Friday, October 9, 2009

Creating Meaning by Exclusion

I am in the States currently for some business meetings. I am not certain I can name my client. So, I will err on the side of caution and just say that I am in Connecticut and have been here for a month now.

As in all such cases, I have to send weekly status updates and sent my first three weeks back. I was rather proud of it. Using the SmartArt features of Word 2007, I had painstakingly created a report that visually represented the different phases of the project, the status of each, and the delivery plans. In the distribution list of this update were the key stakeholders from the client’s end as well as ours—one of them being my co-blogger, colleague, critic, and someone who pushes me really hard to expand my intellectual frontiers. His response came pretty quickly. It was a crisp one liner that said, “Use the attached template for future updates.” No scope for ambiguity here.

I stared glumly at the mail and the attached excel sheet with its three columns and the following headings—Short Term Plans, Action Steps and Status—and told myself, “These numbers guys can’t think beyond excel!”

Today, as I am reading Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen, that exchange came back to me vividly. And I saw the wisdom in that excel sheet with its three columns and the simple, straightforward message.

What Presentation Zen talks about is a way of life—a life based on simple elegance, on the pruning away of all inessentials so that only the most vital, the most crucial can be the focus. A life based on conscious decisions about inclusions and exclusions. If we replace the word “life” here with design, we will have understood the Zen principles of design.

I have deliberately used the word “life” because design is not extraneous to life. It is not “decoration”, not icing on the cake but an intrinsic part of how we think, feel, see, envision and depict.

That is probably why Scott McCloud has said, “By stripping down an image to essential meaning, an artist can amplify that meaning…”

Stripping down requires reflection, a deep understanding, an ability to synthesize and visualize, and above all, empathize. Without empathy, I cannot see through my audience’s eyes and feel their fears and answer their questions or empower them to see my vision.

Zen aesthetic is based on the three concepts: Kanso (Simplicity), Shizen (Naturalness) and Shibumi (Elegance)

I have paraphrased Reynolds’ words below:

Kanso: In the Kanso concept, beauty and visual elegance are achieved by elimination, omission. This requires the achievement of maximum effect with minimum means.

Shizen: Naturalness that arises from restraint is the essence. It is the opposite of opulence, excess. This kind of restraint is hard, difficult to put into practice. Complication and elaboration is easy. When I don’t know to the last precise detail what the heart of my message is, it is much easier to add fluff. To whittle and prune away requires the strength of conviction, belief in the message and an artist’s heart that is revolted by the ungainly extra bits and pieces.

Shibumi: It is about articulate brevity—conveying through exclusion. Good design leaves room for imagination, is suggestive rather than conclusive, inspires tranquility and thought, and leaves room for the mind and the eye to move. The “less is more” is one of the tenets here.

I sent out the next weekly update in the excel sheet with its three simple columns. It helped me to keep track of my week’s plan, focus on the key points, and get them across in as few words as possible besides saving me a lot of time.

This time, I received the following one-liner (I have pasted it verbatim):

“All that people are hungry for in this world is info in simple ways.”

I agree.


Edward Tufte's books

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