IN SEARCH FOR A UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE
An interview with presentation designer Axel Wendelberger
By Patrick L. Schmidt

 
 
Business presentations have become a major communication medium. Meetings without slides are virtually unthinkable. Often an intercultural element comes into play, unnoticed by the presenter and the listeners. International teams in big corporations are common today. And English is being used as a corporate language even in non-american businesses.

What advise can be given to business people who face the challenge of making a presentation in front of listeners of sometimes very different cultural backgrounds? Of course, we have a good idea what listeners of a certain nationality expect from a presentation. We know why presenters are perceived by some as too superficial and gung-ho whereas others feel motivated and inspired by them. But often, business presentations fail to properly inform, persuade, motivate or whatever the presenter tries to achieve. Time, resources and good will can be squandered away in a few moments — with harmful consequences.

Axel Wendelberger is an award-winning graphic designer who strives to inspire a new style of business presentation. His doctorate in art history and his intercultural knowledge provide the theoretical basis for his remarkable work as a presentation designer and consultant that gets increasing attention throughout the industry. I met Axel Wendelberger in his studio in Düsseldorf…

Patrick Schmidt: How does an art historian become a presentation designer?

Axel Wendelberger: An art historian becoming a presentation designer seems as an exotic career. Though to me it feels quite natural; I just became increasingly involved with the practical side of creativity. The academic world was too theoretical for me, so I moved on to the museum and became a curator. In the late 1980s I co-organized an international exhibition of the Russian avant-garde artist, architect, designer, and typographer El Lissitzky. That’s when I caught the graphic design bug.

In 1990 / 91 I was involved in a book project with Swiss photographer and designer Edy Brunner who documented the beautiful city of Dresden after the
Wende (change) in East Germany. Brunner invited me to work in his design studio. So, my curiosity got the better of me and I moved to Zürich. We produced Brunner’s Dresden book together, and received the International Kodak Photo Book Price 1993.

That brought me in closer contact with the publishing industry, where I started working as a graphic designer and copy-editor. Ten years ago my wife, Paule Gina, who is a trained psychologist, had the idea to join forces and start a coaching and design business. Cognitive psychology and communication design make a good combination for presentation seminars as well as presentation design services.

PS: What defines your service?

AW: Over the last decade we developed a method of preparing, designing, and delivering presentations with impact. Of course, we didn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel. We just joined a movement that started about 10 years ago with the goal of inspiring new and better ways to present in the media age. The main role in our approach centers on the audience — without an audience, no presentation, without an enthusiastic audience, no successful presentation. That’s it. Everything else follows down this lane.

This is not possible without
intercultural awareness. Our main lesson is: Know your listeners! When you have a mixed audience of Americans, Chinese, and Germans, you need to know their expectations if you want to get your point across. This can get tricky; cultural backgrounds can differ so much that it seems almost impossible to tailor a presentation to that audience. There we reach the limits of intercultural aware- ness and realize the necessity of a universal language that promotes mutual understanding in different ways.

PS: Is there such an universal language that can transcend cultural differences?

AW: For centuries there has been a search for a universal language beyond words in the Western culture. In the late 17th century, English philosopher John Locke proclaimed, “As the main objective of language in communication is to be understood, words are not suitable for this purpose.” It soon became clear that this new language can only be a visual, pictorial system. In 1936, Austrian sociologist, Otto Neurath, wrote in his famous book,
International Picture Language. The First Rules Of ISOTYPE, “words separate, pictures unite”. In the 1960s, American media guru Herbert Marshall McLuhan said, “We return to the inclusive form of the icon.” In the mid 1990s the term Iconic Turn was coined for a conversation about the power of images and their impact on our culture that has been going on ever since.

We live in a visual age. Our culture is brimming with images. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody is visually literate and able to read and understand all these different visual languages that we are confronted with. In the business world we still find strong resistance against the use of pictures in presentations. It is this
typographical cultural bias that leads to presentation slides filled with bullet points and whole text paragraphs. Neurath wanted to “debabelize” the international language. Together with artists he developed ISOTYPE (International System Of Typographic Picture Education), a visual language of informational signs that help make sense of statistical data.

