PowerPoints, Post-Its, and Disaster

October 6, 2023

PowerPoints, Post-Its, and Disaster

In 2003 people were freaking out about the life-changing impact of… Microsoft PowerPoint. As with the printing press, radio, TV, etc., many believed that PowerPoint would make us boring, sales-y, or “rot our brains”. On February 1st of the same year, the space shuttle Columbia prepared for re-entry into Earth. But something went wrong, and it disintegrated 16 minutes before landing. The cause of the disaster was declared by the NASA Accident Investigation Board as a piece of insulating foam that broke loose and damaged the shuttle’s left wing during lift-off. However, the report indicated another more surprising malefactor. A PowerPoint presentation. Engineers knew about the wing damage before the shuttle attempted re-entry, and drastically underestimated its impact. Why? Their analysis was based on a series of overstuffed PowerPoint (PP) slideshows. According to the NASA Report, “It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation...” Following Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s theory “the medium is the message”, the NASA PowerPoint presentation became the message itself, camouflaging information as less important than it was. Following the Columbia disaster, data visualization expert Edward Tufte reviewed NASA’s slides and commented that PP supports “breaking up narratives and data into … minimal fragments,” “a preoccupation with format not content,” and “a smirky commercialism that turns information into a sales pitch.” The consequence of foam hitting a shuttle wing was buried under bullet points, well-placed images, and transition effects.

Next Slide Please

Twenty years later, we have new communication software with similar benefits and issues. They’re called digital whiteboards. Digital whiteboards or “visual collaboration tools” like Miro, Figma, Lucidspark and others work like traditional whiteboards, but digital. They propose new ways to brainstorm in real time, across geographies and time zones, allowing for flexible remote work and schedules. Gone are the days of big fat markers that smell faintly of rotting fruit. Instead, we add, drag and delete an infinite quantity of text, images, diagrams, links, emojis, and shapes across immeasurable digital canvases.

One very popular brainstorming tool is the digital sticky note. Like its paper counterpart, people type on them and “stick” them to the “whiteboard”. They’re just one part of a process, but often end up taking priority. As a former Google designer wrote in MIT Technology Review, “…for all the excitement and Post-its they generated,” the sessions he led “didn’t usually lead to built products or, really, solutions of any kind.” In other words, the sticky notes and other visuals became the outcome. Freed from the burden of materiality, digital sticky notes exist indefinitely and are often transformed into fully-fledged documents. In fact, digital whiteboard software now offers templates exactly for this kind of changeover, leaving me questioning what kind of fine-tuning occurs in-between, and by whom or what.

What Thinking Looks Like

Digital whiteboards are based on something called design thinking – a problem solving approach adopted by a broad range of institutions, businesses, and workplaces. It involves five codified steps – Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test – set to facilitate the improvement of products, customer flows, and other business operations. But, as Graphic Designer Natasha Jen points out, one crucial step is missing. “Crit” or criticism. If you attended art or design school you’ll realize the significance here – when process (sticky notes) replaces product, it’s impossible to critique effectiveness or consequence.

Digital whiteboards both employ and enable design thinking by encouraging participants to engage in many activities as quickly as possible, focusing on simplicity, ease and speed. But when flexibility and simplicity are prioritized over slower in-depth analysis and results, details can get lost or even forgotten. And this is reflected in the design and function of the digital whiteboard itself. For example, the scale of the canvas, sticky-notes and other elements are generally of the same size meaning anything that’s of greater significance or meant to remember, risks being lost in a flat hierarchy or accessible only by scrolling.

And consider the way virtual sticky notes encourage the use of texting language – casual, abbreviated communication based more on visuals than content. In 2001, Ian Parker argued in The New Yorker that the software “helps you make a case, but it also makes its own case: about how to organize information… how to look at the world.” When the world (or the mechanics of a space shuttle), looks overly simplistic, casual, and easily consumed we’re more likely to understand it as such. And, when “Crit” is missing from design thinking we risk losing sight of what digital (and traditional) whiteboards are meant to support – IRL functionality of a created product or method.

Jasmine Reimer is a Canadian writer, visual artist, and educator. Currently based in Berlin, she holds an MFA in Studio Art from The University of Guelph. Her research ranges from 18th century German and Italian grotesque to Neolithic goddess mythology to contemporary spirituality, religion, cosmology, and the occult. In general, she is interested in the construction of cultural myths, collective memory/consciousness, archetypes, and traditional and contemporary mysticism. Specifically, Jasmine focuses on the hybrid body as a powerful feminist symbol of transformation and fluidity – ecstatic, abundant, and transgressive. East Room is a shared workspace company providing design-forward office solutions, authentic programming and a diverse community to established companies and enterprising freelancers. We explore art, design, music, and entrepreneurship; visit our news & stories page to read more.