PowerPoint creators: Tufte is right, but…

All the things Tufte says are absolutely true. People often make very bad use of PowerPoint.”

Mr. Gaskins [one of the creators of PowerPoint; see below] reminds his questioner that a PowerPoint presentation was never supposed to be the entire proposal, just a quick summary of something longer and better thought out. He cites as an example his original business plan for the program: 53 densely argued pages long. The dozen or so slides that accompanied it were but the highlights.

Since then, he complains, “a lot of people in business have given up writing the documents. They just write the presentations, which are summaries without the detail, without the backup. A lot of people don’t like the intellectual rigor of actually doing the work.” (…)

Now grade-school children turn in book reports via PowerPoint. The men call that an abomination. Children, they emphatically agree, need to think and write in complete paragraphs.

Still, the men don’t appreciate PowerPoint being blamed for crimes it didn’t commit. Mr. Gaskins studied a vast collection of presentations before designing the program. Bullet points, he says, existed long before PowerPoint. (…)

If they have a lament, it’s that complaints about PowerPoint are usually not about the software but about bad presentations. “It’s just like the printing press,” says Mr. Austin. “It enabled all sorts of garbage to be printed.”

As Mr. Gaskins puts it: “If they do an inadequate job with PowerPoint, they would do just as bad using something else.” (WSJ)


PowerPoint’s history

austin-and-gaskins-2.jpgRobert Gaskins, a former Berkeley Ph.D. student, conceived PowerPoint originally as an easy-to-use presentation program. He hired a software developer, Dennis Austin, in 1984 to build a prototype program that they called “Presenter,” later changing the name to PowerPoint for trademark reasons. PowerPoint 1.0 was released in 1987 for the Apple Macintosh platform; later that year Gaskins’s company Forethought and the program were purchased by Microsoft for $14 million. The first Windows and DOS versions of PowerPoint followed in 1988. PowerPoint became a standard part of the Microsoft Office suite in 1990. According to Microsoft, more than 30 million presentations are made around the world with PowerPoint every day. (source and photo credit: UC Berkeley)

Related posts:

The guru of quantitative information display

Presentations and that creature called PowerPoint

Words and visuals: Why are you there?

How do you set people on fire?

The guru of quantitative information display

edward-tufte.jpgHis field is almost sui generis, containing bits and pieces of art direction, data-crunching, economics, historical research, and plain old expository writing. It’s often labeled “information architecture,” or “analytic design.” Tufte himself describes it many ways, but one is drawn from a classic piece of science writing: “escaping Flatland,” or using paper’s two dimensions to convey several more.

Tufte’s obsessions and coinages: Content-light splashy graphics, or “chartjunk,” are bad. Little repeated graphics displaying variations, or “small multiples,” are good. Microsoft’s PowerPoint software is an all-conquering monster of crumminess, a threat to life as we know it. Most of all, if you are making a presentation, you can probably say everything you need to on a single folded sheet of eleven-by-seventeen copy paper, and you ought to.

The New York Times Magazine has an excellent profile of Edward Tufte.

UPDATE 7-5-07: The Stanford Magazine also has a profile that nicely supplements the NYT’s.

Related: Presentations and that creature called PowerPoint

Presentations and that creature called PowerPoint

UPDATE (7-17-06) – Here is an exhaustive list of links to excellent websites and blogs on presentations.


7-11-06 – I have put together a few of my favorite resources. This is a work in progress. Stay tuned.

A good (short) blog post on the pros and cons of using slides in presentations. A longer detailed discussion: “PowerPoint Presentations: the good, the bad and the ugly“.

Edward Tufte has done wonderful work on helping people improve the visual quality of presentations. The title of his article on PowerPoint is self explanatory: “PowerPoint is Evil“.

Do NOT miss this: A brilliant take on what Lincoln’s Gettysburg address would have been like had it been presented on PowerPoint. And the author’s “Making of“.