Graphic information specialist Edward Tufte (who I’ve talked about before) has some strong opinions about a favorite software program in the business world:
Imagine a widely used and expensive prescription drug that claimed to make us beautiful but didn’t. Instead the drug had frequent, serious side effects: making us stupid, degrading the quality and credibility of our communication, turning us into bores, wasting our colleagues’ time. These side effects, and the resulting unsatisfactory cost/benefit ratio, would rightly lead to a worldwide product recall.
Of course, he’s talking about Microsoft PowerPoint, and specifically the lure of its presentation templates, which he suggests take their user away from clarity and toward meaningless droning. He outlines this opinion in a great short publication The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (which he sells for $7…clever man), that I’m finally getting around to reading.
Tufte believes that the PowerPoint template leads our brains down a specific path of organizing and presenting information, and that it’s a path with dangerous tendencies, including:
….foreshortening of evidence and thought, low spatial resolution, a deeply hierarchical single-path structure as the model for organizing every type of content, breaking up narrative and data into slides and minimal fragments, rapid temporal sequencing of thin information rather than focused spatial analysis, conspicuous decoration and Phluff, a preoccupation with format not content, an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.
Because I work in a School of Business, PowerPoint is like bread and butter, a staple of everyday life (for those not on Atkins, that is). Almost every student presentation is now on PowerPoint, and most class lectures as well. The program and the style are also well entrenched in professional arts conferences and board rooms, and they’re oozing their way into arts organization staff meetings, as well.
Peter Norvig posted a wonderful parody of the mind- and speech-numbing characteristics of PowerPoint in his adaptation of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address into a PowerPoint slideshow. He shows how great opportunities for eloquence and clarity are lost to the tyranny of PowerPoint templates. And he drives it home with one of my favorite graphics ever, the PowerPoint equivalent of the opening lines: ‘Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation…’ (check it out).
There’s a larger point here, beyond PowerPoint. There are tons of potentially useful tools that arts organizations can steal and adapt from the for-profit world: ratios, budget templates, reporting standards, organizational structures, staff policies, and on and on. But merely taking them as we think they are, without a critical eye on how they work and how they might affect our thinking, can lead us to unaffordable distraction.
The irony of it all is that we deal in the business of metaphor, of vision, of clarity in thought and presentation, of critical exploration. Let’s apply those artful insights to all the tools we use, on stage and off.