By Cliff Atkinson
Are we at the verge of the creation of a
new global verbal-visual language? In 1998 political scientist and
Stanford scholar Robert Horn released Visual
Language: Global Communication for the 21st Century, a 'must-read' for anyone who communicates with
words and images, and an important roadmap for any serious PowerPoint
Atkinson: Bob, what is "visual
language”, and what is its relevance to our
Bob Horn: I've suggested
that a new language is emerging around the world that I've called
visual language. Replying in visual language I might write:
(view PDF here)
CA: What are
the limitations of communicating only with text, and why is it important
that words and visuals come together?
A lot of research now shows that prose is less efficient and less
effective than visual language communication units. Quite simply, that
means that your readers will make more errors and take more time reading
straight prose than using visual language. Probably the major reason for
this is that in visual language words are doing the jobs they do best,
and the visual elements-images and diagrams-are doing the jobs they do
best. When this happens well, it radically alters the ratio of words to
CA: Is visual language
only the domain of professional designers?
BH: It is really great when you have a
designer to produce your images and diagrams. But millions have begun to
use clip art in their presentations, especially in PowerPoint. And then
have gone beyond that to create truly integrated visual language. The
millions are teachers, salesmen, consultants, scientists, engineers -
few of whom have a graphic artist to help them. Clip art collections are
growing rapidly so that we can all use the style we like and find most
effective in our word-image visual language presentations.
CA: Are there any updates you would make to
your book based on events that have happened the past 5 years since its
BH: Oh, yes, many - and none.
I wouldn't change much that is in the book now. The book is mainly a
semantic exploration. There were several draft chapters we left out just
to keep the book within reasonable length for a first edition. For
example, I have a treatment of topics like ambiguity and how to handle
the negatives in visual language. And there is a lot of "how to do it"
which is in our basic
course in visual language called "Visual Thinking and Visual
Communication." And also not in the book is our recent work on thinking
more comprehensively with infographics and infomurals. These topics will
probably become Volume 2 of Visual Language.
What is the potential for PowerPoint as a platform for
facilitating the development of visual
BH: PowerPoint is a large
incentive to try out using some visual-verbal integration. People watch
a lot of presentations. They see effective use of visual language on
slides. This encourages them to create their own. The biggest
improvement in PowerPoint would be to make it easy for people to draw
and create diagrams. Also, several gigantic, free clip art collections
would also give both visual language and PowerPoint a boost. But not the
cutesy, cartoony stuff that you usually find. Rather, sober, useful
collections for serious organizations.
What do you think about Edward Tufte's criticisms of PowerPoint in his
essay The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint?
BH: Tufte's monograph makes some good points
but is also in places, confused, incoherent, and superficial. Here's my
view on the key issues:
Bulleted lists. He's correct
about "Bullet Outlines Dilute Thought." It is difficult to show causal
relationships in bullet lists. But this is not unique to PowerPoint.
Dilution of causal thinking happens as much on paper as in PowerPoint.
And overlooking causality is dangerous. However, this is not original to
Tufte; it's Shaw, Brown, & Bromiley's point (whom he cites). The original authors whom he quotes explain the causality
point better than Tufte.
However, when Tufte talks about presenting statistical information, we
should all pay attention. He's better than many in this area (pp. 14-15
and 18-19 in the essay). But he somehow misses part of the point that
many communication situations are not about analyzing the data, they are
about communicating the results of an analysis and not simply showing
the details of the analysis.
Too many words or not enough
words? And, of course, he's right about people putting too many
words on their bullet slides and turning their backs to their audiences
and reading them. But Tufte is somewhat muddleheaded about how much to
put on a slide when he criticizes the example: "Correlation is not
causation" as being "over abbreviated." Tufte assumes that the speaker
is not going to say anything along with presenting the slide, i.e. that
the speaker is not going to say "Empirically observed covariation is a
necessary but not sufficient condition for causality." He says, "Many
true statements are too long to fit on a PP slide, but this does not
abbreviate the truth to make the words fit" (p. 4 of the essay). But of
course, "Empirically observed covariation is a necessary but not
sufficient condition for causality" can quite easily fit on a slide.
Hierarchy. He's flat out mixed up about hierarchy. He
is right about not having 4 to 6 levels of hierarchy on a single slide.
But he tends to condemn the whole notion of hierarchy as "medieval in
its preoccupation." Hierarchy is one of the major ways we manage
complexity. And we shouldn't hide the levels of hierarchical analysis.
But he's right about the specific case (the Boeing-NASA slides) as
confusing in showing hierarchy.
Subheads. He is really
wrong when he suggests that you should use hardly any subheads in
writing prose. Actually the opposite is the case. You should use an
informative subhead for every paragraph. My principle has been: put a
subhead on every paragraph. This enables your reader to scan and skip
more easily and hence read more efficiently. And it enables many writers
and presenters to think more clearly.
Different kinds of
presentation. Tufte completely ignores many different kinds of
presentations. He seems to think all we do is analyze and present
statistics! On the contrary. Among the presentation purposes that come
immediately to mind are planning, overview, inspiration and motivation,
explanation, and reporting. In all of these, PowerPoint can be useful.
To my mind, it's not PowerPoint that is at fault, but the lack of skills
in using it. Tufte's naiveté about this aspect, I would guess, comes
from being an academic for most of his life and lacking much experience
in business organizations.
Teaching metaphor. Finally,
he's right about the teaching metaphor for presentations: "The core
ideas of teaching - explanation, reasoning, finding things out,
questioning, content, evidence, credible authority not patronizing
authoritarianism - are contrary to the hierarchical market-pitch