A Quick Review of Everything I Know about Life I Learned from Powerpoint by Russell Davies


The best thing about this book was that it over-turned some of my assumptions. Here's three of those assumptions getting over-turned.

1. Powerpoint is corporate software. Corporate software is bad.

Everything I Know about Life is an impassioned defence of Powerpoint. Powerpoint allowed individuals, and particularly allowed staff from outside the senior levels of organisations, to express their ideas freely. In that way, it was a piece of software with quite radical intentions. Its creator, Robert Gaskins, "wanted the people giving and creating presentations to have as much control as possible".

A page from the book in the form of a slide which says: A cash point gives you cash.  Powerpoint gives you power.

Importantly, the team that created Powerpoint was made of up of more women (53%) than men, with 46% of the technical roles taken by women, at at time the average proportion of women in Silicon Valley organisations in technical roles was more like 10%, and is now only 20%.

2. Content is what matters. Appearance is secondary.

This is definitely an assumption I tend to make. Russell Davies compares Powerpoint to another presentation product in development at the time called MORE. MORE was an outliner program. You created the content in a hierarchical structure, focusing on the words and the logical argument. This was a design approach fitting the Silicon Valley software development mentality. "For many people the outline is the presentation. The words are the point and everything else is flim-flam."

Robert Gaskins wanted to do something very different:

The challenge in designing PowerPoint was to reverse that balance in favour of direct visual control by the user ... The structure of a presentation is not the tree of a multi-level outline, but is a single ordered sequence of slides, with each slide having a separate internal structure.

Davies argues that this decision to focus on the individual slide rather than the overall structure was one of the the keys to Powerpoint's appeal.

Reading this, it struck me that IA Presenter, which I've blogged about enthusiastically, is very much in that outliner mode: build up the content first, and let the design be secondary, determined by the content. And determined, to a considerable degree, by the application itself, which takes away a lot of the the worry of how the design works. That makes a lot of sense, given the need for presentations to work responsively across devices, but it also reduces the freedom of the individual to express their ideas visually.

3. You want software that keeps things simple

Again, this is an idea I keep returning to. But Powerpoint didn't keep things simple. Davies notes Steve Job's disdain for PowerPoint and Microsoft:

He thought they had no taste and were unable to make audaciously world-changing products because they couldn't strip things back to their irreducible core. He might have had a case. But PowerPoint is Microsoft's counterpoint: it's because they've thrown the kitchen sink in that it's taken over the world.

So, on its own sweet terms, Powerpoint is cool. Favouring independent software over corporate software, or content over design, or simplicity over complexity - they are just patterns of thinking that can be very helpful in some contexts, but they are definitely not finally true.

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