Training Keynote Thinkers

KeynoteIt’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.

The Problem of Speaking

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.

The Anti-Design Tool

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.

Ideas Into Pictures Into Words

I’ve seen this happen. At the 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.

Talking It Out

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.

  1. person by person, i’ve been convincing the small group in my organization to convert to mac.

    we’re a think-tank that looks at social policy and urban health issues. one of our staff is constantly doing presentations. he recently took my advice and bought a mac.

    he’s getting a far better response to presentations he’s making in Keynote than he ever was in powerpoint. it’s not that he’s got a fancy design…. he just has a little more punch this way.

    i would estimate that most people are using around 10% of what Powerpoint can actually do. What’s great about keynote is that it maximizes the usability of the 10% that people care about.

  2. What is it about Keynote that the designers are exploiting to produce “lucid, coherent and engaging visual narratives that convey complex ideas in compelling forms”?

    It sounds like there are at least two parts that are somehow working together here:
    * the building of the narrative – I’m guessing this is somehow exploiting the outliner for the content
    * presenting that narrative – surely we are talking more about aesthetically pleasing build effects, no?

    Please elaborate on how Keynote is helping the process.

    As a user of Keynote, which I quite like, I am obviously not exploiting it, though I do admire some of the uses I have seen it put (e.g. Al Gore, but oddly, not Steve Jobs).



  3. I’m seeing Keynote more and more in the sciences. It is coming more from the direction of Biologists and Biochemists. It used to be that scientists who used Keynote (it is of course, quite noticeable) had a subconscious strike against them, because presentations looked so nice, that there must be a lack of content. Somewhat paradoxically, fluff covering for content in a PowerPoint presentation is obvious, but it is not in Keynote, which I think is what made people uncomfortable. While this may seem to make it easier to cover garbage in a talk, I prefer to see it as a way to make design and presentation more acceptable in the sciences.

    Good post.

  4. Ditto Rob Russell. I’m as receptive an audience as you’ll get – a jaded PPT user. But you haven’t explained what it is that makes Keynote superior to PowerPoint. Tell me and I’ll switch.

  5. Rob and Richard: Fair enough. I probably wasn’t as clear as I could have been in my post. The idea is that designers, who put such a value on typographic and layout control, shy away from PowerPoint because it’s such an unreliable tool for creating good visuals.

    My premise isn’t necessarily that Keynote allows for the creation of superior narratives, but rather that Keynote allows designers to clear a hurdle of control that PowerPoint does not.

    Which is to say, Keynote makes it possible to create well-designed slideshows, which therefore makes it possible for designers to create slideshows that they might not otherwise.

    That said, I do think that Keynote creates superior narratives if only because the visuals are so much more attractive and impactful. A slideshow created by PowerPoint will, with no change to the basic substance of the content other than formatting, typography and native charts, will easily beat any slideshow made in PowerPoint, hands down.

    I’ve seen it over and over again, where audiences are impressed by a Keynote presentation simply on the basis of its superior visuals. That may not be a substantive improvement, but in the world of business, any way you can get your audience on your side is good.

  6. Dammit, I was hoping for liberation from bullets, tabs, reveals and other tyrannies. Although it may be lazy to blame PowerPoint, they’re a pain and ultimately an inhibition.

    By the way, I think your NYT is comfortably the most elegant paper on the web.

  7. What does Keynote uniquely offer? Typography and compositing. That’s all… but that’s enough.

    (1) Typography. Typography matters (sometimes and to some people, a lot! E.g. this guy.) Having crisply anti-aliased text with ligatures and decent auto-kerning (and ok controls for manual kerning, baseline, etc.) makes something easy to read. Easy to read = better signal-to-noise for your message. (Think about the difference between local TV commercials and national ones… the content might be similar, but it’s easier to get hooked by a national commercial because there are fewer rough edges to distract the viewer.) Look at screenshots of Keynote vs PowerPoint and you’ll see the difference.

    The higher-level typography controls (how text boxes work, inter-paragraph-spacing, etc.) are also very easy and relatively powerful.

    (2) Compositing. Keynote loves PDFs and raster art with alpha channels. It’s easy to composite things from many, many different sources together seamlessly. Which is good, because the keynote-native art creation tools are a bit weak. Though, this isn’t a problem for me since I prefer to use the right tool for any given task, and not have a jack-of-all-trades tool like PowerPoint.

