The Intersectionist

A blog about the intersection of design and everything else
Short Film Poster Frame

I recently released my first short film—you can check it out here. I learned a lot in the process, and I’ll share those lessons soon. Advertisements

Advice on Writing Well

As I try to learn how to write better, I’ve been collecting advice on the subject. Here are a few quotes.

“Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Never use a long word where a short word will do. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. Never use the passive where you can use the active.”

—George Orwell

Never use a long word when you can find a short one…. Pick up every sentence in turn, asking ourselves if we can possibly make it shorter.

—Sheridan Baker

  1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
  2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
  3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
  4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do my job for me.”
  5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

—C.S. Lewis

The way for a person to develop a style is (a) to know exactly what he wants to say, and (b) to be sure he is saying exactly that.

The reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him.

I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the reader will most certainly go into it.

—C.S. Lewis

Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions.

Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro.

If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.

The most satisfying compliment a reader can pay is to tell me that he or she feels personally addressed. Think of your own favorite authors and see if that isn’t precisely one of the things that engage you, often at first without your noticing it.

—Christopher Hitchens

One more thing

After my previous post, I realized there’s one more thing I need to say.

Ultimately, Steve Jobs is an experience designer, not just a product salesman. You hear it in the way he talks:

“We’re going to integrate these things together in ways that no else in this industry can to provide a seamless user experience where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We’re the last guys left in this industry than can do it. And that’s what we’re about.”

“We’ve tried to come up with a strategy and vision for Apple–it started with: ‘What incredible benefits can we give the customer?’ [And did] not start with: ‘Let’s sit down with the engineers, and figure out what awesome technology we have and then figure out how to market that.”

“Start with the customer experience, and work backward to the technology.”

The reason people were willing pay a higher price for a laptop or phone or mp3 player was not because they were mindless drones, but because (quite obviously, or perhaps not obvious enough) it was worth something to them. In other words, there was an experience that Apple created that people valued, something their competitors did not provide. Specifically, consistency, elegance, and simplicity.*

You can see it in their marketing (here and here are a few of of my favorite examples). Notice how the product is always there, but it’s always presented as the enabler of the experience. Like the elderly man seeing his granddaughter for the first time, or the woman talking to a soldier overseas.

Watch a keynote product launch by Steve Jobs. He spends most of his time talking about the experiences the products and features will make possible, not listing specs. When he does talk about technical specs, he describes the result in emotional terms.

Is it just spin? I don’t think so. It’s what makes their products so compelling. It’s why they’re the most profitable company in the world—because a relentless focus on the experience of the user is what guides everything from hardware to software to architecture to retail to web. They start with the experience they want to create, then figure out how to make technology do that. Not the other way around.

It’s true; you can buy electronics that are faster and cheaper elsewhere. You can find others that make individual aspects of Apple products better than Apple (like a screen, chip, camera, menu, etc). You can buy similar products with more features. But what you can’t buy elsewhere is a seamless integration of everything that goes into that experience—hardware materials, interface typography, packaging, integrated developer ecosystem, and everything else. Apple isn’t the only company to do this, but they are perhaps the only one to do it consistently.

Put it all together, and it gives you that feeling—consciously or not—that “someone understands me”. That’s empathy in product form, and that’s a powerful thing.

* Not everyone values those things, and that’s OK. But those people are the minority, and they aren’t Apple’s target customers. I think their massive market share validates their approach.

Empathy and courage

Apple just passed Exxon as the most valuable company in the world, and with the headlines come the usual articles about Steve Jobs’ brilliance. Which are quite warranted; he’s an incredibly smart guy with unusual instincts for assembling the right team and intuitively sensing what people will value. But at the risk of oversimplification,* I don’t think his genius is that mysterious. Steve Jobs is a relentless advocate for customer experience at all costs, a rare man who understands the value of simplicity and beauty, and won’t stop until every product meets that criteria. Everything Apple does—hardware and software—serves that end.

I’m not sure the iPad was visionary (as we normally use the term) so much as it was logical outcome of human-centered interface design. Computers as we have come to know them have too many steps in between what you want to do and actually doing it: intention → mouse movement → on-screen button → button click → result. And few people stop and think about that interaction carefully enough to realize it’s built on assumptions that aren’t timeless. Good designers work to remove unnecessary intermediaries and connect more directly to the customer’s desire, so the iPad eliminates all those in-between steps. Tap what you want. That’s it. Of course it’s the future.

