Reimagining Prism

When news of Prism broke last week, the media was flush with criticisms and defenses of the covert government-sponsored program.

Reimagining Prism

Spearheaded by the NSA, the top secret data-mining project had been collecting information from all online users.

Reimagining Prism

Accompanying the original report was a 41-slide Powerpoint presentation that became the laughing stock of the Internet.

Reimagining Prism

On Twitter, data-viz wizard Edward Tufte, among many others, poked fun at the slides for their awful use of clip art, blocks of text, and abuse of bolds.

Reimagining Prism

Tufte’s tweets inspired visual communication designer (and ace presentation maker) Emiland De Cubber to redesign the Prism slide show.

Reimagining Prism

One of the biggest problems with the original, De Cubber says, was the top banner that linked the slides together. It was packed with logos of (compliant) U.S. Internet services.

Reimagining Prism

De Cubber removed the banner, instituted a bold color scheme (dark blue background, green and white text), and replace the garish collection of logos with flat minimalist icons.

Reimagining Prism

His clean-cut graphics give the slide show a cohesiveness entirely missing from the original.

Reimagining Prism

Probably the most reblogged, retweeted, and shared slide of the NSA deck, this "graphic" shows which companies joined the Prism platform.

Reimagining Prism

In De Cubber’s hands, the slide’s confused elements are transformed into an elegant, easy-to-read composition.

Reimagining Prism

De Cubber’s project is laced with hints of subtle humor, as in this slide, which argues that Prism’s $20 million pricetag is a steal.

Reimagining Prism

He concludes his slide show with a bit of knowing self-advertisement: “Even if you are not a government agency, I would be happy to help you with your next presentation.”

Co.Design

A Designer Overhauls The NSA's Atrocious Powerpoint Presentation

Slide show expert Emiland De Cubber transforms the NSA’s clunky Prism deck with minimalist cool.

When news of the NSA’s classified Prism program broke last week, revealing that the U.S. government had ordered the collection of all Americans’ online activities, many cried foul over the Obama administration’s abuses of power. The op-ed machine churned out everything you could imagine, each piece more grave, impassioned, and seemingly “consequential” than the next. Some called for the imprisonment of Prism leaker Edward Snowden, while others offered sympathetic portraits of the young whistleblower.

When the Prism slide show was circulated around the web, however, Emiland De Cubber’s first reaction was not a feeling of personal violation on the part of the state, nor worry about its unchecked powers, but rather one of disdain for the document’s presentation sins. He has revamped the NSA’s slide show, replacing its daft graphics with minimalist ones that are unnervingly cool.

“I thought it was a joke at the beginning, like a caricature of an overly corporate slide template,” De Cubber tells Co.Design. “Huge logos, massive gradients, default fonts, poor charts.”

De Cubber, a visual communication designer, stumbled across data-viz jedi Edward Tufte’s mocking tweets, in which he reserved his ire for Prism’s egregious graphic sense. Tufte’s sneering critique--“Dreadful spy-PRISM deck sets new record for most header logos per slide: 13”--prompted De Cubber’s own response. He updated every aspect of the top-secret Powerpoint presentation, including the program’s terribly '70s-"Dark Side of the Moon logo," which De Cubber renders in skeletal, glow-green lines.

Where the Prism slides each employ different graphic strategies, linked together only by a top banner laden with logos of the partnering companies, de Cubber devised a much more uniform system. His new Powerpoint features flat, pared-down icons that supplant the original’s cumbersome text boxes and jarring logos, and which seamlessly carry across the entire deck. In place of the gobs of text that cluttered the original, for example, De Cubber plots a field of web icons that clearly convey what kind of data can be extracted from online users. For the concluding slide--the one trolled ‘round the (micro-blogging) world--he vertically arrays the logos in tidy columns, each labeled with the year Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and others signed onto the program.

