As our daily lives have become more complex, more and more people look to incorporate simplicity into their lives. But finding simplicity in the workplace or at school seems harder than ever. Professionally, people are terrified of being simple for fear of being labeled a lightweight. So “when in doubt, add more” is often the guiding principle.
There is a fundamental misunderstanding of simplicity and what it means to be simple today. Many people confuse simple, for example, with simplistic, simplism, or that which is dumbed down to the point of being deceptive or misleading. To some people, simple means a kind of oversimplification of an issue, which ignores complexities and creates obfuscation and outright falsehoods. Politicians are often guilty of this type of oversimplification. But this is not the kind of simplicity I am talking about. The kind of simplicity I mean does not come from a place of laziness or ignorance or trickery; rather, it comes from an intelligent desire for clarity that gets to the essence of an issue. This kind of clarity is not easy to achieve.
Simplicity—along with other precepts such as restraint and naturalness—are key ideas found in Zen and the Zen arts: arts such as the tea ceremony, haiku, ikebana, and sumi-e, which can take many years or, indeed, a lifetime to master. There is nothing easy about them, although when performed by a master, they may seem beautifully simple. It is difficult to give a definition of simplicity, but when I say we need to create messages and design visuals that are simple, I am not talking about taking shortcuts, ignoring complexities, or endorsing meaningless sound bites and shallow content. When I use the word simple (or simplicity), I am referring to the term as essentially synonymous with clarity, directness, subtlety, essentialness, and minimalism. Designers are constantly looking for the simplest solution to complex problems. The simple solutions are not necessarily easiest for them, but the results may end up being the easiest for the end user.
The best visuals are often ones designed with an eye toward simplicity. Yet this says nothing about the specifics of a visual presentation. That will depend on the content and context. For example, even the best visuals used in support of a presentation for one audience on, say, quantum mechanics may appear complicated and confusing to a different audience. Simplicity is often used as a means to greater clarity. However, simplicity can also be viewed as a consequence of our careful efforts to craft a story and create supporting visuals that focus on our audience’s needs in a clear and meaningful way.
Simplicity is an important design principle, but simplicity itself is not a panacea. Though people usually err on the side of making presentation slides more complicated than they need to be, it is indeed possible to be “too simple.” Simplicity is the goal, but to paraphrase Albert Einstein, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
Steve Jobs was one of the best presenters the world of business has ever seen. When Jobs spoke on stage, he was clear and to the point. While he was CEO of Apple, his presentations generated a lot of positive buzz and released a wave of viral communication about the presentation’s content. This happened in part because the content was easily grasped and remembered by both the media and regular customers. You can’t “spread the word” if you don’t get what the word is. Jobs’s public presentations provided both verbal and visual clarity.
Jobs was a student of Zen and was influenced early on by the Japanese aesthetic. “I have always found Buddhism, especially Japanese Zen Buddhism in particular, to be aesthetically sublime,” Jobs told biographer Walter Isaacson, author of the book Steve Jobs. “The most sublime thing I’ve ever seen are the gardens around Kyoto. I’m deeply moved by what that culture has produced, and it’s directly from Zen Buddhism.” Jobs’s personal style and approach to presentations certainly embodied an essence of simplicity and clarity that was remarkable and rare among CEOs—or leaders of any kind.
Part of his great clarity could be seen in the visuals that accompanied his talks. There was a kind of “Zen aesthetic” to his presentation visuals. In Jobs’s slides, you could see evidence of restraint, simplicity, and a powerful yet subtle use of empty space. Clutter and the nonessential were strictly forbidden.
Bill Gates often provided a lesson in contrast to Jobs’s visual simplicity on stage back in 2007 when Gates was still presenting for Microsoft and I was writing my Presentation Zen blog and working on the first edition of this book. Today, Bill Gates is much better and his presentation visuals for his TED talks and Gates Foundation presentations, for example, have been good.
However, the typical style of presentation that Gates became known for back in the day, was very similar to the style of slide presentation we still see too much of today—presentations with the kind of slides that hurt more than help with audience engagement. Problems with the visuals included too many elements on one slide, overuse of bullet points (including long lines of text), cheesy-looking images, too many colors, overused gradation techniques, weak visual communication priority, and an overall impression of clutter on screen.
Both Jobs and Gates used slides to complement their talks over the years. The biggest difference was that Jobs’s visuals were a big part of his talk. The visuals were a necessary component of the talk, not just ornamentation or notes to remind him what to say. Jobs used the slides to help him tell a story, and he interacted with them in a dynamic yet natural way, rarely turning his back on the audience. Jobs used the huge backlit screen behind him in the same spirit that a filmmaker uses the screen: to help tell a story. A filmmaker uses actors, visuals, and effects to convey his message. Jobs used visuals and his own words and natural presence to tell his story. Jobs’s slides always flowed smoothly with his talk.
