A Peek into the Sausage Factory (IA Summit Presentation Post-Mortem)

Published on Author Christopher Fahey5 Comments

My IA Summit presentation was an experiment in what is a new presentation style for me. I have long admired the rapid-fire presentation style of Lawrence Lessig (aka the “Lessig method“) and in particular the example of Dick Hardt’s keynote at Identity 2.0. Also, I’ve always wanted to achieve the same aesthetic and pedagogical dazzle that my freshman art history teacher managed to lay down every Friday morning at 9:30 to a room full of overworked and/or hung-over art students.

I knew from the start that I would have a lot of slides – that was part of my basic concept, to show style in action across a broad variety of professional disciplines, as a quick barrage of images to drive home the point. In most of my day-to-day business or academic presentations, “1-minute-per-slide” is a pretty good rule of thumb, but for this presentation I ended up with 239 slides to show in 40 minutes. That’s one slide every ten seconds!

I was shocked that it actually worked – quite frankly I was bracing myself for a train wreck. The biggest reason for my surprise is that although I worked extraordinarily hard on the talk, I didn’t manage to get even one chance to rehearse it to see if it even came remotely close to fitting in at under 40 minutes. But in the end, thanks only I suppose to my intuition about my speaking skills, I managed to get to the final slide with five minutes to spare and without losing too much momentum along the way, even as I had to disappointingly breeze through a couple of segments.

About the Topic

After doing all the research and all the thinking, after diving so deeply into the subject of style, I still feel there’s a LOT to say about it. In fact, I feel like my 239 slides barely scratched the surface. Due to time constraints, I glossed over my discussion of three fascinating topics:

Functionalist Modernism

The first was a more in-depth discussion – a refutation, in fact – of what I call “functionalist modernism”. I touched on it briefly with one example, showing that Charles and Ray Eames were not at all the form-follows-function minimalists contemporary design catalogues would have us believe, but that, rather, they loved ornament, kitsch, bric-a-brac, patterns, and all of the decorative crimes that the true modernist eschews. In other words, they were immersed in an ocean of style.

But my primary target was Le Corbusier, an icon of functionalist modernism whose posture as a scientifically-based designer was, in fact, a self-deceptive sham – in much the same way that I think that much of today’s “lab coat” information architecture (and indeed a certain subset of the broader design world) is, sadly, a self-deceptive sham in which style exists but is deliberately obscured.

I also wanted to heap more praise on Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness, a book that I think not only puts the lie to so-called functionalist modernism, but exposes the deeply poetic and humane nature of good architecture – a way of thinking about architecture that, I think, has yet to be explored adequately in the world of information architecture (a connection that, I think, Donald Norman attempted to make in his under-appreciated Emotional Design).

Abductive Reasoning

The second topic I had to skip over was my discussion of “adbductive reasononing”, a type of semi-logical thinking that envisions not what is (as with inductive and deductive reasoning) but what might be or what could be, a type of thinking more common among artists and designers. I wanted to connect this with the concept of “design thinking”, a methodology that is the inverse of the business-based risk-averse process of building products to precisely fill carefully-measured needs… but after reading Dan Saffer’s lament on the topic, I’m reluctant to use that term any more (a post on this is to come) so in a way I’m glad I didn’t go into it too much.

Christopher Alexander’s Design Patterns

Finally, I sadly had to skip over my take on Christopher Alexander’s concept of design patterns. Alexander’s name is dropped frequently these days, especially in the interaction design field, but I see his work very differently than I think most people are currently interpreting it. I consider Alexander’s design patterns to be highly idiosyncratric, deeply creative, overtly political, a wee bit spiritual, and ultimately poetic in nature – which is to say that they are not at all the scientifically-based proven best practices they are too-often presented as. I would even say that Alexander was advocating a certain style of architectural theory.

For Future Development

After all the research and writing, my appetite for this topic is only just beginning. I’m not even entirely sure if the concept of “style” covers the full breadth of what I am seeing here – perhaps it’s more about aesthetics or the re-emergence of the formal and decorative, even the idiosyncratic and poetic, as key drivers of good design.

I have uncovered surprising connections between truly fascinating subjects. I’ve found remarkable authors and designers whose work I was previously unfamiliar with (who on earth is Mr. Keedy and how did he get to be so clever?). It’s clear to me that there is an incredible amount of additional material here, and a lot more for me to think about and say. I would love a chance to continue developing this topic, whether as a longer presentation, more formal articles, or even, heavens, a book.