The reinterpreted deck economizes the information and privileges empty space. “People are afraid of an empty slide,” De Cubber explains. “They say, ‘I definitely need this gradient frame around my title,’ and then occupy 30% of their slides with stuff that doesn’t convey any information. That’s why I tried to draw a lot of contrast by keeping my slides as minimalistic as possible. Each element must earn its space on the slide.”

There was one element of the NSA overview that, like many similar redesigns that have popped up online, De Cubber kept. He slightly modified “International Internet Bandwidth” graphic, featured on slide 2, tweaking certain aspects of its composition. He highlighted the U.S./North America circle and rearranged some bits of text to improve legibility. Asked why he left it intact, De Cubber says that he “liked the analogy between the graphic lines and the actual cables that convey data,” adding that the graphic accurately reflected how "nearly everything flows through the U.S."

In addition to his wholesale changes to Prism’s visual language, De Cubber excised all of the presentation’s text and inserted his own in its place. In most cases, his thin lines of text delete redundancies and complications found in the original. Now and then, however, he does slip in some subtle digs that make plain the NSA’s intentions. "How can we monitor everything?" reads the heading of one slide; another touting the laundry list of collectable data assures the reader that "many more data sources [are] available upon request." De Cubber’s cavalier approach to the entire project comes through in his concluding lines of the slide show: “Even if you are not a government agency, I would be happy to help you with your next presentation.”

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17 Comments

  • Greg O.

    As a designer and illustrator, my first reaction to any visual carries a heavy dose of judgement. The actual content of this government monstrosity, however, trumps any disgust that I felt regarding the piece's lack of graphic integrity.

    I could care less whether the government oligarchs enjoy the benefits of an "Unnervingly cool" Power Point presentation (they probably wouldn't "get it" anyway) that would only help to streamline and facilitate the coming tyranny.

    And we wonder why designers get a rap for "empty-headedness".

  • MJH

    Well done Fast Co for an elegant way to let readers know what's going on with USA survelliance of everything we access, view and write online.  

  • Antoine_Champagne

    OK. Stylish. But it misses the main point : this is about surveying and oppressing people. It should be treated with all the care it deserves : sign petitions against it and support Edward Snoden on avaaz chicos. 

  • monirom

    De Cubber's redesign makes all the valid points that come with most every guide on how to produce effective presentation graphics. However, De Cubber's misses a few points, perhaps because (I'm assuming) he's never worked on any government nor DOD projects.

    In most all of these situations, all the details, research and content is generated and written by staffers, then run up the food chain for approval. Every hand it passes through adds their stamp to the presentation. Edits are non-stop and tweaked (especially figures and charts) up until the last minute.

    Last, the presentation is never treated as a presentation, it's treated as a deck which doubles as a leave behind. Which is why the backgrounds are white, since solid coverage wastes toner and tax dollars. Match this up with the fact that few, if any, of the persons putting these PPT presentations together have a design background and you have the reasons why government slides are ineffective communication vehicles.

  • Fabian Galon

    Even the Nazis had a style guide. If you're gonna oppress a people, the least you can do is to do it with style.

  • Josh

    This is so incredibly misguided, it's disgusting that you guys will simply post any trendy looking thing. This is advertising for an opportunistic designer with extremely limited integrity. Very disappointing.

  • rmintzes

    It doesn't change the fact that the PowerPoint put out by the government still looks god-awful. Granted, our tax dollars aren't used for the creation of sexy PowerPoint presentation, and instead the government hires crack computer geniuses to sift through mountains of our data.  I don't view this as a misguided attempt to show something trendy, and to call the designer opportunistic is, in my opinion, a misguided characterization on your part.  The designer is one among many who took it upon themselves, as an exercise, to redesign the PowerPoint as a way of showing how to more attractively and effectively communicate the information embedded in the presentation.  There is a grave syndrome among many companies (and clearly high levels of government as well), in which they can't compose a decent slideshow any better than I was able to do in my 6th grade computer class.  So I say good on FastCo for showing at least one example...

  • PhineasJW

    Great example of minimalist design.  Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

    But .... where's the link to his full presentation??If you included it, I can't find it.  [There should be a link at the very end with your source material]