31 August 2014

How to Design Like Apple: The Picasso Way

Would you believe me if I say that a company is teaching its employees how to design beautiful products by showing them a bull? Yes, a bull, the male counterpart to a cow.
The company in question is Apple, the creature is Pablo Picasso’s The Bull. In 2008 Steve Jobs founded the Apple University, an internal program which would indoctrinate new hires into the company culture and teach them how Apple designs its products. Randy Nelson—from the animation studio Pixar—teaches the class “Communicating at Apple”. Rumors say that in one of his classes last year he showed the 11 lithographs that make up Picasso’s The Bull to teach employees how to communicate in a clear and concise way when designing 
But what does a bull have to do with design and communication? This work of art is a series of 11 lithographs of a bull that Picasso created in 1945. To start the series he drew a realistic bull, with a snout, a tail, hooves and so on. Then he went through a series of iterations where he kept subtracting details to a point where only the essential elements were visible. The last image “reduces the bull to a simple outline which is so carefully considered through the progressive development of each image, that it captures the absolute essence of the creature in as concise an image as possible”. If you are interested, you can read a detailed analysis of The Bull here.
If you think about it, this has a lot to do with product design and communication. Apple’s design is minimalistic and intuitive. It captures the absolute essence of an idea in as concise a product as possible. Take a simple remote control as an example. In this short clip from 2005, Steve Jobs compares the then brand new Apple remote to their competitors’. Back then, a common remote had over 40 buttons, the Apple’s remote had 6 (things have not changed much since). Why that? Well, because Apple decided that only three buttons were needed—a button to play and pause, a button to select what to watch, and another to go to the main menu. That is what I mean by "capturing the absolute essence of an idea in as concise a product as possible". Just as Picasso eliminates details to create a great work of art, Apple eliminates details to design a great product. 
And this approach doesn’t only hold true when it comes to making products intuitive, but also for communicating ideas effectively. When you pitch your idea to investors or your boss, you want to hack away from the unessential. You cannot give them 12 reasons why they should back your idea. As Picasso would do, give them 3 reasons. Three reasons why they should believe in what you believe. When thinking about your message, you too should go through a series of iterations and subtractions until you get to the absolute essence of it. Jony Ive describes the Apple’s design mindset as “A Thousand No’s for Every Yes”. And this applies to both design and communication.
You can also incorporate the Apple’s design ethos in your next presentation—you can make your next presentation the Picasso way. To do that, it is always good practice to simplify two main aspects of your work:
  • Content 
Do not be afraid to omit certain points. Remember, if everything is important, nothing is important. My suggestion is to write down an outline of what you want to communicate. Then go through a review process with the clear intention to reduce your message to the absolute essence. That means that you need to cut, cut and cut some more. Not only will your audience appreciate your ability to get rid of the unessential bits, you will also make it easier for them to understand your core points.
  • Design
Just as Picasso did with the bull, you can create a first version of your slides and then review them until you end up with visuals that are as clean and simple as possible. Just as Apple's engineers did with the remote control, strive for simplicity. If you have a doubt about whether to include a certain element or not, don't. It's better to err on the side of caution by including less rather than more. The following before/after slide is an example of data being displayed poorly and how you can improve the display. The slide on the left-hand side is too complicated. It includes unnecessary elements which don't add meaning to the data (e.g. slide number, date, map). On the right-hand side you have only the absolute essence of the data. The result is that your audience will be able to understand the message behind the data in a few seconds. 

If you want to think like a designer, strive for simplicity. Be open to what surrounds you, there are plenty of lessons you can learn by looking around with open eyes. Pay attention to billboards, TV ads, logos, websites and even bulls. You'll notice that the best works of art are often the simplest.

If you’d like to chat more about presentation design and communication, write a comment below or meet me over on Google+ or Twitter to jon the conversation right now!


Fast Company, How Apple uses Picasso to Teach Employees About Product Design 
The New York Times, Simplifying the Bull: How Picasso Helps to Teach Apple's Style 

1 August 2014

Never Use That Animation Again

In the presentations world, animations achieve resounding success. Many presenters seem to be unable to restrain their desire to animate as many elements as possible. After all, that page flip transition is too cool to resist. I believe many of the transition effects made available by presentation tools do very little to improve the audience experience. In this article you'll learn why you should keep animations as subtle as possible.

A transition is useful when it helps the listeners follow your message better. However, if not used properly animations can become a distraction and make your presentation look unprofessional. By no coincidence the world’s top speakers don’t use many transitions. Every time you are thinking about using an effect, ask yourself whether that effect will improve the understanding of your audience. It is a matter of priority
if used with the audience in mind, a transition effect can guide peoples’ eyes so that they will see first what you want them to see first. A transition should be thought of as any other element of your visuals (be it a text, an image, a colour, etc), so the same principle holds: anything should be there for good reason, not because it is cool.    

Say you have created a slide that shows a business process. You might have created a diagram displaying the different steps involved in that process. Well, this is one of the cases in which using a transition can be useful indeed. Instead of showing your audience the individual steps all at once—which would impair their ability to quickly understand your message—you could show one step at a time. By “building” the process step by step you will make it easier for your message to get across.

Let me give you an example. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins reveals what he calls the Hedgehog Concept: the companies which outperform their competitors are the ones which meet all of the following criteria:

  • They are deeply passionate about what they do
  • They focus on what they can the best in the world at
  • Their passion can make them a living 
He calls this Hedgehog concept because of the parable of the clever fox and the simple hedgehog. The fox keeps coming up with brilliant ideas to eat the hedgehog but the hedgehog never dies because he uses his best trick: rolling into a prickly ball. He does one thing and he does it well.
If you want to use Jim Collins’s concept during a presentation, you could create a slide like the one below. 

However, instead of showing the whole diagram at once, having the circles appear one at a time would make it easier for your audience to follow your message.

This is only one example where a transition effect becomes your friend. There are many others. As a rule of thumb, though, try to make sure that at any given time your slides display only what you are talking about in that moment. Use a transition only when it is the right time to make another point. This way you'll make sure your audience will not get distracted by irrelevant visual elements.

Remember, the fact that presentation tools let you choose among many animation effects doesn’t mean you have to use them all. You can make a great presentation even if you restrain yourself to using only one transition—fade—which lets objects fade in and out. You can certainly go further than that if you need, but only if it helps your listeners grasp your message more effectively. And if you animate several objects, try to stick to the same effect throughout your presentation in order to make it look consistent and professional. Like anything in design, simplicity is king.

Do you still think a 
page flip transition adds value to your message? 

IMAGE: Kevin N. Murphy via Flickr