is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
Of course, I’ve been holding out hope for a Keynote upgrade for so long that the fact that it had been upgraded at all — that Apple had not, as I feared, decided to abandon it — already had me pretty worked up. It’s a little embarrassing how much of a geek I’ve become for presentation software. But even in its first, glaringly incomplete form, Keynote was head and shoulders above the market-dominating PowerPoint. For someone who had spent years wrestling with that program’s frustratingly imprecise and counter-intuitive design controls, the debut version of Keynote was a lot of fun to use — and fun makes all the difference.
Still Not Perfect
Still, I’m not so easily satisfied. Apple has made some definite improvements in the software, but there remain some stubbornly under-engineered feature areas. Among the former, there are nontrivial improvements to slide transitions and object animations (“builds”), increased control over table formatting, overhauled support for rich media like Flash, and the addition of fairly robust hyperlinking tools. All great stuff, and all of it makes Keynote still a much more powerful and compliant presentation platform than its Microsoft-authored rival.
And yet, there remains some awkward shortcomings, perhaps stubbornly exempted from review by Steve Jobs himself. One good example is the pasteboard. As a designer, I’m accustomed to being able to move items on and off the ‘live area’ of a design piece in the fashion of the QuarkXPress or Adobe Illustrator pasteboards. But Keynote restricts access to the top and left, pegging the live area right up against those edges. There’s no good reason for that that I’m aware of.
Similarly, Keynote retains some of the most elegant text rendering features in any software program; typography looks beautiful in this program. Obviously someone spent a good deal of time ensuring that, if nothing else, a completely unornamented slide in this program beats the pants off of a PowerPoint slide in the areas of kerning, leading and edge smoothing. Which makes it even odder that the program allows so few controls beyond the simple text box of bullet points — no multi-column support of any kind, no secondary text boxes, no text-flowing from box to box, and absolutely no hint of a style sheets-based system for centralization of text styles.
Simple vs. Complex
What’s apparent to me is that Keynote 2’s engineers could not reconcile the professional-grade typographic controls that their work suggests with Apple’s own, obsessive mandate to ‘keep it simple, stupid.’ In fact, this schizophrenia is at play all over this program; for every improvement, there is a hedging in evidence. Users can apply the aforementioned build animations, for instance, to create beautiful and complicated effects, and yet they must all be applied through an inordinately simplistic interface that seems to suppress truly low-level creative control.
Take a look at Keynote 2’s Inspector palette, too, for the clearest demonstration of this tension between elegant orchestration of UI elements and incremental feature-itis clutter. The Inspector is meant to serve as a central repository for nearly all design controls. It uses a tab-like metaphor to allow users to page through multiple tool sets inside of a single floating palette, and its design is meant to offer an antithetical alternative to the myriad of floating palettes crowding the interfaces of popular software from Microsoft, Adobe and Macromedia, among others.
In its first incarnation, the Inspector was a well-composed feature that, if somewhat limited in the powers of its constituent parts, was at least a model of elegance. Apple has obviously worked hard to preserve as much of that as possible in this new incarnation, but it’s apparent that accretion is setting in. The Inspector now includes ten tabs instead of just eight, resulting in a worryingly Redmond-like parade of unlabeled icons across the its header area. What’s more, five of those ten tool sets are divided into sub-areas, accessed by tab-like widgets of their own, for a total of fifteen different functional areas. To their credit, the architects have done a decent job ensure that everything still makes sense (mostly), but true simplicity has now been lost.
In the Future
I’m spending a lot of time harping on Keynote 2’s shortcomings. Actually, I have a longer list of low-level frustrations, as well, but my intent isn’t to cast aspersions on this version’s worthiness. It’s a good, solid program, and its deficiencies don’t detract from its superiority over its primary rival. All I mean to do is point out the fact that true elegance in software design is not only painfully difficult to achieve, but it’s even more painfully difficult to maintain as a product matures. As I mentioned, I’m thankful for these new features but they’ve only served to make me impatient for a new revision. As Keynote’s architects sit down to map out version 3, the question of whether the program is a professional tool geared towards power users or an elegant enabler of beginning users will become even more apparent.+