Visualising quantum mechanics

Visualising quantum mechanics

That is an ambitious title to start my first blog post after my return from a summer holiday in Asia!

Through a series of coincidences I ended up reading through a number of popular science books about quantum mechanics. I remember getting all carried away in the briefing session of a presentation design project for a startup in the field of quantum computing. My academic knowledge of this field was basically high school chemistry, so I added this topic to the list of things that needed a refresh. A holiday was the perfect occasion. I am sure I was the only one at the side of the pool dusting of theoretical physics knowledge.

From a presentation perspective, the fascinating problem that quantum mechanics struggles with a the lack of either a visual or verbal language to describe concepts. The mathematics is water tight and has proven to be really useful (lasers, semiconductors, LEDs, etc. etc.). But when you try to take a step back and want to understand what it actually all means in the context of your daily routines, things get confusing.

It is all the result of some form of Anamorphosis, projections of phenomena that get scrambled when angles or dimensions no longer line up. Every scientist is looking for that ultimate simple underlying concept that can explain/visualise/link quantum on a small scale to the more traditional physics that we see everywhere around us at a human scale.

In case you are interested, here are 2 books on the subject: Beyond Weird, and What is Real?.

Photo by Linus Mimietz on Unsplash

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Font or typeface?

Font or typeface?

Seth Godin in hist latest blog post:

And yes, there’s a mustard analogy in everything you do. In how you shake hands, in the typeface you use in your presentation (and whether you call it a ‘font’), in the volume you choose for your voice when in conversation.

Yes, there is a difference between “typeface” and “font”. Typeface refers to the style of a character, (Helvetica), font is the specific instance of that typeface (Helvetica 12 bold italic), which corresponds to a specific drawer with letters printers once used.

As someone who presents himself as a professional designer, I should be a purist, but don’t tell anyone, but I use the word “font” all the time. It sounds better is shorter, and an issue that is relevant for me recently: “font” is easier to fit in a dropdown menu of an application than “typeface”.

Photo by Mr Cup / Fabien Barral on Unsplash

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App update

App update

Things are a bit quieter on the blog as I am continuing to work on SlideMagic 2.0. There was a small personal triumph as I finally acquired the skill to code a web server and remote database and read/write slides and users to it.

This enables me to start finally working on a proper search mechanism for template slides. I have a pretty good idea in my head of a mechanism where a user can click around between related slide layouts, visual concepts, business concepts, but it is (still) tricky to code this in software. When I succeed, I could probably file another patent, but for sure can claim SlideMagic 2.0 uses “AI”, which always sounds good.

To be continued.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

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Fancy paper

Fancy paper

Back in university, whenever we had a few more advertisers for the student association magazine, we immediately went for more expensive paper, full colour, or sophisticated binding.

This is a bit like throwing fancy effects at a presentation. In both cases, it does not always work.

Very heavy rough paper works for wedding invitations, but on a magazine, it looks like a brochure for expensive wine fridges.

Heavy satin finish paper looks beautiful on a thick 100+ page, coffee table book, full of A4+-sized pages with lots of white space in it. Not so much for the A5-sized, loaded page with the calendar of the weekly drinks gatherings, plus 10 more pages.

In many cases, black and white photos with just one highlight colour makes things look much prettier than noisy images with random colour palettes.

Fancy is not always better.

Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

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PowerPoint templates in one file

PowerPoint templates in one file

If you want to download many slides from my template store, the process is a bit cumbersome: you have to add slides 1 by 1 to the check out card, and then download load them individually. My vision (hate that word) was to create a super useful slide search engine which you then accessed on an as-needed basis. The problem is the Shopify platform (which is designed to sell T-shirts, not digital downloads).

Slowly but surely I am building up the skills to start running my own template server, as a web site, as a backend to my new SlideMagic 2.0 desktop app, and possibly as a plugin to PowerPoint itself. Until that is all launched (and built), I am going to make life easier for current store subscribers: making all slides available in one downloadable file.

On request, I put a quick 200+ slide file in PowerPoint 4x3 format up (you can find it here, free to download for subscribers), the other formats will follow.

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

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App update

App update

I am posting a bit less frequent these days since all my posts originate directly from the work I do day to day, and presentation design work has pretty much dropped to zero at the moment…

So what is happening with SlideMagic 2.0? I pretty much completed the desktop app but still think it is not ready for public release as small bugs continue to pop up, and I keep on discovering tiny, but annoying usability issues for which I do not need the help of others to discover them. The feature set is frozen, but experience is super important for a presentation design app (the big issue with version 1.0).