I see myself in this tradition. When designing presentation slides I develop a congruent system of simple, distinguishable signs that stand for certain types of information, data, concepts etc. Pictures are far more easily recalled than words. We call that the
picture superiority effect. This effect improves the retention rate of key information tremendously. Only the combination of pictures and key words is more effective. Our leitmotiv is: Combine simple pictures and key words on your presentation slides. Make it visual!

PS: Is it not too challenging for business people to follow that lesson?

AW: In our seminars we see people adopting the new approach and improving literally over night. It is possible. You can even be visual without any visual aids — by telling stories and using metaphors. Design starts long before the visual part. Design has to do with structure and logic. Many business people think of themselves as more logical and less creative (the left brain / right brain idea). That is not what we find in our seminars. We see that people are far more creative than they think. We see that people are eager to learn, that they hunger for proper guidelines and robust techniques. After attending our presentation seminar they never look at a presentation the same way as before. They might not be able to use all the techniques and suggestions in their daily work, but they get inspired by trying things out.

Creating presentations for clients can be challenging. It always starts the same way: I have to learn about the new topic. Together we develop structure, story and metaphors before the visual work begins. Once the client sees what can be done, the fun begins… It’s a give and take and sometimes I’m not sure who learns most. Sometimes I sit down and change our own slides because the last client pushed me a step further, came up with a new idea, or interesting feedback after his presentation that helps me to progress.

PS: What are your plans for the future?

AW: There is so much I want to do in the coming years. I want to get our message out to anybody who takes an interest in good presentations. I’d like to get in touch with business schools to teach our method to students. It is such a powerful tool. On a much broader scale, exciting things are going on at the moment that will transform our culture in unforeseen ways. I want to see it, I want to be part of it. The whole media landscape is changing, the internet, the ways we create, access and consume content. The new iPad from Apple is an indicator of all that. I always admired Apple for their user friendliness, their intuitive software, and their esthetical values. One of the core concepts of Apple’s
Human Interface Guidelines is to involve the user in the design process. That has always been an inspiration for me. Of course, I had to have an iPad as soon as it hit the market. I wanted to see its potential as the next computing device. It might not be there yet, but it certainly shows in what direction we are moving. Maybe the iPad will open up new ways to design and deliver great presentations. That wouldn’t surprise me at all…


This interview was publicised in the
Sietar Journal, September, 2010, pp 9 ff. (PDF)
Sietar Journal, December 2010
More contributions by Axel Wendelberger on presentation techniques and creativity to the Sietar Journal can be found in the December issue, 2010:

“The opposite may also be true…” Intercultural differences — as presented by Devdutt Pattanaik and Derek Sivers at TED India, pp 6 ff.

Book Review: Leadership Insight. Going beyond the dehydrated language of management, by Nancy J. Adler, p 14
Intercultural stereotypes
Three intercultural stereotypes.

Following: Visualization of Geert Hofstede’s dimensions of culture for a presentation on intercultural awareness: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism, masculinity, long-term orientation.
Hofstede’s dimensions of culture
Presentation seminar 01
Presentation seminar 02
Presentation seminar 03
Presentation seminar 04
In our presentation seminars we incorporate all the principles we teach. The participants can see right away if they do or do not work.
ISOTYPE — 5 groups
ISOTYPE signs for “the five groups of men” from Neurath’s book, International Picture Language, 1936.
Druckstudio Group 01
Druckstudio Group 02
Druckstudio Group 03
A printing plant in Düsseldorf cares a lot for voluntary climate protection and carbon neutral printing. In their marketing presentation they wanted to talk about the difference they make — for themselves, for their customers, and the difference their customers can make for themselves. What the customers get from them is five-star quality, a five-star service, and good karma.
Leadership Day 01
Leadership Day 02
Leadership Day 03
Setting up key concepts in sequences makes it easy to follow and remember. A major German corporation holds an annual Leadership Day for the management at their headquarter in Mainz. The keynote speaker wanted to make his talk as personal as possible. He compares a leader with a conductor who doesn’t have to play the trombone but to stay focused on his task. Afterwards people started using his metaphors — that’s when you know you have won.