It’s futuristic and visionary because there are so few people thinking that way. In a sense, it’s not complicated; it’s just that you have to have the courage to resist compromise on those key principles. You have to be willing to carefully observe people, empathize with their needs, and draw your insights from how people think and live. You have to be willing to cut out everything else that takes away from that fundamental experience—even if it costs you in the short term. You have to have one main priority: people. Not features, not processes, not traditions, not personal agendas. You have to understand people. You have to have courageous empathy. And almost no one does that consistently. The ones who do are climbing to the top.

* I understand Apple has some of the world’s best supply chain experts, artists, retail experts, finance people, and others. There’s no one factor or person that produced their success. But I think we err when we think of innovation as some kind of bolt from the sky, or magic conjured by superhuman talent, rather than the result of a keen understanding of customer needs and a willingness to build everything around them.

Lessons in presentation design

Some notes I’ve collected on presentation design over the past few months:

  •  If it’s a good handout, it’s generally a bad presentation. Slides are for quickly communicating small chunks of information, not for reading in detail. Your audience is there to listen to you. If you want them to read information, send them an email or Word document. Better yet, optimize your information for each context: make a presentation version that only includes the minimum amount of information that will support (not just restate) what you’re saying, and then provide a printed document designed to read.
  • The hard part is not making it look cool. The hard part is figuring out what story you’re telling, and cutting out everything distracts from it.
  • Great design for presentations takes time. You can’t expect to toss a presentation to the “graphics guy” the night before and have a substantially better product. The value designers bring is not mainly aesthetic techniques, but an ability to clarify information and visually tell compelling stories.
  • Get rid of the agenda slides. That structure is for you, not the audience. Don’t tell them every step you’re taking; surprise them! If your storyline is clear, they’ll be able to follow along without an agenda spelled out.
  • Slides that repeat you will fight you. If your slides just restate you (or worse, if you read from your slides), your audience will have to choose which one to pay attention to. Make it easy for them.
  • Cut, cut, cut. Get rid of anything that doesn’t directly support your main storyline and the point at hand. What doesn’t make you stronger kills you.
  • If you really must present complex information, break it up into several easily digestible slides (perhaps with a conclusion statement slide at the end).
  • If you have access to a Mac, try Keynote instead of PowerPoint. It’s perhaps not as powerful, but its interface is much better designed, and we found it does a better job with the visual elements that we think matter the most for presentations (especially good typography). As you may have gathered, I don’t think you generally need powerful features. You need a clear message, empathy for your audience, and courage to cut unessentials. But if complex animations help tell your story, I’ve found Keynote to be powerful enough for virtually anything I wanted to do.
  • Before creating your presentation, ask: Who is the audience and what will be their experience during the presentation? How can we create a presentation that supports and complements the speaker, rather than competing with the speaker?
  • Don’t forget your audience! The problem with most presentations is that people simply neglect to think about what it will be like sitting in the audience. Empathy is the most important element of effective communication.

If you want to see presentations done right, see Duarte. Or Steve Jobs. Or basically anything from the TED Conference.

Paper Towels

This one is a bit different for me—a writing exercise inspired by the work of my friend Peter Gagnon. It’s also a critique of overblown corporate dignity.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

My day begins earlier than usual as I stare down tight schedules, budgets, and deadlines. After brewing my coffee, I make my way to the restroom—its gleaming, modernist design a silent reminder that even here, we take ourselves seriously. I straighten my tie, check my hair, and wash my hands in the polished granite sink.

Our prestigious consulting firm is at the forefront of technological advancement, so our paper towel dispenser is motion-activated, sparing us the exertion of towel-yanking and the contamination of lever-pulling. I wave my hands in front of the automated panel of cold steel and black plastic, trying to get its attention, begging for permission. It reluctantly complies, and spits out a thin paper towel square, barely enough to dry my large hands. I wave again for another square. My hands still aren’t dry, and I guess I could stand there and wave until it surrendered all its goods, but I’m too hurried, and too proud, to be humbled by the machine once again.

I turn to leave, and as I pass the second dispenser on the left, it senses my proximity and spits out another square. Its characteristic motor-whine echoes off granite and steel, mocking me as the heavy door slowly closes and I walk back to my desk to subdue the earth.