Hunting tiny bugs is not the most inspiring things to do, so I split my day now between this, and the next challenge: creating a template “store” with a smart search engine that integrates tightly with the app (unlike the current Shopify site). Technically, this is a lot simpler than the complex desktop app that I created, but for me it is a bigger challenge as I need to dive into the world of server design, which did not really exist when I graduated in Computer Science in 1992.

The potential upside should be interesting though, as this is the final barrier for me to go all out in thinking about what technology can do to help make the creation of presentations easy. Again, I will start with the tinkering approach, slowly iterating towards a product that is useful (which involves backing out of a lot of dead end alleys.

To be continued.

Photo by Christian Kaindl on Unsplash

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SlideMagic is a design language

SlideMagic is a design language

I have started using SlideMagic 2.0 extensively now to shake out every single possible bug (I can’t believe all the things that can go wrong in software). The more I use the tool, the more I come to realise that SlideMagic is a design language that happens to be supported by a tool, and not the other way around.

Trying to break SlideMagic 2.0

Trying to break SlideMagic 2.0

  • Titles, footnotes, (small) corporate logo, page numbers, the slide content, all of them have a fixed place in the layout

  • Mainly greyscale slides with one strong accent colour to make things pop out

  • Rigorous adherence to the grid, everything lines up with everything, text, images, arrows, data charts, labels, everything

  • You can use any shape you want, as long as it is a rectangle with sharp corners

  • It is technically not possible to create a bullet point dot on a slide

  • It is technically not possible to stretch images out of their aspect ratio

The constraints of email and instant messages have made corporate communication a lot simpler and more efficient: text can be brief, informal. Something similar needs to happen to presentations.

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Screen sizes in PowerPoint

Screen sizes in PowerPoint

The coding of my app requires me to descend into the detail of font and screen sizes: SlideMagic 2.0 renders slides on the screen (HTML), in PDF, and in PowerPoint. It requires some fiddling to get things to look exactly the same in all three of these channels.

This post by Geetesh Bajaj explained nicely why things can go “wrong” in PowerPoint. Switching from “4:3” to "16:9 onscreen” mixes up all the font sizes. Why? Font sizes are expressed in terms of character height. The “16:9 onscreen” mode keeps the width of the screen, just makes the height smaller. The result, all text looks way too big.

Recently, Microsoft added the “wide screen” setting. This is the one to use. The height of the screen is kept the same, the width is made longer.

PowerPoint screen sizes explained by  Indezine

PowerPoint screen sizes explained by Indezine

If you are never switching layouts and masters, and/or are not coding presentation software, all of this should not worry you. The only thing that matters is 4:3 versus 16:9. Still, when you have a choice, pick that “widescreen” option to make life easier. for you.

Photo by Jon Ander on Unsplash

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M&Ms

M&Ms

Over the weekend I read a profile of Christine Lagarde and how she rescued a EU crisis meeting once by passing around a bag of M&Ms (sugar kick) and suggesting to move all documents aside and start writing points of agreement on a blank sheet of paper.

It is incredibly hard to get a large group of people to agree on a complex document (or presentation) on the spot. Sometimes, the list of bullet points is the best solution:

  • Short informal language

  • Everyone has full visibility fo what is written

  • Any distracting side comments can easily be parked

Image via WikiPedia

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Animations in user interfaces

Animations in user interfaces

I usually don’t put animations in my presentations, they don’t add much, and in web interfaces I find them mostly annoying. I just discovered an exception: the tile or story view of presentation software. If you add or remove slides from the grid in one “bang” (instantly rendering the sequence of slides), your brain gets confused and does not seem to understand what just happened.

I have something else to learn…

Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST on Unsplash

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Presentations on Apple Watch

Presentations on Apple Watch

As soon as the first Apple Watch came out, I said I would consider getting one when it could operate independently of your phone. Last week, Israeli cellphone operators finally starting supporting eSims. So far the device works great, especially for tracking bike rides (and spotting when my family calls worried after my helmet triggers a false alarm crash alert). But the best is that for an introvert with a profession that requires few lengthy discussions by phone, I start leaving my phone at home altogether more and more.

The app landscape for the watch is still a bit primitive. Many big-tech companies actually pulled their Watch apps as most users just read notifications, rather than use a native interface on the watch to do things. I quickly had a look at the PowerPoint and Keynote Apple Watch apps.

Keynote works as expected. You can use your watch as a remote control for presenting a deck on your iPhone. The use case for this is limited though in my opinion. If it could control the flow of slides on a mac or iPad, it might be useful.

