Friday, 17 August 2007


Following encouragement from one of my colleagues, I've been spending some time looking into Edward Tufte's thoughts on the cognitive style of PowerPoint.

I wouldn't say I'm a fan of PowerPoint as such, but I have used it for ten years without really thinking about the alternatives. Tongue in cheek, my colleague is refusing to ever edit or save a PowerPoint file (and his boss agreed with this, so long as when he resigns he does so via the medium of PowerPoint - touché!). So I was interested to hear the arguments against this most ubiquitous of tools.

Tufte has some compelling arguments to make. His deconstruction is brutal;
PowerPoint's convenience for some presenters is costly to the content and the audience. These costs arise from the cognitive style characteristic of the standard default PowerPoint presentation; foreshortening of evidence and thought; low spacial resolution; an intensely hierarchical, single-path structure as the model for organising every type of content, breaking up narratives and data into slides and minimal fragments; rapid temporal sequencing of thin information rather than focused spacial analysis; conspicuous chartjunk and PowerPoint Phluff, branding of slides with logotypes, a preoccupation with format not content, incompetent designs for data graphics and tables, and a smirky commercialism that turns information into a sales pitch and presenters into marketeers.
Tufte gives examples which support his arguments, as you'd expect. The examples include the sharing of very complicated information, where PowerPoint is constrained by the amount of information you can fit on the screen. But what about when the information is less complex?

I'm reading Alan Cooper's "The Inmates Are Running The Asylum" at the moment, and there's an interesting comparison to be made. Tufte argues that we shouldn't design a presentation around PowerPoint's capabilities, while Cooper argues that we shouldn't design a web site based on the underlying programming. In both cases, one should establish the goals of the audience and then tailor the medium to suit. The software should adapt to meet our needs, not the other way around.

And that leads me to my conclusion. In the same way that it makes sense to build a website around the goals of the end user, it makes sense to build a presentation around the goals of the audience. It's wrong to leap to the conclusion that PowerPoint is the right tool...but that doesn't mean it can't be. The fact it is used so badly by so many people doesn't mean it must be used badly by everyone. It's just rarer than you'd think to find a situation where it is the right tool, and it then takes discipline to then use it properly. After all, the software practically enforces bad practice through it's design. Standard templates, anyone?

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