In the Sausage Factory

If you can stomach it, I wanted to share a little insight into the development of my presentation (or, if you will, the magnitude of my procrastination).

I was working on the speech and the slideshow all night right up to my Friday morning flight, on the plane, off and on throughout the conference, and all night long leading right into my Monday morning session. While in Vegas, however, I did manage to squeeze in a stunning dinner at Bouchon, a drive-in showing of 300 with a few six packs and some excellent soul food, and, on the final night before speaking, a rapid-series of thematic drinks at Quark’s Bar at the Star Trek Experience (including a massive “Warp Core Breach”).

Yes, that’s right, I had too many drinks and absolutely no sleep in the 24 hours before speaking. While the drinking didn’t help any, I do kind of thrive in no-sleep circumstances, actually, as long as a quart of coffee is consumed immediately prior to the moment when top-performance is required (this does not, however, apply to athletic performance, however).

Lou Dorfsman, the great advertising and design luminary, once told my partner Jeff Piazza that his secret to giving a great presentation was to gulp down a shot of Scotch immediately before speaking. I have immense respect for that, I really do, but I guess I’m just made of somewhat different stuff than Mr. Dorfsman.

My work process can be divided into five very distinct phases:

  1. Topic Generation (two weeks of occasional work): The topic and the presentation format came to me in the most clichéd of contexts – in the shower. I was a last-minute addition to the Summit schedule after another speaker had to withdraw, so I was already a month or two behind when I was asked to participate (and the fact that I was permitted to skip the judging process only put more pressure on me to do a kick-ass presentation). It took about two weeks from having the initial ten-word concept before I got to the point where I could write a coherent three paragraphs about the topic, and by that point it was too late to get my description into any of the printed materials for the conference.
  2. Idea Collection/Research (four weeks of occasional work): Idly and intermittently thumbing through my bookshelf, browsing the web, bookmarking links, jotting down random thoughts in my sketchbook, and writing jumbled blog drafts. At no point in this timeframe did I have an overall outline of the final presentation – I was letting the research and my own unpredictable inspirations shape my thinking.
  3. Formal Preparation (five semi-intense evenings): This is where I picked up a few new books and consumed them rapidly, and where I formed the bulk of the overarching concept. During this time I mostly focused on switching back and forth between gathering raw materials (copying or transcribing text snippets into my outline, structuring the outline, and collecting/scanning/photographing images for use in the PowerPoint show) and actually writing my original commentary. I had the final outline 50% done in this timeframe, and had probably written down about 30% of the actual words I wanted to say, but only about 10 slides were actually in the PowerPoint deck at this point. It’s three days before showtime.
  4. Frenzy! (four intense days and nights): This was the most schizophrenic part. I was quite literally doing a little of everything during the final four days. I would spend an hour fine-tuning individual slides, aligning images and normalizing fonts, only to spend the next hour completely re-ordering the thematic flow of the whole presentation and writing the final script. Intense and completely random alternation between micro and macro.
  5. Purge! (2-3 hours): Only in the final hours before showtime did I actually throw in the towel on some sections of the presentation that I knew I would not be able to discuss adequately. I deleted about 10 pages of what would ultimately be a 33-page script, and maybe 50 slides to bring the total PowerPoint page count to 239. I’ve saved all the deleted material, so they’ll probably come up again in a longer-format version of this topic.

I’m very happy to note that my process was entirely consistent with the basic premise of my talk: I had my final delivery style decided very early on, my fundamental outline was never really final until nearly the last minute, and in any event it didn’t completely dictate the content anyway but rather the concept was as much influenced by the content itself – in the same way, I think, that a product’s style shapes that product’s basic premise as much as the premise sets the framework for the product’s ultimate style.

5 Responses to A Peek into the Sausage Factory (IA Summit Presentation Post-Mortem)

  1. I attended your presentation at the IA Summit, and I thought it was very effective, especially the rapid-fire style. What a great way to show that it’s impossible to completely divorce style from substance. If you had done the same presentation a different way, it would have ceased to be the same presentation.

    Anyway, you presented an interesting and thought-provoking counterpoint to Prince-Ramus’ “hyper-rationalism” ideal. Thanks.

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