Thu 09 Nov
It’s no surprise that I spend less and less time these days executing design ideas in the customary graphic design applications like Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. Instead, I’m spending more and more time doing work about design, whether it’s on this weblog, in Microsoft Word or even just in a plain old email client. That’s management, I guess.
One of the programs I turn to with increasing frequency is Keynote, the presentation software half of Apple’s iWork ’06 suite (sometimes known as the company’s Microsoft Office-killer in waiting). Before joining The New York Times, I’d frequently use Keynote for sales and design presentations to clients. Now I use it all the time for internal presentations to our design group and to management, and of course I’m using it more and more for lectures and talks I’m doing in the outside world, too.
At first, I thought Keynote was little more than a glorified and beautified competitor to Microsoft’s PowerPoint. In time, though, I’ve come to realize it’s not just a better presentation-making tool for visual designers, but it’s something of an essential thinking tool for us too.
I’ve said it before, but in my experience the most common challenge facing talented designers, by far, is the ability to articulate the hows and whys behind the design they do, to make the complicated thought processes behind their work comprehensible to colleagues and clients. So much of what it takes to make a brilliant design reality lies in speaking to that design, in making people understand it.
The business world at large has this problem, too, but non-designers long ago settled on PowerPoint as a lingua franca for the visual delivery of concepts — or, at least, for the appearance of communication. There’s plenty about PowerPoint that’s inherently bad, but as I’ve said before, it can be a tool for effective communication when used properly.
For designers, though, there’s nothing quite as offensive as PowerPoint. As a tool for graphical communication, its horrific typographic fidelity and incompetent layout control run counter to every aesthetic value that a visual designer holds dear.
All of which is too bad, because as a medium that allows designers to enlist imagery into the conveyance of ideas, and that provides a framework for the assembly of those ideas into narratives, there’s a lot to like about the graphical power of a tool like PowerPoint. More so than Photoshop, Illustrator, QuarkXPress or Adobe InDesign, a presentation application is complementary to the traditional duty of most graphic designers: communication information by visually telling stories.
This is why Keynote is such a valuable tool. It rescues this concept of visual storytelling from PowerPoint’s tainted hands, and implements it within an environment that, almost shockingly, allows high-fidelity typographic and visual control over the elements of a story. In stark contrast to Microsoft’s product, Apple’s Keynote goes to enormous lengths to ensure that the visual part of a slideshow’s visual narratives are attractive and maintain an integrity of form that flatters the ideas it conveys. In effect, it makes the business slideshow a legitimate stomping ground for the kind of person who likes to deliver visuals with great specificity, and in the process it gives those folks opportunities to learn and grow that were previously too obscure for them.
I’ve seen this happen. At the NYTimes.com design group, we’ve started a regular feature in our weekly meetings where the designers present reports on conferences and lectures they’ve attended, or new ideas they’ve encountered in books and publications. At first, my main concern was simply that these designers should be actively seeking out this kind of knowledge, and I considered the report back to be a kind of happy byproduct of that process.
But I started to realize, as we adopted Keynote as a tool for making these presentations, that the designers produced visual narratives of far greater quality than I had anticipated. My original expectation was for slides full of bullets, with large images interspersed — competent and perhaps attractive but more or less perfunctory slideshows.
What I’ve seen instead is that even designers with little experience in public speaking have been able to produce lucid, coherent and engaging visual narratives that convey complex ideas in compelling forms, and they present those ideas with confidence and pride. This doesn’t turn primarily visual communicators into comfortably eloquent orators overnight, but within our group, it’s helped breed a conducive familiarity with the art of presentation that’s invaluable.
By and large, most designers learn to present work in trial-by-fire situations in front of real clients or stake-holders. By contrast, this approach, in which we’re regularly producing client-quality slideshows for the consumption of a friendly group of peers, is the kind of situation that I wished that I had had before I made my first forays in front of clients.
Admittedly, there’s only so far that even a Keynote presentation can take a designer in terms of professional growth. It’s not immune to many of the vagaries of PowerPoint: the tendency towards simplistic reduction, the emphasis on unsubtle concepts, and a slippery slope that can easily send most narratives into the realm of the really boring. Moreover, it does nothing to mask the real measure of a designer’s ideas: the quality of the work. In the end, it’s merely an adjunct tool; an important one, I’d argue, but admittedly not a central one. Still, for the fact that it makes a new kind of graphical communication possible, I couldn’t do without it.