For the past 30 years, PowerPoint has been the primary unit of strategy within large organisations.
It’s free on most Windows machines, easy to pick up, and easy to share with others. This ubiquity and ease of use has made it invaluable to business leaders everywhere. But all tools leave their own distinctive marks in the material, and PowerPoint is no exception.
PowerPoint decks, for instance, are linear. This encourages a more logical and deductive mode of thinking, resulting in strategies that stay close to the dominant path. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. There are inputs, actions, outputs and success states. While it’s possible to outline alternate endings, PowerPoint decks almost always fall into a safe and predictable tempo. Left to right, connection to success.
Another feature of PowerPoint is its solitary nature. It encourages strategy to be created and delivered by an individual rather than a group. Strategy therefore becomes one person's responsibility, before being shared with a wider team for discussion, agreement and implementation. Occasionally decks get passed back and forth, like a game of strategy tennis. As with legal contracts, the last one sent wins out.
As with most digital file formats, PowerPoint decks get lost in email clients and folder systems. Even the most brilliant strategy is pointless if it never gets implemented. So as powerful as PowerPoint is, it’s often where corporate dreams go to die.
By contrast, Post-it notes are the primary unit of strategy inside design agencies and tech companies. Their flexibility allows you to move things around a 2-dimensional probability space, rather than along a single axis. So rather than following a linear time based narrative, it’s much easier to compare and contrast different concepts, and explore the fuzzy edges of a problem. Post-it culture therefore tends towards abductive thinking and pattern matching, the mode of thinking favoured by designers.
Post-it notes favour collaboration over individual intellect, and “designing in the open” over than planning in private. Post-it strategy therefore has a natural affinity with the Agile software movement, while PowerPoint tends towards waterfall.
Post-it notes have their own challenges. They tend to be low fidelity, temporary and imprecise. They are meaningful for the people involved in the initial activity, but the resulting strategy doesn’t travel well. They're a great creation tool, but a poor communication tool, at least over distance and time.
Sometimes it feels like these two tools represent two different cultures, at war with each other. PowerPoint represents the dominant, business as usual culture; while Post-its have an anti-establishment, art-school punk kind of vibe. One demonstrates a top down hierarchy, while the other in much more bottom up. One is a traditional land force, the other a guerrilla army.
While I obviously have my preference—I love the smell of sharpies in the morning—both approaches have their benefits and disadvantages. PowerPoint has been ridiculed in a design world for many years, not least because it defaults to ugly. This is why so many designers prefer Keynote, in spite of its lack of corporate uptake. But I’m now starting to see the pendulum swing back in the other direction, with many boards getting sticky note fatigue.
In the war between PowerPoint and Post-it notes, there may be no winners. And yet I can’t help shake the feeling that the design industry would be much better off adopting the language of PowerPoint in the battleground of the corporate conference rooms, even if they secretly Post-it note at home. After all, it’s much easier to infiltrate a dominant culture, than it is to try and topple it from the outside. So if designers really do want to influence corporate strategy, it may be time to lay down our beloved Post-it notes and pick up PowerPoint instead.