Prof. Bleen (6_bleen_7) wrote,
Prof. Bleen

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I recently reread Edward Tufte's article, PowerPoint Corrupts Absolutely, and it got me to thinking. My former boss brought this article to my attention a few months back. She had, several years ago, taken on as a student possibly the only person in all of Washington who got more easily annoyed by misuse of PowerPoint than she did.

I heartily agree with Dr. Tufte that PowerPoint is structured to encourage people to abandon clear, informative presentation in favor of flashy, meaningless sound bites. Yet I don't think he goes far enough in condemning some particularly egregious, and highly prevalent, abuses of PowerPoint that don't necessarily result from the marketing mentality. So I'd like to supplement his observations with a few of my own.

I've grouped my gripes in to three broad categories. The following is nowhere near a comprehensive catalog of my complaints, but rather just what immediately came to mind. I now present my Tripartite List of Abuses of PowerPoint That Drive Me to Homicidal Fury:

1. Crimes against legibility, including, but not limited to, minuscule text; display fonts used where text fonts are clearly necessary (i.e., everywhere); text fonts with very narrow strokes that fall below the screen’s resolution; gratuitous use of the third dimension in bar graphs; and, most commonly, poor color contrast.

I’ll expand on the last item because it is a common shortcoming among even well-organized speakers. For decent overall contrast, there are really only two choices for color scheme: black text on a white background, and white text on a (nearly) black background. A dark background gives much better contrast when distinguishing among colors (as in graphs) is important, and allows effective use of colored text, but requires a pretty dark room. Black on white is readable even in full sunlight, but colors will get washed out in the background, so differently-colored lines in a graph will tend to look alike.

Now it is challenging to use color effectively even with these two high-contrast color schemes. When the background strays even slightly away from white or black, forget it. Take a look at the two color schemes shown at right. I reproduced those exactly from actual presentations given by Ph. D. scientists. The upper example seems legible upon first glance—but imagine an entire slide of text in that color scheme. Your eyes will vibrate right out of their sockets and go skittering across the room like Air Hockey pucks. In the lower example, the lecturer thought he'd get fancy and use one of those slick color gradients in the background. Here's a tip: When selecting colors for the background, try to avoid the exact same colors you're already using for text. Never mind the dubious wisdom of choosing the color "blue" for words that will ostensibly show up against a background of the color "blue." I can only assume that this presentation was intended to be viewed by bees, and so the text is colored ultraviolet as well as blue (just like how the central portion of a buttercup is yellow and ultraviolet).

What do these examples have in common? Exactly! The problem is largely historical. In the olden days, printed 35-mm slides for lectures had blue backgrounds. But it was a subdued midnight blue color, from which white and yellow text leaped out to catch the reader's eye. For some reason, people today use as an equivalent a bright, vivid electric blue (0000FF in the RGB scale, or worse) that fights a pitched battle with the actual content for the viewer's attention—usually to a draw, with the viewer's brain taking all the damage. As Joshua the computer said, "The only winning move is not to play."

'Nuff said—let's press on:

2. Crimes against clarity, including, b. n. l. t., poorly organized talks with no well-defined major points; confusing, deeply involved graphs or tables containing far too much information; excessive use of symbols, abbreviations or technical jargon without explanation; use of charts where tables would display data much more simply; and tedious mathematical derivations well beyond the viewer’s ability to follow along.

In my career as statistician I have mostly had to deal with offenses in this category, which to me rank among the mildest (i.e., the least rank).

3. Crimes against the viewer’s intelligence, including, etc., lengthy animated transitions between slides; any use of sound; extensive background graphics that take up space and add nothing to the useful content; expressing advanced, highly intellectual concepts in cutesy (albeit legible) fonts; and adding cartoons or other humorous graphics unrelated to the topic.

This category overlaps the most with Dr. Tufte's complaints, and is what really got me started ranting.

