Moving Sites – Please Update Bookmarks

Hey friends,

I’ve moved my blog site to because my blog and my website were getting lonely for each other (also – sneak preview – I’ll be launching online trainings through my website in the very near future). So please change your bookmarks. I’ll have a new post published Wednesday morning.

Until then, thanks for reading and commenting and keeping me on my toes.


What Business Cards Can Teach Us About Evaluation Reports

After 5+ years, which started as Michael Scriven’s assistant, I’m departing from The Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University on August 31 to accommodate the major increase in my consulting around data visualization and evaluation reporting. I began the tedious effort of cleaning out my drawers and came up the ubiquitous stack of business cards I’ve accumulated over the years (why do we do that?). I saved a few because they reminded me of great graphic design principles that we should all be applying to our evaluation reporting.

The best business cards (and evaluation reports or slides) look organized. Notice how well the Lansing Community College one is aligned:

business card from Lansing Community College

Mary’s name and everything underneath it are all in line. You’d think this could be common but it’s actually pretty rare. Doesn’t it just look and feel professional and organized? (Admittedly, though, I do want to nudge up the LCC logo so it is top-aligned with her address.)

In this one, from MATEC, note how Lara’s name and info align under MATEC, even though the company name is stylized as part of their logo:

Business card for MATEC

Strong alignment between text, headers, and graphics communicates professional competency. Work it!

The most important thing on a business card is the name of the employee. Yet on most business cards, the employee’s name is small, put in the corner, and camouflaged by less important location information (let’s psychoanalyze what that means about employer-employee relationships). Great business cards showcase the employee’s name.  Think about how this supports user cognition: If you’re anything like me, you’ve forgotten someone’s name within 10 seconds of introduction. We inevitably trade business cards before departing. I want to call this person by her name when we say goodbye, so I sneak a glance at the card. In the best case, the name leaps out and saves my day. Good design supports the needs of the end user.

Here is the nice emphasis carried out by Indiana State University:

Business card from Indiana State University

See how Gerald’s name has been visually made the most important part of the card by it’s large size, color, and italics? In the hierarchy of importance on the card, Gerald’s name is at the top and the information of lesser importance is deemphasized. Mary’s card, way above, also achieves in establishing a hierarchy by making Mary’s name darker than the rest of the text and placed at the top of the card.

Our evaluation reports and slides should strive for the same communicative power. That which is most important should be set off in some ways, through color or placement or size or what have you.

Orientation is actually one of those aforementioned emphasis techniques that can help establish a hierarchy on certain bits of text, but layout orientation of an entire business card is also a really powerful way to communicate unique, fresh, youthful, everything you are. Check out how New Latino Visions used orientation:

Business card from New Latino VisionsThe difference is eye-catching and eyeballs-on-cards is an important step leading to the goals of fingers-on-keyboard and name-in-memory.

Now, changing the traditional orientation of a report page or a slide would actually be fairly disruptive in that it would both distract and impair legibility. But the same idea can be applied to a picture or short bits of text like a heading to grab attention.

Our evaluation reporting tools are our business cards. Represent yourself well.

This is What Alignment Looks Like

Ideal alignment is when everything on a page or slide lines up with something else. This sounds pretty simple, right? But there are a lot of implications to consider.

First, let’s examine a weak layout. I drew in some red lines, based on the start and end of the title, down the page in order to illustrate how the rest of the content does not line up well.

page with misaligned text

You can see that the red line on the left doesn’t touch the byline or the main body text or the graph. The red line on the right cuts across the main body text and doesn’t touch the page number at the bottom. Now, some audience members *will* easily detect that this is the result of unintentional formatting. Others, who are less nerdy than me, tend to just get a general sense that the work is sloppy, without being able to put a finger on why. And that should be scary. No evaluator wants to give off the impression of doing sloppy work.

Below is an improved layout with better alignment.

page with consistent alignment

You’ll see here that content all lines up on the left, as it should. I simply adjusted the tabs and margins on the byline and body text to align under the left side of the header. I nudged the graph title’s text box to the left, and the axis as well, so it similarly aligned. On the right side, I shrunk the margin of the body text to get it to line up with the end of the title line (this is especially important if using full justification on body text). I even moved the tab on the page number to get it in line with the right side. Now the page looks more crisp, thoughtful, and professional (just as an evaluator should).

