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academia sucks the soul out of design

Academia Sucks the Soul Out of Design

Like any good book or a gripping action movie plot, I want to tell you a story today.

This story has one main protagonist; say hello to ‘Mr. Academia‘. The problem I have with academia isn’t that learning is a dangerous thing (learning is one the best things you can do in life).  It just happens that academia taught us all to design badly and that this is the accepted consensus.

95% of Presentations Suck

Why do so many presentations suck so badly? Have you noticed some stark similarities in bad presentation design?

Deep into my academic studies at university, I noticed that many of my fellow students (and I’m glad I wasn’t the only one) found the lectures boring.

Don’t get me wrong; I worked hard at my studies, but why were most of the lectures so dull? I certainly didn’t find the content or subject matter to be the problem, in fact, I quite enjoyed learning about the principles of Business & Marketing.

It’s simple science. Every lecture is a presentation, the lecturer (the presenter), the presentation slides (the display content). However, there was a significant problem, the slides were always as dull as dishwater and crammed full of information.

If keeping someone’s attention in a lecture was a business, it would have an 80% failure rate. - Dr. John Medina

Plain backgrounds stuffed with tons of text and lots of bullet points, this was the norm.
It didn’t matter how engaging the lecturer may have been if their slides sucked badly it usually meant that your attention span would drop rapidly after about five minutes.

It ends up with your go-to response to doodling pictures in your notepad or playing with your mobile phone endlessly.

I believe all lecturers should understand how to present better. I’d like it to be a mandatory requirement for educating the minds of tomorrow.

The Audience is Listening

The best lectures and most engaging lecturers usually had key reasons to why people paid more attention.

They are as follows:

  1. Didn’t rely on poorly designed slides
  2. Invited audience participation
  3. Didn’t read bullet point after bullet point from a screen
  4. Focused on speaking directly to their audience
  5. Used visual elements or stories to re-enforce their message

People expect the norm. People expect bad design and boring presentations. Why is that? Well, it is the accepted thing; it’s what we’re used to.

Here is a classic ‘Death by PowerPoint™’ slide examples from some of my old lectures and they are a ‘perfect’ example.

Death by PowerPoint Slides

I doubt in the six years since I graduated these slides have changed all that much. In fact, I found while searching for these slides in my archives a presentation I did in university and guess what, it looks even worse than those.

The Tools Don’t Help

Both Microsoft PowerPoint™ and Apple Keynote are fantastic presentation design tools that allow you to create stunning presentations if you know how to use them. For people who don’t know what they are doing, the tools are a hindrance to many.

Have you ever looked at the master slide templates in Microsoft PowerPoint™ or Apple Keynote?

Master Slides Don't Help Design

Notice how they all try and make you use bullet points. An evil, lazy excuse for adding key points into a presentation quickly and easily without much thought.

The Brain Can’t Compute

Bullet points are detrimental to the decision-making process. As humans, our brains can’t absorb that much information on a screen. The amount of information in a presentation must be reduced.

Dr. John Medina author of Brain Rules, a New York Times bestselling book about how the brain works in modern life tell us:


 A Call for Better Presentation Teaching

When I was in school, there was no explanation in our ICT classes about the difference between Microsoft Word & PowerPoint™.

Most people treated them as the same, and many still do. There is a ‘big’ difference. In fact, it’s huge. One piece of software is a word processing tool, the other a design tool allowing you to create presentation aids.

Ever seen a presentation stuff full of text, that my friend is no longer a presentation. Instead, to coin a phrase by Garr Reynolds it has become a slideument (slide + document = slideument).

Nobody is teaching kids in school how the brain ‘really’ works and how we remember and pay attention to things.

“We learn and remember best through pictures, not through written or spoken words”  – Dr. John Medina

Here are my suggestions

  • Teach kids to use images in presentations rather than text.
  • Teach them how to tell stories; the world is full of great, fascinating stories.
  • Teach them the clear differences in use of Microsoft Word & PowerPoint™.
  • Encourage them to present to their peers at an early age.
  • Teach them Dr. John Media Brain Rules

If we don’t change the way we learn presentation and communication to the next generation, then boring presentations will still be the norm in years to come and Death By PowerPoint™ will still reign.

Illiya Vjestica About the author

Illiya is Creative Director at The Presentation Designer and has designed presentations for many of the world's most well know brands including Sony, Ralph Lauren & PayPal. He's passionate about improving the world one presentation slide at a time.