One of the worst "humor"-related offenses occurred over ten years ago, yet I remember it as though yesterday. A graduate student in my department gave a research-in-progress talk about early development of the chick embryo, and it was obvious through the whole thing that he was planning to knock our socks off with the last slide. He was winding up to a finale that would blow us right out of our seats and into a secret dimension of madcap hilarity unknown even to Cheech and Chong. He actually started to snicker during the penultimate two or three slides, gloating to himself about how thoroughly his punchline was going to slay the audience. With a grand flourish, like a magician shouting "Abracadabra!" and revealing the brace of doves he'd conjured from thin air, he punched the button to show the final slide. It was a Far Side comic on a blank screen. It had chickens in it, but otherwise had nothing whatsoever to do with his talk. He was working on development of the chicken, and the Far Side was about chickens! Get it? [titter] Huh? Get it? I'm grinning hard enough to split my lips just thinking about it! A wonder our whole building didn't collapse under the sheer mass of hilarity. The speaker just stood there, beaming, for maybe twenty seconds, in an utterly silent room. Okay, I exaggerate; he did, in actual fact, get a ripple of courtesy chuckles, owing entirely to the fact that Far Side was incredibly popular at the time and would elicit such a response no matter where the comic was displayed.

Visual and organizational atrocities are not unique to PowerPoint. I'm going to throw in what might seem at first like a non sequitur, but I think you'll see the relevance.

I'll now show you why you shouldn't let a hyperactive 14-year-old design your faculty Web page. This page belongs to a biophysicist at Rush University in Chicago. I ran across it while looking for information on the Russian Proton rocket.

Well, well, well. Where to begin? The first thing that catches one's eye—and violently scrapes it over a cheese grater for ten minutes—is the unbelievable morass of blinking, flashing, pulsing animated GIFs. In the name of all that is holy, why? I believe that by international law he's required to post a warning label for epileptics at the top of this page.

Once you've turned down your visual receptors to the point they won't explode from sensory overload, try to make any sense of the content. It's a complete hodgepodge of randomly arranged citations to journal articles, announcements for long-gone scientific meetings, and completely unrelated links that just appear with no context or explanation. And can someone—anyone—explain the rationale behind centering all the text? Maybe it's an intellectual challenge: the author only wants his work to be known by people with a visual-spatial IQ of over 180, so he disguises the information to the greatest degree possible by arranging the text in the same shape as bad Goth poetry.

Whitespace! Whitespace! My kingdom for some whitespace! Is it too much to ask to include two consecutive line breaks anywhere on the page? I like how he puts a delineator—a animated, rainbow-colored delineator—between every entry in his Infinite List o' Random Stuff, yet somehow, in his misguided attempt to provide some organization, he makes the page more difficult to parse. It's the visual equivalent to creating an outline with only one hierarchical level: items I through CDLXXXVII, with no subheadings.

If you look really closely—far closer than is healthy—you will see a couple of halfhearted attempts at true organization; but even these immediately crumble into the miasma. For example, the "Resources for Protonophiles" section starts out well, with two links to proton-related biochemical process, but quickly degenerates to include links to, of all things, the texts of Dante's Divine Comedy and the US Constitution! I suppose that if he studied electron transport, we'd find the Declaration of Independence and Ivanhoe under "Resources for Electronophiles." Because Ivanhoe has an equal and opposite charge to the Divine Comedy, of course.

Let's not forget to have an animated "New!" icon in front of every article, even the ones dated 2003! The importance of each paper is indicated by the number of explosion graphics that appear in the middle of the citation. What would Watson and Crick's seminal 1953 Nature paper look like on this scale? It would include a photo of every US and Soviet atmospheric nuclear test from the 1950s—after every word in the reference.

And we should keep on the screen at all times at least one random, meaningless animated graphic. I especially like the wildly tumbling sea urchin at left, accompanying a text-only WANTED poster for the proton-channel gene. Those zany scientists—what will they come up with next?

Did I mention colored text? If, beyond all reasonable expectation, the readers persevere through the annoying blinky shit, bad formatting, lack of organization, and useless graphics to arrive at the threshold of gleaning some useful information from your Web page, you can always confound them at the doorstep by throwing in colored text. Especially in pleasing colors like coffee brown and bile gold-green. I hear the latter is all the rage in Paris.

I'll close by saying that as bad as this page is, it's not the worst I've seen. Not by a long shot. A dedicated 14-year-old can cobble together an optical horror that makes this site look like the gardens at Versailles. The best example I can think of is, alas, not genuine; but it does represent the epitome of bad Web design. A warning to anyone with a modem: the following page will crash your connection. Saddle up and get ready for: AnGeL gUrL QT gUrL rOcKeR 1876235!
Tags: fonts, general_science, rant

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  • Barf Chemistry

    I didn’t take any AP science classes in high school. Dad suggested (wisely, I think) that I concentrate my AP efforts on subjects that I wouldn’t…

  • Big Science

    Last week I had the pleasure of hearing Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, speak about recent work in her laboratory on the genetics of skin color in the…

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