Of course, all this is made more complicated in slideshows, where content is presented via text boxes. Also, I’m really only addressing vertical alignment here. In slides, with text and pictures side-by-side, there’s horizontal alignment to think about too. But once you start looking specifically for alignment, you’ll see it everywhere. Make sure everything lines up with something else.

Bleeding your Presentation

It’s time to talk about bleeding. Bleeding is a technique used by graphic designers in which the image extends all the way to (or even beyond)  the edges of a page or slide.

In the slide below, the image is not bleeding. The picture of the tractor is smaller than the entire slide, leaving a white border around the image that is essentially wasted, unusable space.

Slide with picture that doesn't fill screen

In this version, we have the same elements as the slide above, but now the image bleeds. The picture was expanded to fill the slide. Compare the two. What do you think about the differences? Research in graphic design says that a bleeding picture has a larger impact on the audience and communicates that the topic at hand extends out into the real world.

Slide with picture that fills screen

To bleed an image, click on it and drag a corner handle so that the picture increases in size. See the picture below – notice the circles that activate around the edges of the picture when I clicked on it? Those are the handles I’m referring to here. It’s super important to drag a corner handle, as this keeps the image’s height and width proportionate. Otherwise, the image becomes distorted and makes the speaker look like an amateur. If, for some reason, corner-handle-dragging isn’t keeping the proportion in check, right-click on the image and choose Size and Position. In the dialogue box that opens, make sure Lock aspect ratio is checked (I’m working in PowerPoint 2010 here, folks).

Expand picture by dragging corner handle

As my friend Ann Emery pointed out, sometimes the picture isn’t proportioned the same as a slide and thus can’t fill it up in a full bleed. What then? Use a partial bleed. The slides below show two possible options. In these cases, the picture still touches three of the slide edges. The bottom line is that touching an edge almost always looks more professional and makes a stronger impact than not touching an edge, even if the picture can only touch one. In other words, bleed at least a little, somewhere.

Picture fills top two-thirds of slide

Picture fills right half of slide

When Not to Use Data Driven Decision Making

In 1993 two artists set out to make a data-driven painting. I’m not kidding. They contracted with a well respected research firm, ran a call center in the midwest, and used telephone interviews to gather opinions about the type of artistic content and composition people preferred.

The poll used a stratified (by state) random sample to snag 1,001 responses, which had nearly perfect distributions in terms of income, gender, race, education, and political beliefs. Evaluators would be hard pressed to obtain the same representativeness in most of our work.

The artists calculated simple descriptive statistics and used the analysis to create a painting which reflected the desired artwork of the majority. The result is the painting below, America’s Most Wanted. Imagine it dishwasher-sized. And yes, that’s George Washington and a random group of anonymous people in the picture.

The artists debuted the painting in Soho, published it in magazines and paraded it around the country in town hall meetings. The main sense of those in the crowd, upon digesting their data-driven art, was… embarrassment. The painting was quaint. Provincial. Even ugly. One of the artists, Komar, said, “It is my hope that people who come to see our Most Wanted paintings will become so horrified that their tastes will gradually change, and another poll would gather different results for creation of paintings that do not resemble blue landscapes.”

Now this poll was examining tastes, but the same problem occurs all over the place when we have the good intention to making data-driven decisions. Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” In evaluation we often run into this predicament with needs assessments. It isn’t as simple as asking people what they need. Some evaluators have wised up to this idea, so they observe behavior instead and surmise needs from their observations. But what would the artists have observed in this study? About 50 percent of the respondents said they visited an art museum never or less than once per year. Not much to observe. Sometimes the smartest decisions come from an innovator who knows the audience base well, not from the audience itself.

By the way, the painting below is a representation of all of the worst rated features, America’s Least Wanted.

The poll was replicated in several other countries around the globe, with nearly similar results. See the resulting paintings for other locations and explore the data at

Solving Font Substitutions

Ever start your eval presentation, peek behind you at the screen, and notice it doesn’t look anything like what you designed back in your office? Or open a report from an email attachment and wonder how your colleague PDFd it looking that way? The issue is typically due to a font substitution.