In Bill Gates’s case, however, the slides were often not only of low aesthetic quality, they simply did not really help his narrative. Gates’s slides were often not entirely necessary; they were more of an ornament or a decoration off to the side. You don’t have to use slideware for every presentation, but if you do, the visuals should seem a part of the show, not something “over there” off to the side.
I have always admired Bill Gates for his work with education and the great work his foundation does today. But when it came to his public keynote presentations in his Microsoft days—and the visuals that accompanied those talks—there was much he could have learned about “presenting differently” from Steve Jobs. Gates’s keynotes were not terrible; they were just very average and unremarkable. His PowerPoint-driven style was normal and typical, and his presentations were largely forgettable as a result. Bill Gates is a remarkable man; his presentations should be remarkable too. Happily, he does think differently about his presentation visuals today, and his presentations are better as a result.
The moral of the story for the rest of us is this: If you are going to get up in front of a lot of people and say the design of your strategy matters or the design of your integrated software matters, then at the very least the visuals you use—right here and right now, at this moment, with this particular audience—also need to be the result of thoughtful design, not hurried decoration.
Zen itself is not concerned with judging this design to be good or that design to be bad. Still, we can look to some of the concepts in the Zen aesthetic to help us improve our own visuals with an eye toward simplicity.
A key tenet of the Zen aesthetic is kanso or simplicity. In the kanso concept, beauty and visual elegance are achieved by elimination and omission. Says artist, designer, and architect Dr. Koichi Kawana, “Simplicity means the achievement of maximum effect with minimum means.” When you examine your visuals, then, can you say that you are getting the maximum impact with a minimum of graphic elements, for example? Take a moment to consider the slides that you have used in the past—did they embody the spirit of kanso?
The aesthetic concept of naturalness or shizen “prohibits the use of elaborate designs and over refinement,” according to Dr. Kawana. Restraint is a beautiful thing. The best musicians, for example, know never to overplay but instead to be forever mindful of the other musicians and find their own space within the music and the moment they are sharing. Graphic designers show restraint by including only what is necessary to communicate the particular message for the particular audience. Restraint is hard. Complication and elaboration are easy…and common. The suggestive mode of expression is a key Zen aesthetic. Dr. Kawana, commenting on the design of traditional Japanese gardens, says, “The designer must adhere to the concept of miegakure since Japanese believe that in expressing the whole, the interest of the viewer is lost.”
Shibumi is a principle that can be applied to many aspects of life. Concerning visual communication and graphic design, shibumi represents elegant simplicity and articulate brevity, an understated elegance. In Wabi-Sabi Style (Gibbs Smith Publishers), authors James and Sandra Crowley comment on the Japanese deep appreciation of beauty in this sense:
“Their (Japanese) conceptualization relegates elaborate ornamentation and vivid color usage to the bottom of the taste levels…excess requires no real thought or creativity. The highest level of taste moves beyond the usage of brilliant colors and heavy ornamentation to a simple and subdued refinement that is the beauty of shibumi, which represents the ultimate in good taste through conscious reserve. This is the original ‘less is more’ concept. Less color—subdued and elegant usage of color, less clutter.”
In the world of slide presentations, you do not always need to visually spell everything out. You do not need to pound every detail into the head of each member of your audience either visually or verbally. Instead, the combination of your words, along with the visual images you project, should motivate the viewer and arouse his imagination, helping him to empathize with your idea and visualize it beyond what is visible in the ephemeral PowerPoint slide before him. The Zen aesthetic values include (but are not limited to) the following:
Suggestion (rather than literal description)
Naturalness (i.e., nothing artificial or forced)
Empty space (or negative space)
Eliminating the nonessential
All of these principles can be applied to slide design, Web design, and so on.
I first learned of wabi-sabi while studying sado (Japanese tea ceremony) many years ago in the Shimokita Hanto of Aomori, a rural part of northern Japan—a perfect place to experience traditional Japanese values and concepts. While studying sado, I began to appreciate the aesthetic simplicity of the ritual, an art that is an expression of fundamental Zen principles such as purity, tranquility, a respect for nature, and the desire to live in harmony with it.