    Thus, any given slide I present might have technical illustrations pasted from Illustrator, simple illustrations from OmniGraffle, raster images and overlays-with-alpha from Photoshop, and typeset equations from LaTeX-It, plus text and arrows from Keynote. And they all play nicely and composite seamlessly. It’s much harder to integrate art from other sources (especially PDF-based sources) in PowerPoint, and have everything still look nice. Also, scaling things in Keynote is a joy — the vector art of course looks perfect, and the antialiasing is done extremely well for raster images.

    If you treat Keynote as a typography-and-compositing program — sort of a page-layout program for slides — then you’ll see the difference. It’s the difference between laying out pages in Word and in InDesign: one tool can be coaxed into creating beautiful work, and one tool designed from the ground up to facilitate beautiful work.

  8. I’m intrigued by the idea that Keynote can be “something of an essential thinking tool”. I think you’re right. There are though two separate dimensions that need to be thought about: 1) we as designers or creative thinkers need to evolve our practice if the full potential of Keynote as a “thinking tool” is to be realised; and 2) the audience needs to understand that they are no longer the passive recipients of yet another “slideshow”, but something much more dynamic and involved, an audience of participants.

  9. I create presentation slides in InDesign, because of its excellent type controls and strong support for styles and hierarchical master pages.

    Then I export the slides as a PDF and bring that PDF into Keynote, because Keynote lets me reorganize slides more readily and because of the magnificently smooth transitions. Keynote’s transitions are visibly cleaner than Powerpoint’s or Acrobat’s. Simple crossfades become beautiful. I can’t even look at an Acrobat fade anymore.

    Here’s a free tool that turns a multipage PDF into a Keynote presentation:

  10. I’m a physicist and appreciate the pdf-friendlines of Keynote for plots and LaTeX-based equations. I also teach a lot of undergraduate non-scientists. There, Keynote allows me to be visual and hopefully engaging. But, there’s a contradiction in the use of Keynote (not powerpoint): content vs visual impact.

    I hate having slides which are chock-full of content (read “bullets”), but I’m in the content-business and unfortunately, such slides make great off-line handouts for the students. At the same time, slides full of content are not right for class presentations…there my words should contain the content, and the slides should be an accompaniment, not my script. So, I want slides to be visual and economical and there’s the rub: the slides are then not useful as off-line handouts. So, I need to provide a separate document for handouts…meaning I have to essentially prepare two separate documents and that’s an enormous amount of work.

    Powerpoint does not have that problem: the notes/handouts part of Powerpoint is just great. Separate masters, control over fonts, etc., efficient and workable printing. All the necessary features. Keynote’s “notes” are incredibly…dumb. They are really for the speaker at the podium and not for handouts. I’ve just found them to be hopelessly unrully with respect to font and paragraph defaults and often will not print in their entirety. Just a mess.

    So, Keynote has this unfortunate built-in contradiction. It’s very frustrating to use in a setting requiring both considerable content, and full use of the visual possibilities that Keynote allows. I sincerely wish that Apple would fix this in a typically Apple-way and make the handout part of Keynote as clever, appealing and user-friendly as the presentation part of Keynote. I’m tired of importing the one-of Keynote presentation into Powerpoint in order to make appropriate handouts!

  11. Keynote may be a great solution for you giving a presentation on your Mac, but in our business we create proposals and actual deliverables in Powerpoint which we could never do in Keynote because it limits to Mac users, conversion to Quicktime/PDFs is unrealistic because often people need to make changes, and the conversion to Keynote to PPT is not giving you much any way.

    So in our PC world, Keynote is just a novelty because of it’s limitations. I love designing in Keynote though, but until I can be confident someone can open my presentation on a PC, I will rarely use it, if at all.

    Also I hate Keynote’s presentation mode. It is impossible to preview a slide other than the one before and after, so skipping around in presentation mode in Keynote is a drawback.

  12. I am a right brain visual person and feel like I always need my huge whiteboard or my A3 size paper to display and organise my ideas visually.

    This week I have started to use PPT (because our firm is Microsoft oriented) to empty my mind onto the screen, organise my thinking and share it.

    I’d rather use keynote, but my point is I think these tools are great for illustrating concepts, screen shots, comments, processes etc. Totally agree with this article.

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