As we mentioned earlier, Strategic Social attended a data visualization course taught by Edward Tufte a few weeks ago. Tufte did not sugarcoat his disdain for Microsoft PowerPoint. In his course, Tufte succinctly explained that the fundamental goal of an information display is to assist thinking about information. He argued that PowerPoint is a very effective marketing tool but is a fundamentally flawed means for delivering knowledge. Tufte was especially critical of the packaged charts and templates in PowerPoint, stressing that they cripple presentations. Microsoft will soon release Office 2010, but Edward Tufte remains unconvinced that Microsoft has fully taken his criticisms to heart.
Anyone who has ever used the software is familiar with the ubiquitous bullets, headers, and 3-row tables. The blogosphere has long debated whether PowerPoint or its users should held responsible for the epidemic of low-quality presentations. Websites like Note and Point show that truly gifted designers are not limited by PowerPoint.
The U.S. Marines Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, the commander of Joint Forces Command, sounded off against Microsoft’s software product in today’s New York Times, bluntly stating, “PowerPoint makes us stupid.” Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster is equally opposed to Microsoft’s presentation: “It’s [PowerPoint’s] dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control … Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”
Ultimately, both the tool and the user are to blame. Having sat through countless endless, uninformative PowerPoint presentations themselves, users should know better than to copy techniques that they already know do not work. Nonetheless, the role of a software tool is to help people; to make them smarter. Unfortunately, the default settings and pre-programmed templates in PowerPoint do just the opposite. Microsoft will be doing the world a favor if it pays a little more attention to Edward Tufte’s design fundamentals in building the latest iteration of PowerPoint.