The ideals of wabi-sabi come from Japan, and the origins are based on keen observations of nature. Wabi means “poverty” or lacking material wealth and all its possessions yet, at the same time, feeling free from dependence on worldly things, including social status. There is an inward feeling of something higher. Sabi means “loneliness” or “solitude,” the feeling you might have while walking alone on a deserted beach deep in contemplation. These two concepts come together to give us an appreciation for the grace and beauty of a scene or a work of art while remaining fully aware of its ephemerality and impermanence.
Some Westerners may be familiar with the term wabi-sabi through wabi-sabi-inspired design, a kind of earthy interior design that is balanced, organic, free from clutter and chaos, and somehow quite beautiful in its simple presentation, never appearing ostentatious or decorated.
The ideals of wabi-sabi are most applicable to disciplines such as architecture, interior design, and the fine arts. But we can apply the principles to the art of digital storytelling (presentations with AV support or integration) as well. Wabi-sabi embraces the “less is more” idea that is often talked about—and often ignored—in today’s society. Visuals created with a sense of wabi-sabi are never accidental, arbitrary, cluttered, or busy. They may be beautiful, perhaps, but never superfluous or decorative. They will be harmonious and balanced, whether symmetrical or asymmetrical. The elimination of distraction and noise can certainly help begin to make visuals with greater clarity.
A Zen garden is also a lesson in simplicity: open space without ornamentation, a few rocks carefully selected and placed, raked gravel. Beautiful. Simple. The Zen garden is very different from many gardens in the West that are absolutely filled with beauty, so much beauty, in fact, that we miss much of it. Presentations are a bit like this. Sometimes, we’re presented with so much visual and auditory stimulation in such a short time that we end up understanding very little and remembering even less. We witnessed a large quantity of stuff, but is it not the quality of the evidence and the experience that matters, rather than, say, merely the amount of data or the length of the experience?
Living in Japan all these years, I have had many chances to experience the Zen aesthetic, either while visiting a garden, practicing zazen (meditation) in a Kyoto temple, or even while having a traditional Japanese meal out with friends. I am convinced a visual approach that embraces the aesthetic concepts of simplicity and the removal of the nonessential can have practical applications in our professional lives and can lead ultimately to a more enlightened design. I do not suggest you judge a presentation visual the same way you do a work of art. But understanding the essence of Zen simplicity can have practical applications in your creative work, including the design of your presentation visuals.
The “Fish Story”
After I presented for a large tech company in Silicon Valley, I received this note below from an engineer in the audience. This little story (which can also be found in Western sources going back to the 19th century) illustrates the idea of reducing the nonessential.
Dear Garr,…When you talked about reducing the text on the slides, I was reminded of a story from my childhood in India. If I remember it right, it goes like this:
When Vijay opened his store, he put up a sign that said: “We Sell Fresh Fish Here.” His father stopped by and said that the word “We” suggests an emphasis on the seller rather than the customer and is really not needed. So the sign was changed to “Fresh Fish Sold Here.”
His brother came by and suggested that the word “here” could be done away with—it was superfluous. Vijay agreed and changed the sign to “Fresh Fish Sold.”
Next, his sister came along and said the sign should just say “Fresh Fish.” Clearly, it is being sold; what else could you be doing?
Later, his neighbor stopped by to congratulate him. Then he mentioned that all passers-by could easily tell that the fish was really fresh. Mentioning the word fresh actually made it sound defensive as though there was room for doubt about the freshness. Now the sign just read: “FISH.”
As Vijay was walking back to his shop after a break he noticed that one could identify the fish from its smell from very far, at a distance from which one could barely read the sign. He knew there was no need for the word “FISH.”
By stripping down an image to essential “meaning,” an artist can amplify that meaning…
The Japanese Zen arts teach us that it is possible to express great beauty and convey powerful messages through simplification. Zen may not verbalize “amplification through simplification,” but you can see this idea everywhere in the Zen arts. There is a style of Japanese painting called the “one-corner” style, for example, which goes back some 800 years and is derived from the concepts of wabi and sabi. Paintings in this style are very simple and contain much empty space. You may have a painting depicting a large ocean scene and empty sky, for example. In the corner, there is a small, old fishing canoe, hardly visible. It’s the smallness and placement of the canoe that give vastness to the ocean and evoke a feeling of calm and an empathy for the aloneness the fisherman faces. Such visuals have few elements yet can be profoundly evocative.
We can learn about simplicity as it relates to presentation visuals from unexpected places, including—and this may surprise you—the art of comics. And the best place to learn this is from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (Harper Paperbacks). In this popular book, McCloud repeatedly touches on the idea of amplification through simplification. McCloud says cartooning is a form of amplification through simplification because the abstract images in comics are not so much the elimination of detail as they are an effort to focus on specific details.
