Convenient Lessons from An Inconvenient Truth Aug 2nd, 2006
If you have not yet seen An Inconvenient Truth, then I highly recommend that you do. It’s a compelling film and one that deserves to be taken seriously, regardless of what your opinion of anyone with a (D) in front of their name might be. However, I’m not going to get into the science or politics of the movie, which I admit I found quite convincing. I want to examine a few issues more closely tied to my profession.
As a designer, I found the presentation of the information in the movie thoroughly engaging. The slides that Mr. Gore used — designed by Duarte Design — were clean, clear and communicated complex sets of data in an accessible fashion. There was excellent use of movement to reveal the underlying story the data was telling us. There were moments of humor used to break up the relentless abuse the facts can have on one’s psyche. And there was near perfect use of contrast and scale to communicate the significance of the situation.
What could have been just yet another crappy cognitive style of PowerPoint cum Keynote presentation was instead an exemplary case study on how to do presentations right. It’s a useful lesson on exactly how good design requires a singular focus on what needs to be communicated in order to be effective.
Good design is not oversimplified
One of the more memorable images in the presentation was this:
It’s a slice from an infamous graph called The Keeling Curve, a chart that shows the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide and how it has increased since 1958. It shows clearly that carbon dioxide levels are increasing year over year. It also serves as a warning that we are living with dangerous levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.
(Note: This rendering of the Keeling Curve is not the same one used from the movie.)
When I hear people in the technology design field discuss “simplicity,” I’m always struck by how too many tend to misuse the term. In contrast, the presentation of the Keeling Curve in the movie is a clear example of what simplicity is, and how it should be applied in practice.
Gore first presents the chart as only a thick, jagged red line cutting across the wall sized black screen behind him on stage, which is dramatic in its own right. Then he frames it in it’s proper context combined with a simple animation that ties the spikes in the chart to the earth’s similar carbon dioxide breathing patterns. He lets the jagged line grow over time, rising as he talks about it’s importance. It’s the perfect example of how simple, uncomplicated visuals when coupled with a professional speaker can be used to communicate a powerful message.
The message as communicated doesn’t come from some attempt to simplify the chart’s data set or through some truncated method of describing what the line means via a bulleted list. The message comes from being communicated in its natural state as a jagged line that rises over time, with little added to garble the signal.
To translate this into every day work of interface designers, one should not pretend to make complex sets of data or involved interactions simple through means other than what they are. If something is complex by nature, the best way you can hope to make it simple is by not adding anything extraneous to it.
The way to make something simple is to let it be as complex as it is.
That means you should avoid using made up marketingspeak within instructional text, refuse to add visually complex icons if textual descriptions on buttons suffice, resist the urge to decorate when it only serves to add more flavor but doesn’t change the core communciation, and not attempt to second guess what a user might want to do on rare occasions at a specific step in a process.
Gore made no attempt to avoid using a chart based on carbon dioxide readings collected over fifty years. He describes why the jagged line is jagged by nature, only using a simple animation of the Earth “breathing” that reinforces the key concept of why the line is jagged. He states simply that levels above 300 parts per million are dangerous to our environment. Finally, he displays the chart with its dramatic jagged red line overlaid on simple axes of time and measurement.
The message is communicated loud and clear.
Good design is not about obviousness
Another design lesson to be garnered from the movie is that it’s acceptable — and often preferred — to take the appropriate amount of time to build a story.
Building a narrative in a movie is similar to building expectations in the design of technology products. Both are fulfilled only when the follow through satisfies the time invested by either the audience or the user. In the case of Gore’s presentation, he does an excellent job of using the information he discusses just minutes prior in order to make clear the next set of data points. He doesn’t attempt to say everything at once, but lets himself build upon each data point he communicates through the progression of his talk. In short, he fulfills on the promise of providing us with more knowledge for the time we spend sitting in the movie theater after paying our price of admission.
A clear example of this in practical design terms can be found in the iPod. Just step back to the moment in time to when the iPod first came out. If you recall, many people who had never encountered a digital music device weren’t sure what to make of it. If you handed the iPod to someone who had never seen it, they were often dumbfounded.
