This year’s Presentation Summit at San Diego began with a keynote from Nolan Haims. After careers in theatre and the circus, Nolan Haims moved into the world of presentation, designing presentations for Fortune 500 CEOs, leading financial institutions and all the major television networks. Nolan was the Presentation Director for Edelman, the world’s largest independent PR company. He writes about visual communication at PresentYourStory.com.
Rick Altman, the host of the Presentation Summit introduced Nolan as an authority on simplicity. Nolan’s topic for the keynote of course was Simplicity. Simplicity is a “simple” word, but what Nolan tried to explain was more profound. He said that “simplicity is important because audiences remember whatever is simple enough to remember!”
Nolan started by comparing two famous movies: Star Wars and The Phantom Menace. The audience agreed that the former was a better movie, and Nolan emphasized that this was because Star Wars had so much simplicity, and comparatively, The Phantom Menace had complexity. Nolan added that “simplicity has a guarantee that it will always succeed.” He also added that “simplicity in slides can be achieved by deciding what we need to remove.”
Nolan then discussed his background about how he belongs to a family of designers, and how he is the only person in the family who is not formally trained in design. In his earlier days, he just started using Adobe Illustrator and ended up creating something simple. He then encountered “heavy” graphics with bevels, 3D effects, etc. that were quite a rage in those days. This led Nolan to create the type of extreme graphics that were anything but simple!
At this point, Nolan realized that his clients, although impressed were not selling design, so they had no need to use such an extreme form of design. Instead, they were selling products! So that made Nolan ponder whether it would be better selling products with stories and simplicity rather than with extreme design? This realization led Nolan to the main topic of his keynote, that being: Simplicity Works.
Nolan then discussed 4 arguments for simplicity:
- Clarity: Nolan showed samples of text heavy design content — and what was clear was that in text-heavy ad content, there was little that differentiated one product from another (competitor’s) product.
On the other hand, less text content with open white space made the ads stand apart more, and created better brand identity. The Volkswagen ad for the Beetle was shown as an example.
Nolan then showed the famous Afghanistan Spaghetti slide that shows how complexity can altogether remove clarity of thought. Another example Nolan showed was the complex slides presented by Bill Gates years ago — and then he compared them with Bill’s recent slides which were so much clearer.
- Stands Out: Nolan then looked at how you can create content that makes your slides stand out.
He shared three ideas to make your slides stand apart.
First of all, he suggested using charts that are more visual, and less chart-like. An example he used to reiterate this point was by creating a fish chart. So what’s a fish chart? That’s just a bar chart that uses fishes rather than bars!
Nolan then compared slides with car bumper stickers — he suggested we compare every slide we create with a bumper sticker — this approach will help create better slides.
And then he suggested we use just a single header to represent text on a slide — and use a simple visual for the rest of the slide.
- Is Sticky: Nolan then suggested creating slide content that was “sticky”.
He looked at logos of companies such as Nike, Target, and National Geographic — even without the names mentioned, the logos were simple enough to be sticky (identified) in the minds of the audience.
And then he looked at logos with just text such as Reebok and Kohl’s and discussed why those logos with just-text did not work as well as the just-visual logos. To prove his point, Nolan asked everyone in the audience to think of “beer”. And no one though about the words, “beer”, but they all thought about visuals of beer. That’s the reason why visuals make our slides more sticky, and more easy to remember.
Another way of making slides more sticky is to use iconography and insert simple one-color line-art graphics. He also mentioned that iconography is one of those rare cases through which adding something to a slide can make it simpler.
Nolan then showed some samples of iconography.
- Makes Money: The most important thing is that simplicity indeed makes money. Nolan talked about the song, Yesterday, which has made so much money. Nolan asked the audience to listen to the simplicity of the music and the lyrics.
He then compared his two favorite food chains, Panera Bread and Chipotle. He discussed which of these are doing better? And the reason why they are doing better is because of the same factor, simplicity. Whereas Panera has increased sales by 200%, Chipotle has seen sales increase 600% in the same time. Nolan said that’s because Chipotle’s menus are so much simpler than Panera’s.
Nolan added that “a confused mind always says no.” He then added that “the paradox of choice is real.”
To prove this, Nolan spoke about a supermarket chain that allowed testing of 24 jam flavors — after testing, only 3% of customers bought those jams. Comparatively, with only 6 jam choices available the next day, 30% bought those jams. This explains that lesser choices (simplicity) can make more money.
Nolan added that “one should show people content simple enough that lets them write you a check.”
Beyond these 4 elements, Nolan added that there is also a 5th element, and that element is difficulty.
He then explored the new Twitter logo, which is essentially full of circles. He also explored the new Microsoft logo, which was created from geometry.
Nolan then put up a quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (the author of The Little Prince):
“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add but when there is nothing left to taker away.”
Nolan also showed a hotel key-card from a Washington DC hotel that had so little content on the card’s surface — and lots of awesome white space. Also in Washington DC, Nolan spoke of the simple monuments here that create a more moving impact because of their simplicity. An example of such a monument is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The designer of this monument, Maya Lin said:
“It almost seemed to simple, too little…
I toyed with adding some large flat slabs that would appear to lead into the memorial, but they did not belong. The image was so simple that anything added to it began to detract from it.”
Nolan then concluded with some thoughts to help you become a better designer:
- Present your work: It’s easy to send off something via email — don’t do that! Present your work well, even if that means you need to make a phone call.
- Reveal your thinking: Tell your clients why you did what you did — and why you used fewer colors, fewer slides, etc. Tell them why simplicity works.
- Remember the goal: It’s not about graphic designs and special effects, it’s all about achieving your goal with simplicity. Simplicity makes things cleaner.