A key feature of many comics is their visual simplicity. Yet as McCloud reminds us, while casting an eye toward the wonderful world of Japanese comics, that a simple style does not mean the story is necessarily simple. Many people (outside Japan at least) prejudge comics by their simple lines and forms as being necessarily simplistic and base, perhaps suitable for children but not something that could possibly have depth and intelligence. Surely such a simple style found in comics cannot be illustrating a complex story, they say. However, if you visit local coffee shops around Tokyo University—Japan’s most elite university—you will see stacks and stacks of comics (manga) on the shelves. There is nothing childish about the genre of comics in Japan at all; in fact, you’ll find brainiacs in all shapes and sizes reading comics here and, indeed, around the world.
Inspired by the One-Corner Style
Ma Yuan (1160–1225) was a Chinese painter from the Song Dynasty whose style would later influence several great Japanese artists such as Tensho Shubun (1403–1450) and Sesshu Toyo (1420–1506). Below is an example of Ma Yuan’s “one-corner” style called Walking on a Mountain Path in Spring (the original can be seen in the National Palace Museum, Taipei). In the one-corner style, elements are often placed to the side or in a corner. Notice how Ma Yuan’s subjects are placed starting from the bottom-left corner. This leaves much of the painting empty and suggestive, stimulating the imagination of the viewer. The elements gently guide your eye up to the Chinese script in the right corner, a poem by Emperor Ningzong.
The point is not that we are attempting to create anything as magnificent as a Ma Yuan painting with our simple presentation visuals. However, we can appreciate the way the artists of the past used space and asymmetrical balance to bring in the viewer and to create images that can be understood easily and are also interesting to the eye. The opposite page features four unrelated slides using photos that I took myself. Although the photos do not follow a “one-corner” style outright, you can see that there are small elements in the corner of each of these slides.
The situation today is that most people have not been exposed to the idea of making a visual stronger by stripping it down to its essence. Less equals less in most people’s eyes. If we apply this visual illiteracy to the world of presentations, you can imagine the frustration a young, enlightened professional must feel when her boss looks over her presentation visuals the day before her big presentation and says, “No good. Too simple. You haven’t said anything with these slides! Where are your bullet points!? Where’s the company logo!? You’re wasting space—put some data in there!” She tries to explain that the slides are not the presentation but that she is the presentation and that the points will be coming from her mouth. She tries to explain that the slides contain a delicate balance of text and images and data designed to play a supportive yet powerful role in helping amplify her message. She attempts to remind her boss that they also have strong, detailed documentation for the client and that slides and documents are not the same. But her boss will have none of it. The boss is not happy until the PowerPoint deck looks like normal PowerPoints, you know, the kind used by serious people.
We must do what we can to be firm, however, and remain open to the idea of amplification through simplification as much as possible. I am not suggesting you become an artist or that you should draw your own images. Rather, I am suggesting that you can learn a lot about how to present images and words together by exploring the so-called “low art” of comics. In fact, although presentation visuals were surely the farthest thing from McCloud’s mind when he wrote Understanding Comics, we can learn far more about effective communication for the conceptual age from it than we can from books on slide software. For example, early in the book, McCloud builds a definition of comics and finally arrives at this, a definition he admits is not written in stone:
“Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”
It is easy to imagine, with some tweaking, how this could be applied to other storytelling media and presentation contexts as well. We do not have a good definition for “live presentation with slides,” but a great presentation may indeed contain slides that are comprised of “juxtaposed pictorial and other images.” And great presentations certainly have elements of sequence designed to “convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response.”
At the end of the book, McCloud gives us some simple, Zen-like wisdom. He’s talking about writers, artists, and the art of comics, but this is good advice to live by no matter where our creative talents may lie. “All that’s needed,” he says, “...is the desire to be heard. The will to learn. And the ability to see.”
When you get right down to it, it always comes back to desire, a willingness to learn, and the ability to really see. Many of us have the desire; it’s the learning and seeing that’s the hard part. McCloud says that in order for us to understand comics, we need to “clear our minds of all preconceived notions about comics. Only by starting from scratch can we discover the full range of possibilities comics offer.” The same can be said for presentation design. Only by approaching presentations and presentation design with a completely open mind can we see the options before us. It is just a matter of seeing.
(I recommend you watch Scott McCloud’s TED talk on ted.com called “The Visual Magic of Comics.”)
