name in fewer than 50 words.)

I know you’ve heard this before, but the worst thing you can do is project bullet points and then read those bullet points. The only reason I repeat this is because I keep going to presentations where presenters read bullet points. Whenever I see this, I feel like the content of each slide is new to the presenter and he’s discovering it along with his audience. When I do use words, as with the “Serif” slide above, I don’t use full sentences to be read aloud, but rather a single word or phrase to be discussed.

Drop the laser pointer. If you have so much going on in a slide that you need a laser pointer to show it, you have too much going on in that slide. The only reason to take a laser pointer to a presentation is if you’re presenting to a room full of cats and you think it would be fun for them to chase the little red dot.

Not only are laser pointers not helpful, they are actively distracting. I find that presenters with laser pointers use them way more than necessary, seemingly absent-mindedly, to fill dead space or as a nervous tic. It makes me wonder if the laser-pointer button is connected to a morphine drip, like with those lab rats in that experiment back in the 1970s.

Don’t use effects. Don’t. They’re distracting and everyone hates them and we’re not impressed that you applied a checkerboard transition to every single slide. And for the love of all that is sacred and good, don’t make your bullet points bounce into the frame from the side.

The only time you’ll see me using transitions, movement, and sound in a slide show is in the above slide, which I use to demonstrate that PowerPoint effects are the Comic Sans or clip art of the multimedia world.

Mix it up. No matter how good your slide show is, it’s not going to keep everyone engaged for the entire presentation. Be sure to mix in activities, conversation, and content that does not require projected images.

Finally, take everything I’ve said here with a grain of salt. I realize that every presentation is going to differ based on the content and purpose of that presentation, so it’s impossible to apply hard and fast rules to every one of them. The most important common thread of all of my suggestions above is that presenters should seize control of their content. PowerPoint is a useful tool, but used incorrectly, it can sap the energy out of your presentation. It should complement your personality, not replace it.

One final note: Thanks to Friend of IBD Matthew Greuel, who shared a link on our Facebook page to the Swiss Anti-PowerPoint Party (APPP), which fights against the “economic damage resulting from presentations using PowerPoint.”

Centering is Lazy

I am about to reveal something that will shock the world. Okay, maybe it will just shock my esteemed co-author Shea and a handful of people who have attended an Interpretation By Design workshop.

I don’t hate centered type.

VinesBorderWeddingInvitationLargeOn rare occasion, I actually center type myself (most recently in 2005). I acknowledge that there are schools of design theory in which carefully considered instances of centering are accepted and that talented professional designers do it all the time. Certain industries have created instantly recognizable visual vernaculars based on centered type, like wedding invitations and movie credits. (For the record, I designed my own wedding invitations and did not center the type.)

Here’s what I do hate: lazy graphic design decisions.

When I see a big, centered title at the top of a composition, it looks undesigned to me. In training sessions, I have described centered design elements as the Comic Sans or clip art of typographic layout. All of these—centering, Comic Sans, and clip art—are crutches that amateurs use because the computer makes them all too easy.

In our book and in training sessions, we demonstrate the use of a grid, a simple page composition mechanism devised by Swiss typographers in the mid-20th century. The grid creates order in compositions through alignment, both vertically and horizontally. (See a previous post about the grid here.) Unless you work with intricate details of letterspacing and point size, centered text rarely works within a grid, and without a grid, the work of amateur designers quickly becomes cluttered and inaccessible.

We ask that designers be able to defend their decisions about typefaces, colors, images, and other visual elements. This works with typographic alignment, too. So often, the choice to center type is a mere convenience, or to put it bluntly, lazy. It’s a default option in every word processor or page layout program out there, so of course, you see it everywhere. And centered type is symmetrical, which makes it that much more appealing to someone striving for balance in a composition. (Note: Symmetry is good on faces, boring in graphic design.)

Of course, there’s a time and place for everything, including centered type. So if you center your type, be able to explain why you did so, and as with any design decision, “Because it felt good” is not the right explanation. If you do choose to center type, and I still hope you won’t most of the time, here are some basic guidelines to follow:

  • Center only short blocks of type. The ragged alignment on the left and right make it hard for readers to follow long passages that are centered.
  • Do not center titles or headlines over flush-left/ragged right body text (also called left-justified). The uneven nature of this alignment will cause your centered headline to look off, even if it is not.
  • Never trust the computer to center your type for you. Because of optical effects created by the shapes of different letterforms, you’ll likely have to get into your compositions and tweak the position of each line of text to truly make it appear centered.

