be the medium of your medium

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Did Space Shuttle Columbia break apart while re-entering the
Earth's atmosphere, instantly killing all seven crew members,
because ofa poorly designed PowerPoint slide? During the
launch, a few days earlier, a piece of insulation foam had
struck theshuttle's wing.
While Columbia was still orbiting the
Earth, NASA engineers showed the results oftheir investiga
tion to their superiors. The piece of foam was hundreds of
times bigger than anything they had ever tested and could
have caused a severe fracture. Unfortunately their warning
was conveyed on PowerPoint. Their superiors walked away
from the presentation thinking everything was fine.
Visually stunning presentations tell a story, engage their audi
ence and make information meaningful, entertaining and
beautiful. The sheer magnitude of the problem NASA was
facing was lost. It was buried in a slide crowded with bullet
points. Edward Tufte, a Yale University professor and
researcher into the presentation of visual information, investi
gated the incident and demonstrated that PowerPoint
encouraged poor thinking by its very design. He criticised
the format: complex ideas squashed into bulleted lists distort
the information. If it had been presented in another medium,
the disaster could almost certainly have been prevented. An
independent board reached thesame conclusion after read
ing Tufte's analysis, admitting that: 'It is easy to understand
how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and
not realise that it addresses a life-threatening situation.'
Your working environment, whether it's a supermarket,
office, studio or building site, persuades you to work and
think in certain ways. The more aware you are of that, and
the more you understand your medium, the more you can
use it to your advantage. A meeting about finance is not
about finance, it's about meetings: their format, internal
politics, hierarchies and the way things are managed and
governed. The most common decision at a meeting is to
have another meeting. That's not really a decision.
Artists were the firstto investigate this idea, in particularthe
surrealists. Rene Magritte's paintings were paintings about
paintings. His surrealist ideas have had a profound influence
on our understanding of how the medium transforms the
message. Instead of producing art about something he had
observed, hisworkreflected on what a painting was and the
actual effect that it has on the viewer. He asked his audience
to doubt the illusion they were presented with.
Magritte's painting The Treachery of Images showed a pipe
with the words This is not a pipe' underneath. This seems at
first glanceto be a contradiction, but is actually true: it is not
a pipe, itis animage ofa pipe. Magritte was pointing outthat
a painting is an illusion. He was trying to understand the
language of painting, how it worked and how it conveyed
ideas, and to challenge observers' preconditioned percep
tions ofthe artform. Apainting offlowers is notaboutflowers,
it is about the medium ofpainting: the traditions, history, the
frame, the gallery and the expectations the viewer has.

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