PowerPoint probably is supposed to do the same thing. It asks you to open a presentation on your phone, but when you do, nothing really happens. I guess it is a temporary bug in the app.

I could see other small features being incorporated, a little buzz when you reach the last 5 minutes of your allocated speaking time for example, but these are all well, features.

Feel free to jump in in the comments below when I am overlooking relevant apps for presentations on Apple Watch.

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Yes, I know...

Yes, I know...

The first few seconds of any presentation, the audience is not really paying attention to what you say, but rather checks out who the speaker in front of them is. Wow, that is a bright pink shirt, is she senior, he seems nervous…

A major distractor is vocal accents: where is she from? Often, accents can be so heavy that they start reminding us of characters in movies and/or other stereotypes. Yes, this is not politically correct, but you cannot help the brain making that connection.

I often “apologise” for that Dutch accent in a short opening intro explaining where I am from. If you are a French engineer, with a heave French accent, maybe you should acknowledge it with a smile and move on.

Photo by Titouan on Unsplash

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Live audience questions

Live audience questions

In a huge keynote, audience questions are almost impossible. The practicalities of picking who can ask a question, getting a microphone to the person. The lottery of whether the question will actually be interesting or relevant, and/or whether the person is actually good at asking to the point questions. And what if no one actually responds to the famous speaker inviting questions?

Dedicated smartphone apps (or even Twitter) seem to solve part of these problems. Users have to be brief, don’t interrupt the live presentation, people can upvote things, and you can pre-populate question to get people started.

I have seen them in action. Often the questions are projected on a huge screen behind the speaker. But, that constantly changing huge screen is actually distracting, there is even a possibility of “background vandalism” for controversial speakers, and most of the times, the questions are actually ignored.

A solution? Use the system, but don’t put the questions on the main screen. Answer at least one question. But most importantly, use the questions that pop up to make other conference presentations more relevant. Questions are live feedback about what the audience actually wants to hear. If it cannot be used now, maybe it can help the next session.

Photo by Camylla Battani on Unsplash

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Good panels: prepare first-hand stories

Good panels: prepare first-hand stories

The ‘panel’ is often a preferred presentation format for big conferences. It seems like a win-win for everyone. The conference can advertise a handful of high-profile speakers that are all together on the stage sharing their wisdom. The panel members can just show up without preparing any slides, presentation, just winging it.

Unfortunately, the audience can tell. Panelist that get caught off-guard by a question and making up an answer like a politician, throwing in a few buzzwords along the way. Moderators that try to sow their own smarts by answering the questions themselves.

A good panel requires preparation. Moderators need to think what questions to ask to whom. And panel members should be asked to share what interesting stories they can share that then can be weaved into a question.

From my own experience, the panels that share ‘raw’ stories are the most interesting. How a company grew, what decisions they took, stats on where they are now. Everything first hand and directly related to the panel member. Very specific, actual experiences. As soon as people try to generalise and abstract away from the direct experience, things become boring very quickly.

A good panel discussion is well-prepared

Photo by Alex Read on Unsplash

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What drives you?

What drives you?

Upon hearing my efforts to build a new presentation app, I get lots of friendly advice about how to turn the program into an office productivity giant and produce a phenomenal (financial) exit. How to launch, what to build, where to expand, how to price.

While this huge IPO might be nice, it is not my main objective at the moment. I feel that through a number of coincidences I have been put in a position that can really end the suffering of creating and watching presentations in companies. By coincidence: the combined skill set of understanding business, having a feel for design, and the ability to program all ended up in the same head somehow.

Building a new presentation tool is not something you do with a huge VC investment, a high profile Board, a large team of developers, armies of social media copy writers. Getting product market fit requires tinkering, trying, starting over, fixing things.

The whole thing is a calculated risk. Today, the investment to create software is relatively low. And with decades of professional experience under my belt, I can always fall back to designing decks again. On the upside software can scale infinitely if it works.

And in addition, I have that urge to push the current V1.0 that is out on slidemagic.com to what it really should have been.

Crazy? Maybe, but not completely.

Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

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Farewell to static charts? Um, no.

Farewell to static charts? Um, no.

A quote from a Venture Beat post that paints a bright future for BI (Business Intelligence) dashboards:

Say farewell to static charts pasted onto presentation slides — the new standard is shareable data stories

I have heard it many times before. Your new BI system plugs into whatever data you have, you click and browse through the data, and automatically the most insightful slides and tables are generated, on the spot.

I think BI vendors are mixing up a few quite different activities:

  • Analysis is finding the problem and solving it, presenting is communicating the results and getting people to act.