In fact, how to use the ever present and important scroll wheel clearly wasn’t obvious. More often than not, you had to explain to an iPod neophyte exactly how to use it.
The designers got the iPod right in terms making the device feel comfortable in one’s hand and keeping it’s industrial design sleek and sexy through minimalist use of form and color. Where they ultimately succeeded though was in the follow through on the use of the scroll wheel. Once a user took the time to understand what the iPod did or had the scroll wheel’s interaction explained to them, the investment on their part opened up access to thousands of songs, which is the core expectation of using the iPod in the first place. That fulfilled expectation for their investment is what makes the design work, even though on the surface it’s not entirely obvious. Once the user has experienced the scroll wheel’s interaction, they can never look at an iPod again and not know how to use it. At that point, it becomes forever obvious.
The way to make something obvious is to follow through on expectations built up from the time invested on the product.
The best approach one can take as a designer is to always ask what kind of investment you are requesting of your customers, because all products require some time investment. Then, be brutally honest with yourself that you are holding up your end of the bargain with them. If you are going to ask someone to spend any amount of time attempting to learn or otherwise grok a product as expressed though its design, you have to hold up your end of the deal by providing them something that is both useful and satisfying.
Gore spent a reasonable amount of time building his case in the movie. His narrative works because by the end of it, even if one may not agree with the underlying intentions of Gore himself or have issues with the man for some partisan reason, Gore fulfilled the promise of telling the common person the story that many scientists have been trying to over the past few decades.
Good design is not about style
My favorite aspect of the movie’s presentation is the timelessness of its visuals. Gore’s slides use nothing but core graphic design fundamentals to do the job and become an important lesson on how the design aesthetic works.
There is a distinct lack of gradients, shading, fanciful fonts, cool transitions or any other spoils of modern presentation software. The motion graphics when used were judicious and focused. There was no specific template from one slide to the next. Thankfully, there was also a complete lack of bulleted lists.
The general design aesthetic clearly focused on the fundamentals.
One way to make anything you design easier to use is to first make sure it adheres to the fundamentals of color, type and composition. Given that the principles and rules around the basics of graphic design are well known at this stage of the game, there is simply no excuse to ignore them or claim ignorance of them. From there, you can then focus on other core aspects of a product’s interface, like keeping labels direct, avoiding unnecessary modal interactions or providing clear feedback to a user’s interaction.
As any professional jazz musician will tell you, in order to break the rules you must first gain mastery of them. You can’t play great jazz if you don’t understand the basics of scales or key concepts in music theory, nor if you lack mastery of the physical instrument itself. This is as true in the design of technology products as it is in music.
The way to make something stylish is to lay the proper groundwork using design fundamentals first, then judiciously apply one’s own touch as required.
The reason why the visuals work in An Inconvenient Truth is because they focus squarely on the fundamentals in order to communicate first, with small touches sprinkled throughout to enhance the aesthetic. That focus in design combined with its professional execution creates its style. In the end, that style plays a key role in the emotional impact of the presentation and the movie.
Good design always comes from good designers
The last thing to notice about the movie is quite simple. Al Gore does a great job of being an engaging speaker. The movie works simply because Al Gore is the passionate environmentalist in it, not the wooden presidential candidate that many of us were exposed to during the 2000 election cycle.
One of the reasons Edward Tufte has been so successful is not because his books are beautiful creations, which they are, or that they neccessarily inform core design principles on their own, which they do. In fact, much of what Edward Tufte writes is a bit arcane and overly academic for most people. What makes Tufte successful is that he knows how to give a dynamic, engaging presentation that supports his book, often deepening the lessons that can be learned from them.
Similarly, the way to achieve good design for your product is to simply be a good designer.
That might sound simplistic on its surface, but when one is presented with good design, like that on display in An Inconvenient Truth, it’s always a useful to remember that part of being a good designer is to constantly seek out the lessons one can learn when presented with good design.
And to remember that part of the craft never ends.