The dangers of bad a PowerPoint presentation are manifold. It might just mean putting your audience to sleep, or running afoul of the High Council of Information Design. But if your presentations have wider reaching concerns, like those given routinely by members of the U.S. Armed Forces, bad slides can have far greater consequences. In the military’s hands, as Brigadier General H. R. McMaster explained to the New York Times in 2010, bad PowerPoint can actually be dangerous–it gives “the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control.” It certainly doesn’t help when you’re making 100-slide presentations entirely in Comic Sans, as one Army aide submitted last year.
While you’re probably not guilty of mucking up complex geopolitical strategy with your bad slides, chances are you’ve made some crappy ones–or, at the very least, been subjected to some–at one point or another. So the appeal of Haiku Deck, a free app for the iPad, should be clear. As founder Adam Tratt explained to me: “We wanted to make it impossible to create ugly [slides].”
The app, as its name suggests, is all about brevity, enabling users to make clean, concise slide shows–or decks–with a heavily streamlined feature set. Using it is fiendishly simple: You enter a few keywords of text onto a slide, and the app searches a database of over 35 million Creative Commons images that suit your subject. If your text says “Fierce Dedication,” you might get an artful shot of a tiger or a football team to use as the slide’s background (though you can always use a photo of your own). Finding that compelling image for you, Tratt says, is one of Haiku Deck’s key achievements. “People spend a ton of time doing this manually … so we thought we could really delight our users if we made the process just happen automagically, and then embed the Creative Commons attribution right in the deck.”
After you pick your image, your text is automatically formatted nice and big to fill the screen. A handful of themes offer quick ways to customize your fonts and apply photo filters throughout; five themes are included with the free app, and 11 more are available with a $2 in-app purchase. When you’re done, you can show decks on mobile devices, project them from PCs, or embed them on webpages. But the most striking thing about Haiku Deck might be what it doesn’t offer. There are no transitions, no bullet points, and no graphs anywhere to be found.
The point, Tratt explains, was to make a slide show app that’s easy to use–and impossible to screw up.
“Our approach was to make a presentation tool that people would love to use and to obliterate the dreaded ‘death by PowerPoint,’ phenomenon that so many experience on a regular basis, whether in the workplace, in the classroom, on a committee, or at a conference,” Tratt said. “To do this, we tried to productize best practices espoused by the presentation design gurus like Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte. They say things like, ‘use one idea per slide,’ ‘have a consistent look and feel,’ and ‘use an impactful image.'”
These are principles that Haiku Deck’s limited feature set essentially forces you to follow. It’s similar to some of the thinking behind Apple’s iOS, just on a much narrower scale: The user doesn’t always know best, and if you give him the option to customize everything, don’t be surprised if you end up with a dreadful result.
Of course, some users will chafe at the app’s limitations, and there are ways in which Haiku Deck is frustratingly restrictive. You can’t, for example, position text elements anywhere you want; in fact, you can’t even create more than two text elements on any given slide. But the developers seem to be aware of the dangers here. “Different fonts and layouts are important too,” Tratt says, “and we still have a ways to go on that.”
But for anyone who has had to squint at a PowerPoint presentation that was essentially just the unedited text from the reader’s speaking notes, Haiku Deck offers a merciful alternative. In an academic lecture or a business meeting, an overly dense slide show is like a Pavlovian signal to zone out. Haiku Deck, at the very least, guarantees legibility. On this note, Tratt sums up the app’s raison d’être succinctly: “Why does PowerPoint even have 8pt font as an option?”