Font substitution occurs when the computer you are using doesn’t recognize whatever font is the in the file you are trying to view. Each computer houses its own set of font files which means the set of recognizable fonts varies from computer to computer. If the computer isn’t friendly with the font used in the document, it subs in something else and this font substitution is what throws all formatting out of whack in your evaluation report. You’ve probably also realized that PDFing does not always take care of this problem, particularly in Mac-PC translations.

To solution to this headache is font embedding. Here’s how it works on my computer (a PC running Windows 7). When I click to save my document, this dialogue box appears:

See the dropdown arrow next to Tools, to the left of the Save button? Click it and pick Save Options. That’ll open up this dialogue box.

Check the box at the bottom next to Embed fonts in the file and give yourself a high five. Note that this process will increase the file’s size. Checking the first subbox is a lighter weight option I use for slideshows that are going to be uploaded to a webinar or projected from a conference session room laptop, because in those situations no one is going to attempt to edit the document – thus I only need the characters that are in the file.

Either way, the receiving computer will not be able to download the fonts from the document and keep them. Nope. The font file just travels with the document so that it ends up looking the way you intend when you send your report to your client or plug your flash drive into someone else’s computer.

In older versions of Office on PCs, it looks like you can take this path: Tools > Options > Save. Macs, believe it or not, don’t yet have this capability. It’s a cruel world.

Why I’m Not In Love with Prezi

It’s time to write this post. This may be the most frequently asked question in my workshops on evaluation reporting, data visualization, and graphic design.  What do I think about Prezi?

Most people’s first reaction to being in the audience of a Prezi presentation is “Wow, that is so cool. This is going to change my whole life.”

But that’s not what we want people thinking when they are in our audiences.

We want them listening to us. Digesting our words. Relating our message to their own experiences. Getting activated to go make changes in the world. We don’t want them distracted by our dizzying presentation software. This, sorry folks, is probably the same reaction audiences had to the introduction of those clever fly-in animation tools in PowerPoint.

I understand Prezi is working to provide more control over the quick zooming in and out, after early reports that some audience members were getting motion sickness. That’s a good development and a smart response to user feedback.

Even still, I find Prezi vastly too limiting. While all manners of media can be embedded in the show, the predetermined font choices are insufficient in that they’d threaten an organization’s existing identity and branding system.

Prezi also crashed around May 9. A desktop version is available, but for those who had relied on the online version of Prezi so they only had to be concerned about an internet connection, there may be a bit of a false sense of security in the platform. Prezi crashes seem rare and the company offered free 1 year trials of their Pro version for all who were affected. Nice handling of a tricky situation. But I’m not in love.

Beer Delivery Visualization

Time to tackle some of the more important parts of life. I saw this delivery schedule in a cooler at a DC Whole Foods. Bell’s Beer is from Kalamazoo and we take pretty big pride in our hometown beer. So we (I mean, I) get really geeked when Bell’s shows up during travels. But this delivery schedule? It’s not working for this data visualizationist (I just made that term up – how does it sound?).

chart of delivery for various Bell's beers

I couldn’t put my finger on precisely what bothered me so much about it, so I took a snapshot and mulled it over for a few weeks. Here is the revised chart I settled on.

Revised chart of Bell's Beer delivery

The revision still isn’t sitting right with me, but I’ll tell you what important changes I did make:

1. I reversed the order of the listings. Previously, the beers that are delivered year-round were closest to the headers listing the months. That meant that the ones that were the most narrowly distributed were furthest away from the month listings, making them the hardest to decipher. In the revised version, I also just put the month listings across the bottom of the chart, too. Why not?

2. The beers are in a very slightly different order, now depicted by the length of months they are on the market. Just adding a little more logic.

3. The labels over the bars make for less seek-and-find. Previously, the viewer would have to locate the desired beer label, trace the bar to the right, and then simultaneously locate the months across the top, traveling that information down the graph, to find where the paths crossed, just to determine if Favorite Beer was in stock. Too much. This way, we remove one element of difficulty in decoding the chart. Still, I’m unhappy with how I had to abbreviate the top two beers to make them fit in the label.