  • Freely flowing in data, slicing, dicing, charting, is analysis. It is actually pretty hard to find what is going on in a business, especially with an overload of data available. This is definitely not something you do in front of a live audience.

  • Once you have identified the problem, and even found the solution, it is again pretty hard to craft that one chart that explains it all in less than 5 seconds. You need to take exactly the right data, cut it the right way, and highlight the right trend. Again, something that takes too much time to do live.

Where I see role for these type of dashboards, is after you did the hard work: you figured out what data is important, what statistics to track, what charts to show. Then, you can use the power of modern BI systems to pull together slides on the spot. You get instant updates about the state of the business today, or you can apply your methodology to other business units, other geographies and see what you can learn.

So BI systems don’t solve problems on the fly, they automate the data in your deck, after you did the hard work of actually designing a good old static chart, probably by hand.

Photo by Jason Coudriet on Unsplash

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You care about your company history, others less so

You care about your company history, others less so

The speaker puts up the “Company background” as the first slide with bullet points full of founding dates, employee numbers, when the second office was opened, etc. etc.

You probably lost half your audience.

For the presenter, the company history is incredibly relevant. It summarises your entire path (10 years) that got you here neatly on 1 page. It makes total sense.

For the audience, company history does not matter that much (maybe with the exception of luxury brands), what solution are you offering today? Also, company history slides tend to look remarkably similar across companies. So the audience probably saw it before, somewhere else.

Often, the history slide is a left over from when the company was still small. It always was page 2 of the deck, we just updated the employee and office numbers for each presentation. And the same slides are probably used in different presentations. When the founder addresses the annual sales staff gathering, the company history told directly by her, might actually be funny and/or insightful. But she is unlikely to stick to the bullets on the slide. And, the same bullets in the hand of a sales rep sound boring and without context.

Photo by Pawel Kadysz on Unsplash

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App update

App update

With SlideMagic 2.0, I have hit the last 20% of the effort that takes 80% of the time. Getting everything to run perfectly is nitty gritty detail work. The result will be worth the wait though.

I am revisiting the image rendering and cropping engine at the moment. Cropping and masking images and getting them to line up in a grid is a painful process in PowerPoint, Keynote, and even in Adobe software. The professional designer has learned where to find the right tools. The amateur is struggling to make a simple crop and make sure that text over the photo is still readable, especially when the next version of the deck needs to go out in the next 15 minutes with an additional person in the team bio slide (headshot + 5 logos).

SlideMagic will come to the rescue, the screenshot below gives an idea of what I am working on now.

Image cropping and masking in SlideMagic 2.0

Image cropping and masking in SlideMagic 2.0

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Memorising a presentation?

Memorising a presentation?

Seth Godin suggests that it is better to memorise stories than exact sentences when delivering a presentation.

He is right. It is totally apparent when someone is reading sentence after sentence from a “piece of paper” that is stored in her brain. There is no connection between the part of the brain that is uttering the words, and the other part of the brain that is a believer in the story. Disconnected.

Memorising stories is not as easy as it sounds. To sound spontaneous, you actually need to know your material inside out. Musicians can produce solos that seem effortless and spontaneous, when in reality they can dream every note on every scale across every chord, after which it is easy to play around with variations.

Even if you (think you) know your story, it is hard to tell it without uh’s and oh’s, repeats, restarts, forgetting a key element, and getting lost in a tangent that is not relevant.

Not all people are equally confident to tell a compelling story, and for those, being able to recite the individual sentences of your presentation might be a sign that you are 50% on the way. Now rehearse until you get to 100%.

Photo by Alexandre St-Louis on Unsplash

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Designing with phone cameras in mind

Designing with phone cameras in mind

A large portion of conference audiences now diligently snaps a photo of every slide that the keynote speaker presents. Some implications:

  • You can no longer hide secrets by quickly going to the next slide. A high resolution camera got all those quarterly sales numbers in that nano second the slide was one. If you don’t want things to end up in the public domain, don’t put it on a slide, not even small. Yes, that might mean investing an extra half hour recreating that graph from the budget document.

  • The opposite is also true. Slides have a second use, pondering over them after the big presentation. This means you could add more content than you normally would do for an in-person presentation. One way to do that is to use an “explanation box”, like this feature in the SlideMagic presentation app. The main slide and the explanation are clearly separated.

  • You could take it even further by designing slides explicitly for the photo: for example, a calculation how you got to a certain number. Show it, say what it is, invite a picture, and move on.

The SlideMagic presentation software has an explanation panel that you can slide in and out.

The SlideMagic presentation software has an explanation panel that you can slide in and out.

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