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Zen is not for value judgments

A blog called “Presentation Zen” has generated a lot of buzz for a couple of posts that smugly satisfy what an audience wants to believe: Bill Gates and Visual Complexity and Gates, Jobs, and the Zen Aesthetic. Readers feel righteous in the easy digs at Microsoft’s busy PowerPoint slides, particularly when compared to Jobs’ spare presentations.

And when I first saw those posts, I thought, “Yeah! Spareness! Simplicity! Whoo!” Bet then I wondered, “Um, isn’t Bill Gates worth a gajillion dollars? Isn’t Microsoft an exceedingly successful company? Should we maybe look at this a little differently?”

And I wonder: Maybe Microsoft is giving people what they want. Obviously, it’s all about context. And Microsoft’s contexts are very different from Apple’s. Steve Jobs never really explains anything. He simply shows products. He pretty much just gives demos. Bill Gates, in the presentations critiqued by those posts, is trying to explain something… And explain something that contains a fair bit of complexity. And Bill’s audience is likely quite different… Bill is trying to communicate to developers, who are wondering about the ramifications of Microsoft’s decisions on their livelihood.

Steve Jobs pretty much just preaches to the choir (and press).

I would argue that Jobs’ approach, while perhaps more aesthetically appealing, actually demonstrates a fair amount of condescension. “Don’t worry your pretty little heads… Uncle Apple has it all figured out for you.” Gates’ approach, while clumsier, is also more revealing… It provides opportunities for the audience to understand the machinations, and how those might affect them.

I mean, Bill Gates didn’t get to where he is for doing this kind of stuff poorly.

I’ve given many presentations where the feedback was, “more bullet points.” Depending on what you’re talking about, people want those details spelled out… They don’t want shiny imagery. They want something that they can take home with them and recall what was discussed. They wants something they can *use*.

So, I think the challenge is to dig beneath the superficial qualities of these presentations and try to understand what is going on here. I’m not trying to defend Microsoft, but I don’t know if we should be so quick to laud Apple. Apple does everything they can to tightly control The Message, to feed you exactly what they want you to know. Kind of like, I don’t know, the Bush Administration (and I make that comparison knowingly. I’m very frustrated by how Apple communicates (or mostly, doesn’t) to the outside world.)

Though, yeah, I honestly don’t understand how any designers thought the clouds was good imagery..

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  1. I learned two things about the Zen aesthetic recently:
    1. The origin of what we Americans think of as the Zen aesthetic was in Kyoto, among people who couldn’t afford the elaborate Chinese-based aesthetic that had dominated.
    2. Japanese houses traditionally had something called a kura, a storehouse separate from the house. This from Alex Kerr’s excellent book Lost Japan. Kerr says that many Japanese houses and offices are now full of clutter.

    The point?
    1. It’s easy to denigrate what the other person has or does when you can’t have or do it yourself.
    2. Spareness works when there’s someplace ELSE for the needed detail.

    I’m not making a comment on Gates and Jobs, just pointing out the way that ideas get simplified and idealized in a complex world.

    For my own presentations, I’m using fewer words and more images and photos illustrating my points (which works especially well with the material I’m presenting these days, from my research on cameraphones and personal photography). I learned a long time ago that what people remember of presentations are the stories and the images, and THEN the points that the illustrations are meant to exemplify.

  2. perhaps its a mistake to try and look at presentations as if they do only one thing. I can think of at least 3 core functions, which quite often can be at odds with each other.

    One is of course to give a great presentation, Jobs is great at this, so is Larry Lessig. The key here though is that you need to be a good presenter already, and then use a strong and clear slide show to drive in the point.

    Two is to provide a take home document, something that doesn’t rely upon the presenter at all, Microsoft is probably much better at this. Gates is a pretty poor public speaker so its not surprising he’d rely upon the presentation to provide all the details.

    Three is where powerpoint as a program is actually useful, it is a program well designed to help the presenter organize their thoughts before they actually present. Bad powerpoint presentations are often a pretty good set of notecards for the speaker, too bad they need to get shown to everyone in the room…

  3. While I understand what you’re trying to say, the simplicity of the Jobs’ presentations still speaks mountains. If you look at the number of slides in one of his presentation, it’s in the hundreds. I remember trying to count a couple years back at a MacWorld, and my friend and I gave up after 300.

    So it’s not that there’s necessarily a lack of information, there’s simply a lack of clutter at any given point. Now I say that aknowledging fully that there may in fact be more information in an MS presentation, but don’t doubt for a second that MS also carefully presents the information that they want to convey and nothing else.

    As you said, there’s a reason Bill Gates & Microsoft is so successful.

  4. I think the best way to compare them is to look at, say, stores. Microsoft’s graphic design approach is a lot like a Wal*Mart: Pack in as much as you possibly can, bright saturated primaries, lots of busy imagery, encourage the sense of overwhelm.

    Apple is easily compared to, say, Nordstroms: Subdued desaturated colors, not all of the stock is immediately visible.

    But this difference has been heavily explored in graphic design, advertising, and even in the ways retailers cluster in cities: Walk from Pier 39 down Columbus and over to Union Square: Bill Gates’ presentations are roughly analogous to Fisherman’s Wharf, Linux and the Open Source world look a lot like the strip club region of North Beach, and… well… Apple already has a retail presence down between Union Square and Market.

  5. I’m not sure how to approach commenting on this – after all, business in the US has a certain smoke-and-mirrors element built in, doesn’t it? I here of Mr Gates trying to explain the workings of complex software in a presentation and I think, well – he’s got the basis of an idea and a goal and he’s working it. Marketing, while not entirely an afterthought, ties in with the course that was planned many years ago. I remember sitting in my UW frat room when I heard that Microsoft went public and thinking – what the hell is software going to do for business? And I also remember when 3 years later, I tried to get a job there and couldn’t get an interview.

    When I think of Mr Jobs trying to explain why Apple still exists and I think of his motivation for doing so – NOT that their product isn’t worthy of consideration, but it seems a bit defensive and trite. I like the thinking that comes out of Apple – it’s clean and useful. It’s design vs. marketing – true, both companies and men have their own stink with regard to either dimension, but if you consider the relative size and success of both companies, you can understand where each come from. AND, considering that, find some relativity with each company in their explanation of new ideas and initiatives related to their products and marketing goals.

    If I were to see Jobs talking like Gates or vice versa, there would be something seriously wrong with their PR guys’ perceptions, n’est pas?

    OK – with regard to zen…

    I’ve heard the rants about how one must – be the market – be the consumer – be the onion… Yeah, yeah – be yourself. Take charge of what you can and don’t get caught in the perception that you can out-think your customer. They are the only ones that really know what they need – and even if they don’t, their perception of the case is the only one that matters in the end. What good is being right, if you lose the sale, or the argument, or the standards battle – the consumer is king. Build your reputation on doing what you know and doing to the utmost standard that you can support. If you fail, it must not have been meant to be – yet. Remember the battle and put that in your saddle for the next one…

    Be who you are – that’s what zen with regard to the market should mean

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