At the session Shea and I presented at the NAI National Workshop in Hartford last month, we asked groups of participants to choose colors and typefaces for an identity system for hypothetical organizations. One participant made the comment that the groups spent more time discussing the intricacies of colors and typefaces in that activity than they do on real projects.

Don’t let this happen to you in your design projects. Go ahead and center type, but have the discussion (even if it’s just with yourself) about why you’re doing so.

Streakers, Browsers, and Students: Sam Ham on Hierarchy

In late April, I presented a one-day Interpretation By Design workshop in Helena, Montana, during a training event sponsored by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, the Montana Historical Society, and NAI Region 7. Sam Ham, keynote speaker at the upcoming NAI National Workshop and author of Environmental Interpretation: A Practical Guide for People with Big Ideas and Small Budgets, delivered a plenary session the day before I presented, so I had the distinct disadvantage of having to follow his act.

f_sam_hamOn the other hand, the event afforded me the opportunity to have dinner with Sam. We mostly talked baseball and compared notes on how we spent the most recent royalty checks from our respective books (Sam bought a small island; I bought a six-pack of Fat Tire beer).

The conversation briefly veered to the subject of interpretation. Sam offered a unique take on the notion of hierarchy in interpretive design that I feel compelled to share.

We talk in Interpretation By Design about three levels of visual hierarchy, including primary (the attention grabber, the element viewers notice at first glance), secondary (supporting information for those who are intrigued by the primary information), and tertiary (the real nuts and bolts for those interested in pursuing the subject further).

The idea that our primary audience is often a very brief one is well established. In their book, Signs, Trails, and Wayside Exhibits, Michael Gross, Ron Zimmerman, and Jim Buchholz present the 3-30-3 rule to describe the amount of time visitors might spend on a composition at each level of hierarchy (3 seconds, 30 seconds, and 3 minutes, respectively).

Sam, in his unique and energetic fashion, talked about how visitors can be described as “streakers,” “browsers,” or “students.” “There is no ‘average’ visitor,” he said.

In our interpretive media, Sam said, we want to make sure that even the streakers (whom I envision as shifty looking visitors in sunglasses and overcoats) come away with an understanding of our themes as they breeze on by. This can be accomplished through engaging but simple image-word pairings. For example, Sam suggested an exhibit with an image of a grey wolf paired with the word “Endangered.” Obviously, additional information should be included for those who stop to learn more, but even those who don’t will come away with an understanding of the basic premise of the composition.

This forces us away from topic-based titles to titles that convey the essence of our themes. The topic-title “Grey Wolf” with an image of a grey wolf accomplishes very little for a brief audience. When we sit down to write a theme or headline or design an exhibit, it’s useful to think of Sam’s streakers. What will that visitor who barely even slows down to review your communication come away with? It forces us to be creative. (“When I wrote the book,” Sam said, “I never imagined that people would write boring themes.”)

Trying to steer the conversation back to baseball, I suggested pairing an image of the Philadelphia Phillies with the title, “World Champions.” Sam, a Seattle Mariners fan, was not familiar with the term.

Get to Know a Typeface! Times New Roman


At an Interpretation By Design workshop in Fort Collins last week, it seemed that the typeface Times New Roman kept coming up in conversation. This is largely because I kept saying things like, “Another funny thing about Times New Roman is that it was commissioned by a newspaper that wanted a unique typeface, and now it’s everywhere!”

Then I would laugh so hard that I would cry, and all the participants would sneak off to Pueblo Viejo for margaritas. Still, what an interesting typeface…

On October 3, 1932, the British newspaper The Times printed an issue with type set in a typeface designed specifically for that publication. Stanley Morison designed Times New Roman to conserve space and maximize legibility. It is more condensed than most serif typefaces, with an exaggerated amount of contrast between the thick strokes and thin strokes on each letterform.

The Times commissioned the creation of Times New Roman so that this standard bearer of a newspaper would have a unique typeface. Today, of course, it is available on just about every computer out there and can be found everywhere. It is sometimes used poorly (for instance, on flyers or as display type) and it is used appropriately in instances where legibility at a small size and economy of space are important (as in newsletters or brochures). There are countless variations of the typeface (some include “Times” in their names, like “Times Europa,” while others, like “Georgia,” are sneakier).

The point, of course, is that every typeface has a history and an intended purpose. If you’re choosing a typeface for an identity system or product, don’t just think about what it looks like. Think about what the talented individuals who designed your typeface had in mind for its use.