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In defense of PowerPoint

I am about to do something rash, which is to disagree with Lucy Kellaway. Last week, the fearless observer of business follies went too far: she called for PowerPoint to be banned.

The prosecution’s argument is simple: many PowerPoint presentations are very bad. This is true but it hardly makes the case for a ban. Serviceable tools can produce awful results in the wrong hands, as anyone who has seen me put up shelves can attest. Banning the screwdriver is not the answer.

So it is with PowerPoint. It’s an unromantic, practical piece of kit. It is often used poorly. It is not the most elegant tool, but botched jobs must be blamed on the workman. Many of the bad presentations people deliver with the help of PowerPoint would have been bad presentations in any case. Would it have been better to hear the impromptu ramblings of a nervous speaker in total cognitive meltdown? Or to watch a piece of professionally produced but irrelevant film, in the dark? Many readers will remember corporate life before PowerPoint. It was no lost Eden.

PowerPoint is not the world’s most wonderful piece of software. The built-in templates have long been ugly, the clip-art tacky and the animations risible. As if determined to deliver on the name, it inserts bullet points into text with little provocation. It is harder than it should be simply to make all the letters line up. (I am still using PowerPoint 2003. By all means dismiss this column as the ranting of a corporate shill.)

Yet for all its flaws, PowerPoint performs two useful tasks well enough. It quickly allows one to compose speaking notes and to create slides showing images and graphs. The trouble starts when people confuse the two jobs.

There is nothing wrong with jotting down speaking notes as a memory aid. PowerPoint is as good a way of doing this as any, especially if you have handwriting like mine. For the vast majority of speakers, such speaking notes are preferable to the alternatives, including memorising, ad-libbing on the spot or writing the whole speech out and reading it in a wooden monotone.

The problem is that for some baffling reason, many speakers decide to project their speaking notes on to a wall rather than printing them out, postcard size, and sticking them on to 3×5 inch cards. I often sketch out my speeches with the help of PowerPoint. I just prefer to keep the slides to myself.

The second use of PowerPoint is to project visual aids on to a screen. This it does perfectly well – and the clichéd clip-art of yesteryear is now almost extinct. These days people “borrow” cartoons from Dilbert, or grab photos from the web. The effect is often pleasing enough.

It would be better if people learnt a bit about fonts, and better still if they learnt that by pressing “B” they could temporarily blank the screen. But one cannot have everything.

Lucy approvingly mentions a famous condemnation of PowerPoint by the brilliant information designer Edward Tufte. Professor Tufte attacks PowerPoint partly for its “relentless sequentiality, one damn slide after another” and partly for the asymmetric relationship between speaker and “followers”.

This is odd because Tufte does not acknowledge that he is really assaulting the idea of public speaking itself. What could be more relentlessly sequential than a speech? One damn word in front of another. If you hate the very idea of a speech, fine. But say so.

It would take little to improve greatly the quality of most people’s PowerPoint presentations – far less than it would take to improve the quality of corporate Newspeak. So why call for a ban?

The true problem is far more troubling. It is that in a corporate environment, we are asked to read prose by people who cannot write and watch performances given by people with neither the talent nor the training to perform. For some reason these amateurs are better paid than most writers and performers. There is something depressing about all this, but the blame cannot be pinned on PowerPoint.

I cannot finish without confronting the greatest sin in my version of PowerPoint: the “AutoContent” function, which sketches out a speech if you cannot do it yourself. AutoContent, The New Yorker once reported, was named as a joke, in “outright mockery of its target customers”. The very idea of the function is pernicious indeed but the real horror is that it was created to satisfy a demand.

Learning to Love PowerPoint

We interrupt this magazine for a PowerPoint presentation:
• For artist and musician David Byrne, the medium is the message.
• Infographic guru Edward Tufte wants to kill the messenger.

A while ago, I decided to base the book-tour readings from my pseudoreligious tract The New Sins on sales presentations. I was going for a fair dose of irony and satire, and what could be better than using PowerPoint and a projector, the same tools that every sales and marketing person relies on?

Having never used the program before, I found it limiting, inflexible, and biased, like most software. On top of that, PowerPoint makes hilariously bad-looking visuals. But that’s a small price to pay for ease and utility. We live in a world where convenience beats quality every time. It was, for my purposes, perfect.

I began to see PowerPoint as a metaprogram, one that organizes and presents stuff created in other applications. Initially, I made presentations about presentations; they were almost completely without content. The content, I learned, was in the medium itself. I discovered that I could attach my photographs, short videos, scanned images, and music. What’s more, the application can be made to run by itself -no one even needs to be at the podium. How fantastic!

Although I began by making fun of the medium, I soon realized I could actually create things that were beautiful. I could bend the program to my own whim and use it as an artistic agent. The pieces became like short films: Some were sweet, some were scary, and some were mysterioso. I discovered that even without text, I could make works that were “about” something, something beyond themselves, and that they could even have emotional resonance. What had I stumbled upon? Surely some techie or computer artist was already using this dumb program as an artistic medium. I couldn’t really have this territory all to myself -or could I?

David Byrne

“In thinking about graphic design, industrial design, and what might really be the cutting-edge of design, I realized it would have to be genetic engineering. Dolly (God rest her soul) represents the latest in design, but it is, in her case, design we cannot see. Dolly looks like any other sheep, which is precisely the point. The dogma of some graphic designers is that their work be invisible. This perfection has been achieved with Dolly.”

David Byrne

“I began this project making fun of the iconography of PowerPoint, which wasn’t hard to do, but soon realized that the pieces were taking on lives of their own. This whirlwind of arrows, pointing everywhere and nowhere -each one color-coded to represent God knows what aspects of growth, market share, or regional trends -ends up capturing the excitement and pleasant confusion of the marketplace, the everyday street, personal relationships, and the simultaneity of multitasking. Does it really do all that? If you imagine you are inside there it does.”

David Byrne

“This is Dan Rather’s profile. Expanded to the nth degree. Taken to infinity. Overlayed on the back of Patrick Stewart’s head. It’s recombinant phrenology. The elements of phrenology recombined in ways that follow the rules of irrational logic, a rigorous methodology that follows nonrational rules. It is a structure for following your intuition and your obsessions. It is the hyperfocused scribblings of the mad and the gifted. The order and structure give it the appearance of rationality and scientific rigor. This appearance is easy to emulate.

Phrenology sought to reveal criminal propensities -and those of potential leaders and geniuses -in the shapes and bumps of the head and face. Nowadays we see it as a scientific justification for racist and cultural biases. A dangerous pseudoscience. But if phrenology was the genetic profiling of a previous era, what will supplant genetic profiling when that too appears as ridiculous as phrenology does to us now? Nonrational logic will not go away.”

David Byrne’s Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information, a book and DVD in which these images appear, will be published in September by Steidl and Pace/MacGill Gallery. His new album, Lead Us Not Into Temptation (Music From the Film Young Adam), also comes out this month