Is PowerPoint the Enemy?

In a recent tweet, Dan Cohen referred to the slide below as “the worst PowerPoint slide ever.”  The slide accompanied a recent New York Times story on poor use of PowerPoint by the US military.  The article is cleverly titled “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint,” a reference to the classic Pogo line.

The Times article received a lot of attention on Twitter and elsewhere.  There’s a lot I could say about poor PowerPoint design and cultures that foster such design.  (For instance, it seems the American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference has a lot of bad PowerPoint this year.)  However, I’m going to focus my comments on the slide above.  Here’s a larger version of the image for reference.

This is a fantastic PowerPoint slide–assuming that it is meant to convey in a very general sense “the complexity of American strategy in Afghanistan” as the Times article indicates.  Imagine starting a presentation with this slide as a way to “shock” your audience into seeing how complex the situation is, then, exploring those complexities and how the military might navigate them during the rest of your presentation.  In that context, the image works very well.

However, if this slide were used as a visual aid for helping an audience actually comprehend the complexities of war in Afghanistan, this slide would a complete disaster. There’s way too much going on in this image for it to work as a slide in PowerPoint.  Sure, the image designer has done a couple of useful things to help the viewer make sense of this concept map–the use of larger fonts for bigger ideas and the use of color to distinguish among different sets of ideas–but, for the most part, the image looks like a plate of spaghetti.

Part of the problem is that there is too much information in this image.  Edward Tufte likes to say that PowerPoint is a “low resolution” medium because a single PowerPoint slide can’t meaningfully convey a lot of complex information.  He would probably recommend a visualization like this one be given to audience members as a handout (preferably on 11″ x 14″ paper).

I would argue, however, that a PowerPoint slide can indeed meaningfully convey a lot of information, but only if that information is visualized in very effective ways.  It’s not exactly PowerPoint, but check out the visuals used by Hans Rosling in the TED talk embedded below.  Rosling has an incredible visualization of what is really five-dimensional data.  He uses animation for that fifth dimension (time), but even if you focus on a year, you have well-visualized complex data.

The problem with the Afghanistan image above is that the visualization methods used aren’t robust enough for the complexity of the information.  What about better visualization methods? Well, I’m not sure if any methods would meaningfully convey this particular set of information in a single image, given its complexity and qualitative nature.  Visualizing quantitative data is a bit easier since our minds readily map numeric quantities to visual elements (vertical positioning, horizontal positioning, size, color, and so on).

However, if you move away from treating this image as a single slide in a presentation, you open up some great options for helping audience members make sense of it.  When I saw this image, I immediately thought about how it could be used in Prezi, the “zooming presentation tool.”  And I wasn’t the only one!  Prezi’s blog featured a post sharing some ways to “de-spaghettize” this image.  Although I don’t think their “makeover” is as good as it could be, they make some great points about using position and size to better organize the ideas in this image.  (Adding a little white space would be nice, too!)

Prezi also points out that making sense of this image is tough work, and a good presenter would be wise to walk the audience through the image step-by-step.  Zooming around the image in Prezi works very well for this, but even a series of PowerPoint slides looking at different components of the concept map would help.

What about making sense of the complexities of the Afghanistan situation in a single image?  Might that be possible?  Back over on Twitter, my old office mate David Petersen asked the following:

@derekbruff No offense, but how is that worse than those “live drawings” from conferences that one guy does?

David’s referring to the graphic recording practiced by people like Peter Durand of Alphachimp Studios.  Here’s an example of his work from a recent workshop the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching hosted on visual thinking:

Looks a little crazy, huh?  However, that’s only because you weren’t in the workshop.  The primary purpose of graphic recordings, as I understand them, is to provide a summary of the discussion at an event for use by the people participating in the event.  During the discussion itself, participants can reference a mind map like the one above as it is being created, which helps organize and facilitate discussion.  And after the event, participants can use the mind map to help themselves remember aspects of the discussion.

A good graphic recorder could capture most or all of the ideas in the Afghanistan image in a mind map, but that mind map wouldn’t work as an introduction to a presentation much better than the military image we started with.  Were that mind map to be created as a graphic recording of a discussion among a group of military officials, then the mind map would be very useful to those officials.  And, to return to the Tufte approach, it could also be useful to others not in that discussion provided they were given a copy of the mind map they could study in detail.

What’s the upshot here?  No surprises–good presentation design and good visualization methods are important!

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