A Japanese proverb says that “if beauty can be seen in a flower, the bouquet is meaningless.” This should be the basic principle of design. Starting from what is fundamental, everything that we add must contribute with something, it must have a utility. Otherwise, we will be misleading the user and messing up our work. This is the case for presentations design.

Design is not like painting, in which, starting from a blank canvas, we add strokes to create a shape. Design is (or should be) like sculpture, in which we start with a block of stone to which the leftover parts are removed until it only remains the matter needed to represent a concept.

But beware. By removing all that is superfluous, we must not fall into a functionalist reductionism. The utility can be interpreted in various ways. Thus, under Okakura Kakuzo (1906), the man “entered the realm of art when he perceived the subtle use of the useless”, as a flower.

The futility that must be fought is that one that “gives the impression of mere vulgar display of riches” (Kakuzo) or, in the case of design, a mere vulgar display of skills, techniques and resources.

Presentations design is, precisely, one of the fields where the useless display of techniques is most common.

The popularization of PowerPoint allowed the use (and abuse) of transitions, animations and other animated effects. Each slide change brought striking effects that, paradoxically, mimicked slides manually changed. Each transition was a surprise, an oh! from the audience. The text and images were also associated with multiple and funny animations.

Interestingly, the less notion of design and information visualization the speaker had, more animated effects the presentation included. If the goal of design is “getting someone from A to B with as few problems as possible” (Gavin Elliott), what do the animations provide?

Design is to act on something to make its use or comprehension easier and more intuitive. The animation effects are just the opposite. They don’t ease the transmission of the message, but stand between the speaker and the audience by adding noise. They are nothing but a useless exhibition of techniques that shows the speaker up.

Fortunately, thanks to Garr Reynolds, Nancy Duarte and other experts in presentations, the use of animations has been declining gradually to be limited to those areas where it really makes sense, such as videos.

And when we thought that the artifices had been finally banished, Prezi appeared.

Prezi is a stylish, online version of PowerPoint animations. Watching a presentation made with Prezi resembles to climbing onto a roller coaster, in which the audience gets dizzy with zooms and jumps. What do these transitions bring? How do they contribute to the understanding of the message?

Using Prezi to make a presentation seems an attempt to impress others with our abilities, to show that we are at the forefront of the latest technology. Frankly, I cannot imagine Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone with Prezi. Let’s get back to basics: the message.

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References

Okakura Kakuzo (1906) The Book of Tea

Gavin Elliott (Sept 12, 2012) “Big question: are decorative design elements going out of style?“, .net

Image: Jennifer Tetlow – Stone Sculpture Journal