16 October 2008

The Zen of Presentations, Part 21: Don't hate beauty

Over at the TED website, Paola Antonelli talks about science and design in a recorded presentation from the EG conference.

I found this quote very, very interesting (it's about 8:20 into the talk):
Scientists are starting to also consider aesthetics. We were discussing this with Keith Shrubb this morning the fact that many scientists tend not to use anything beautiful in their presentations, otherwise, they're afraid of being considered dumb blondes. So they pick the worst background from any kind of PowerPoint presentation, the worst typeface. It's only recently that this kind of marriage between design and science is producing the the first pretty, if we can say so, scientific presentations.
Maybe this caught my eye because I spent the last week in one of my classes talking about scientific posters. (I have more to say about posters later.) I was talking to my students about design, and went back to a lot of things I learned from working on a student newspaper. There is a great body of theory, principles, and thought associated with layout and typography. I'm sure that more researchers have never really studied these at all, based on the apparent disregard for even a simple grid. I see poster after poster where you're lucky to see two objects out of twenty on the paper align with each other.

Part of the problem may be that scientists think that making something beautiful means decorating it like a wedding cake. Just as most wedding cakes start to be about matching the bride's gown and stop being about the point of a cake (delicious eating), maybe scientists think that making something beautiful inherently means losing the integrity of their information.

Admittedly, people might think that aesthetics corrupts, since so many "artsy" posters are hamfisted, amateurish and horrible to look at from both a scientific and graphic design point of view. But don't judge the field by its worst practitioners. Scientists never get formally trained in this. It's much better to study and embrace what professional graphic artists can teach us, and strive for graphic excellence in all presentations.

Surely making ugliness a virtue is the wrong way to go.

1 comment:

John Galt said...

I think you're spot on here. As a scientist who's taken a few classes in graphic design, it always amazes me to see how poorly-designed most posters are. They're almost textbook cases of how _not_ to make a public presentation.

It makes no sense: dedicate a year working late every night collecting your data, then spend a half-hour laying it out so that it looks like crap. I think most people don't even realize how bad their design is. It might be a good idea to require a graphic design class in grad school.

This problem probably hurts scientists in communicating with the public, because their presentations are so strangely clunky compared to the slicker media the public is accustomed to viewing.