The Incomparable Carl Sagan: Scientist, Presenter
Carl Sagan (1934–96) was a famous and brilliant astronomer who was also a great speaker and presenter. I was a huge fan of Carl Sagan back in the 1980s and learned a lot from his famous TV series, Cosmos. Sagan always spoke of complex issues in ways that were easy to understand and made you excited about science. Although he was a science communicator—in addition to being a scientist—he did not dumb down the issues, but instead had an engaging and unique way of putting an issue in context, illuminating and illustrating his points in a way that listeners could comprehend. He was a scientist-presenter who cared about being clear and about being understood. When Carl Sagan used statistics he usually followed the numbers with an illustration or comparison to put them in context. If, for example, you were to watch Episode 13 of the original Cosmos, “Who Speaks for Earth?”, you’d see Sagan using descriptive language to create the visuals in your head—a technique that is sometimes even more effective than the most graphic image or animation. How much is 20 tons of TNT, Sagan asks? Enough for a single bomb to destroy an entire block, he answers. All the bombs used in World War II, Sagan says, amounted to two megatons of TNT or the equivalent of a hundred thousand “blockbuster” bombs. So now we can visualize the explosive, deadly destruction that took place in the six years of the Second World War. Two megatons of TNT is no longer an abstraction; we can see in our minds its devastating impact. Then Sagan drops a bomb of his own: “Today, two megatons is the equivalent of a single thermonuclear bomb—one bomb with the destructive force of the Second World War.” That’s a horrifying but vivid image.
It’s always hard to see the forest for the trees. Good presenters will ask us to step back and examine the problem from another perspective to see what is true and what is not. In the final episode of Cosmos, Sagan asks, “How would we explain all this to a dispassionate extraterrestrial observer? What account would we give of our stewardship of the planet Earth?” By asking the viewer to look at the problem from the point of view of an extraterrestrial (i.e., a dispassionate outside observer) the problem is freed from abstractions such as nation, political party, religion, etc. Sagan says: “From the extraterrestrial perspective, our global civilization is clearly on the edge of failure and the most important task it faces is preserving the lives and well-being of its citizens and the future habitability of the planet.” Sagan explains there is a new consciousness emerging that sees the Earth as a single organism and understands that an organism at war with itself is doomed. We know who speaks for the nations. But, Sagan asks, but who speaks for the Earth? The answer, of course, is, we do. In the final episode of Cosmos, Sagan makes the concluding comment: “Our loyalties are to the species and to the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive and flourish is owed not just to ourselves, but also to that cosmos ancient and vast from which we spring!”
Usually, we think about time in terms of “How much can I save?” Time is a constraint for us, but what if, when planning a presentation, we took the notion of saving time and looked at it from the point of view of our audience instead of our own personal desire to do things more quickly? What if it wasn’t just about our time, but it was about their time? When I am in the audience, I appreciate it very much when I am in the presence of a speaker who is engaged, has done his homework, has prepared compelling visuals that add rather than bore, and generally makes me happy I have attended. What I hate more than anything—and I know you do too—is the feeling I get when I realize I am at the beginning of a wasted hour ahead of me.
Often, the approach I advocate may require more time, not less, for you to prepare, but the time you are saving for your audience can be huge. Again, is it always about saving time for ourselves? Isn’t it important to save time for others? When I save time for myself, I am pleased. But when I save time for my audience—by not wasting their time and instead by sharing something important with them—I feel inspired, energized, and rewarded.
I can save time on the front end, but I may waste more time for others on the back end. For example, if I give a completely worthless, one-hour, death-by-PowerPoint presentation to an audience of 200, that equals 200 hours of wasted time. But if I put in the time, say, 20 to 25 hours or more of planning and designing the message and the media, then I can give the world 200 hours of a worthwhile, memorable experience.
Software companies advertise time-saving features, which may help us believe we have saved time to complete a task such as preparing a presentation and simplified our workday. But if time is not saved for the audience—if the audience wastes its time because we didn’t prepare well, design the visuals well, or perform well—then what does it matter that we saved an hour or two in preparing our slides? Doing things in less time sometimes does indeed feel simpler, but if it results in wasted time and wasted opportunities later, it is hardly simple.
Simplicity is powerful and leads to greater clarity, yet it is neither simple nor easy to achieve.
It’s not about making it easy for us, it’s about making things easy for them.
Simplicity can be obtained through the careful reduction of the nonessential.
As you design slides, in addition to simplicity, keep the following concepts in mind: subtlety, balance, and understated elegance.
Good designs have plenty of empty space. Think “subtract” not “add.”
Although simplicity is the goal, it is possible to be too simple. Your job is to find the balance most appropriate to your situation.