Fantastic article on critique for designers

Why we need white space

It’s a classic client situation in the design world: the designer works hard to create a beautiful, spacious, readable layout, and the client immediately asks, “Can you fill up that extra space? Just find a photo of something…”

Designers know something is wrong, but sometimes they’re not sure what to say. So they find a cheap stock photo of a handshake, a computer keyboard, a multicultural business meeting, or a “futuristic” Photoshop collage—and grudgingly clutter the layout they so carefully composed. Sometimes they even preemptively give up (“the client won’t go for it…”) and never present the option they think is best.

Perhaps there is no industry more hard-wired to fill up every inch of space in a layout than government contracting (where I work). I suspect it has something to do with the risk-averse government culture, uncertainty about communications goals and messages, or pressure from the American public to eliminate waste. I’ve even worked on a book project with a client so afraid of the perception of waste or error that they required us to put the words “page intentionally left blank” on every page without text.

As irrational as it seems, I think clients’ tendency to fill white space is understandable. At least, if you realize they think of white space in the same way you think of empty space on a shelf at Wal-Mart, or in the back of a pickup truck, or on your computer’s hard drive. In other words, there’s a fundamental assumption many clients make: that space is, by definition, unused. Space, to them, is nothing more than the absence of content. In their minds, space is waste. But clients aren’t on a malicious campaign to deny designers the satisfaction of beautiful layouts; they simply have a common misunderstanding about the role of space in effective design.

Clients have reasons for what they do—not always good reasons, but real reasons nonetheless. It’s a designer’s job to understand those reasons, clearly articulate the role of white space, and graciously persuade clients to adopt the better approach.

Here’s why we need white space: value is measured by impact, not volume. If your goal is to present as much information as possible in the amount of space you have, of course it makes sense to fill up every possible space. But design isn’t about simply transferring information; it’s about making an impact. Clients aren’t just paying for space on a page or website or exhibit; they’re paying for effective communications—and sometimes less is more effective. You get far more impact by saying less, with power and elegance, than saying more with mediocrity.

Before switching to the design program, I was a piano performance major at George Mason University. One of the most important lessons I learned was the role of silence in music. Have you ever heard a great classical musician perform? What makes them great is not just their ability to play notes, but to carefully time the spaces between them. They’ve learned to play their instrument like they breathe—breathe in, breathe out. Silence gives meaning to music.

The same goes for a great speaker. If their goal was simply to to fill the allotted time, they would say everything they possibly could, and never pause to let a point sink in or to catch their breath. But great speakers aim for maximum impact and audience comprehension, not just word delivery. Great writers do this too. They avoid run-on sentences and edit their writing because people need space in order to absorb the message. Sometimes the more you say, the less any of it means.

White space is the visual version of a speaker pausing for effect. It’s the stage for the actors. It’s the black sky that makes the moon look brighter. It’s the dramatic silence before the solo. White space (when used properly) sets the stage for your message.

Space is not waste; It has a role that’s every bit as important as text or images. Space gives visual context to the content. It tells the audience what’s important. White space is not just about a prettier layout. It’s about effective communication for the client’s audience.

Of course, just like any element of a design, space can be wasted or misused. And sometimes a sharp-eyed client calls us on it. But when there’s a reason for white space, we have to be ready to graciously persuade. We’re not fighting the client by arguing for white space. We’re fighting for them—helping them understand what will help them most effectively communicate to their audience.

Design by Committee

Very well said (from this article):

Creativity requires focus to be successful. It must have a singular voice to communicate clearly and with purpose. Design by committee almost without exception results in watered-down solutions drowned by conflicting feedback.

The goal of graphic design is not to have everyone like the result. The goal is to have the target audience love it.


I once heard someone say, “Creativity isn’t something you do; it’s a way you do something.” I think they got it right. Creativity (or innovation—one of the most dominant buzzwords of my generation) has virtually no value as an end in itself. It’s simply a new way of doing something worthwhile.

I’m a passionate advocate of innovation—at least, as way to challenge potentially damaging assumptions, explore possibilities, reframe questions, solve problems, or discover unappreciated beauty. I’ve spent much of my career learning how to encourage and foster innovation. But I’ve been thinking: maybe those of us in the “creative industry” should stop and consider what it’s for. If creativity is primarily the way I do something, what is that something I’m trying to do? Is it worth doing?

What causes are most worthy of your innovation?