4. White background. The textured orange background (intended to be beer) was too busy and conflicted with the colors used to differentiate each bar. I’m not totally in love with my new color scheme, but it’s a step up.

If I had access to the beer label icons, I would have still placed them along the left side of the chart. That visual cue is important for the viewer to quickly identify the beer in question.

Image Searching Made Easy(er)

We all love to see large engaging images in evaluation reporting, but it sure can be a pain in the butt to be the one behind the computer monitor, scrolling through pages of images in search for the right one. Typically, this process takes weeding through a lot of eye-strain inducing junk. My friend and colleague Susan Kistler has curated a list of free stock photo sites that do cut down on some of the tedium. While those sites can help, they are often paired with poor search engines that still make the work a bit burdensome.

This is where Google Images can help. “Google Images? That treasure-trove of crap?” I hear you ask. Well, yes. Yes, there is a lot of crap and lots of what you’d find in a straight Google Images search isn’t even licensed such that you can copy and paste it for your own slides or reports. But here’s the way to use the powerful Google search engine to find licensed images for your next evaluation report.

Let’s say I’m working on a project related to family health and I want some cute shots of families for my slideshow. This is what a typical Google Image search would produce:

There are 8 billion results (including – creepy – photos from my friends)! Insane! And as you can see from this screenshot, some of it is garbage. Some of it is also really great – wow, those would be nice pictures to have in the report. It isn’t apparent here, but most of those nice happy family photos are illegal to copy and paste. Unless they are licensed for use by others, you can’t take it for your report.

But in the upper right of your Google screen, you’ll see a little button with a picture of a gear on it. That will open up this advanced search function within Google Images.

Here, you can save yourself a bundle of time. Choose medium or large sized images so that the ones you find don’t blur when you expand them to fill your slide or page. Choose the photo format to get rid of the clip art. And look at the menu under usage rights. Depending on your organization, what you want to do with the image, and how you’ll use the report, you should choose one of the last four options there.

Now searching on something generic like “family” will still probably bring back too many results. I’ve already written here about the need to clarify your thoughts about what you want to look for. So with a few more keywords and the parameters I set above, here’s what my advanced search returned:

I’m now down to just 463 results. Wow.

Sure, there’s still some junk in there, but it’s far less to wade through. And I know all of it is free for me to copy and paste and use. And its going to be a suitable size. AND I can see some cute baby pics I’d like to snap up right there. Pinches on those chubby cheeks.

A couple of other awesome things: See the blue bar at the top of the photos? Once you enter your parameters in the advanced search page, they stick until you change them, even if you type in new search words. Nice. Now look for the button next to the gear that says “Safe Search On.” Do double check that you move this from the default (which is Moderate) to Strict to save yourself from NSFW surprises.

With just a few extra clicks, you can save yourself from hours of scrolling to find images that work. And, on occasion, I find that nothing on Google Images will work for me. At least I can come to that conclusion in about a minute and then move on to the paid stock photo sites from there. This is a worthwhile first stop for small evaluation consulting shops and nonprofits on tight budgets. Happy reporting.

City Branding: Miami

A few weeks ago I was letting the sunshine in Miami love me (well, it was mutual) when my partner commented that Miami really has it’s own color scheme and font, beyond it’s famed art deco architecture. It’s always been a touch puzzling to me when designer people talk about expressing personality of something through elements like typeface, color, and other design elements. But in Miami, this was crystal clear.

Below is the sign for a mall near the Coral Gables neighborhood. Granted, it is a new mall, but the sign designers skillfully tapped into the flavor of Miami.

Image of Signage for Sunset Place in Miami

Notice the slim retro font. That’s Miami. Notice the color-based three dimensions. That’s Miami. Notice the colors! So very Miami. In fact, it inspired me to develop a Miami color scheme, using Adobe Kuler:

Screenshot of color scheme inspired by Miami

The Adobe Kuler program is pretty easy to work with. I’ve used it before to pull colors from an image. In this case, with just my sun-filled memories, I simply moved the markers on the color wheel and adjusted the sliderules under each color square until I felt like I was back on A1A, beachfront avenue. I can see going through the same procedure to develop a color scheme based on a classroom observation, a rural site visit, or set of interviews with inmates. How could you represent the flavor of your evaluation project?