Break the Habit – 8 ways to defeat overloaded visuals

We call them visual aids. We build, compile, research, design and tweak them for more hours than we will ever admit. We support our points with dense data, trying to answer every question. Fill every square inch of screen real estate with information. So, why does the presentation fail? Why do so many visuals hurt rather than aid us.

People have a limited capacity to retain and to process information, and so will not understand a message if too much information must be retained or processed.
— Dr. Stephen M. Kosslyn

In a nutshell, if your intention is to inform, engage or inspire action, overloading a presentation is ineffective and unproductive. It drains the audience and dulls the speaker.

8 Ways to Step Up to Overloaded Visuals

  1. Begin with the end in mind – Devote some time to completing this phrase: "At the end of this presentation, I want my audience to…" – With this process you define your objective and your audience, your purpose and your desired outcome.
  2. Collect and select your ideas, data and evidence – Relevance is key. Every piece of information should answer two questions: Does it support my objective? and Will my audience find it compelling? Remember that  compelling is a measure of interest and understanding, not necessarily agreement.
  3. Outline your presentation – Literally write the order of your presentation step by step. We recommend beginning with a grabber: a story, quote or number that engages the audience and grabs their attention from the beginning. This should take a maximum of 20 minutes.
  4. Present the outline to a colleague (or spouse) who is unfamiliar with the topic – We are often too close to our material. Remember you are not your own audience. Nothing is obvious. Subjecting your message to an early, knowledgeable and honest audience will help you edit.
  5. Edit – Select advice from your test audience and ask: Does it support my objective? and Will my audience find it compelling? again.
  6. Storyboard – I like a good pen and a stack of post-its. I don't lose time erasing and I can reorder things, if I need to. Find the clearest way to illustrate your point using text, graphs and images. Remember that pictures are powerful and easy to remember. Use them to illuminate, not simply adorn. Garr Reynolds' Presentation Zen has a wonderful article about Storyboarding.
  7. Make a digital version or two – There's a difference between a presentation deliver and one that you email. Your in-person audience has you to deliver it. When you deliver in person, you are the main point of contact between your message and your audience. When you email a presentation, that role is usually taken over by your document. The emailed presentation could allow more information, whether on the slide, in the notes or through hyperlinks that lead to appendices. Here's a nice article that shows how to turn slideuments into visual aids.
  8. Edit, then present.

In the words of the late, great designer Massimo Vignelli, make it semantically correct, syntactically consistent, pragmatically understandable, visually powerful, intellectually elegant and of course, timeless – your audiences deserve it.

Break The Habit — 8 Ways To Step Up To Overloaded Visuals - Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

Massimo Vignelli – An appreciation for Presentation Designers

I like design to be semantically correct, syntactically consistent, and pragmatically understandable. I like it to be visually powerful, intellectually elegant, and above all timeless.
— Massimo Vignelli

Massimo Vignelli is gravely ill. His son, Luca, announced the news, and invited the world to write his father with their appreciation for his influence.

Lella and Massimo Vignelli belong to a generation of designers who formalized the language of Design and Visual Communication. They found beauty in the elegance of Swiss Design and mainstreamed it into products, images and ideas that are inseparable from our experience of life and society.

I had the privilege of taking a weeklong class at La Escuela de Diseño Altos de Chavón in 2006, delivered by Mr. and Mrs. Vignelli and by designer, Domingo Milani.

As someone who had stumbled into design (from the somewhat parallel world of illustration), and had adopted a shallow understanding of the profession, I found the course challenging. I found freedom in grids, typography and space that I had formally found restraining. Restraints became constraints that clarified and expanded my thinking.

It has taken a long time for these lessons to show up in my work.

These lessons are the backbone of the training` I teach professionals around the world to aid in improving their presentations. I quote the Vignellis' book – Design is One:

Semantically correct. In other words, search for the real meaning and the correct signs that connote the object you are working with.
Syntactically consistent. Every detail must be consistent to itself and to the whole. No borrowed elements. The language is one and every detail should speak the same language.
Pragmatically understandable. Otherwise, design is a failure, no matter how beautiful it is.Design is not art, design should express its meaning and that should be universally understandable.
Design should also be:
Visually powerful. Otherwise it has no penetrating value. There is no middle ground. Powerful or nothing. Nothingness is not perceivable; therefore it is not retainable. Period.
Intellectually elegant. Not elegant as mannerism, but intellectually sublime. The opposite of vulgar, because vulgarity is ignorance.
But, above all:
Timeless. Because we have a responsibility to our clients, ourselves and the society in general to design things that will become obsolete, because obsolescence, particularly planned obsolescence, is a social crime whose ultimate goal is only profit for the few over the masses. And designers should not be a part of this despicable conspiracy.
— Massimo Vignelli's Foreword to "Lella and Massimo Vignelli: Design is One"

Farewell, MV – Timeless.

The Vignelli Canon
By Massimo Vignelli
Starring Erik Spiekermann, Matthew Carter, Massimo Vignelli, Michael Bierut, Neville Brody