PowerPointed:: 28 MAY 01

There are great tracts of corporate America where to appear at a meeting without PowerPoint would be unwelcome and vaguely pretentious, like wearing no shoes. In darkened rooms at industrial plants and ad agencies, at sales pitches and conferences, this is how people are communicating: no paragraphs, no pronouns – the world condensed into into a few upbeat slides, with seven or so words on a line, seven or so lines on a slide.
‘[W]e’ve got highly paid people sitting there formatting slides – spending hours formatting slides – because it’s more fun to do that than to concentrate on what you’re going to say. It would be much more efficient to offload that work onto someone who could do it in a tenth of the time, and be paid less. Millions of executives around the world are sitting there going, “Arial? Times Roman? Twenty-four point? Eighteen point?”’

—two chunks of the rather good “Absolute PowerPoint” (‘the software that tells you what to think’) by Ian Parker in the May 28 New Yorker (unavailable at the laughingstock website).

It’s not really accurate to suggest, as the article does, that the wholesale reduction of large ideas to bullet points was born with PowerPoint – I’ll nudge Mr Parker toward fifty thousand US Government short films of the midcentury – but the tone of the piece is pitch-perfect. Powerpoint, via its templates and wizards (i.e., the creepily-named AutoContent), does impose a Franklin DayRunner-ish logic on most anything thrown at it. And it’s nearly impossible, despite the myriad design features, to produce presentations that don’t assault the eye: lively is one thing, forceful and lucid is quite another.

The quote about twit executives wasting time animating pie charts bolsters something I’m always yammering about: communication design software, particularly PowerPoint, is invariably clogged up with features that actually reduce the likelihood that the message conveyed – no matter how terse – will be understood; that put the container in the way of the content. It also shines a bright light on the problems that follow when everyone publishes, but no one knows how.

Don’t misread me: I champion and encourage universal access to publishing – heaven knows we can’t leave it in the hands of the designers – but if professional ‘communicators’ paused long enough to learn twenty or thirty ideals of editorial design, of lessons learned long ago, and ignore the stupid gewgaws dreamt up entirely to justify charging for the latest upgrade, perhaps we’d all learn a lot more, maybe even get something done once in awhile.


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