The mishmash of word and pictures in most Asian PowerPoint slides and Web pages is about 1,000 gigabytes away from the elegant minimalism of a Zen garden or graceful architectural design.
So much for valuing the white space in an ink drawing! Japanese PowerPoint slides and Web pages are cluttered with words, pictures, glaring colors, and cheesy, busy ads.
Take this screen shot of the home page of the Yomiuri Newspaper (one of Japan's five leading newspapers). Not very appealing to the Western eye, is it?
It's said that a picture can be worth 1,000 words, but when you have 50 words and 20 pictures on a slide, the jumble of words and pictures may make it feel as overwhelming as 10,000 words!
So how to reconcile the dichotomy of Zen minimalism and the jumble of words and pictures in digital visuals? The main difference is purpose: esthetics versus information. But why such extreme clutter?
There are several cultural factors that come to my mind.
1. The partiality for visual illustrations.
The preference for seeing things depicted visually rather than through a string of words is prevalent throughout Asian life. For example, ask someone in Japan for directions and they'll draw you a map rather than describe your path in terms of what to do first, second, third, and so on. In PowerPoint presentations, it means slides are populated with pictures, charts, graphs, and anything else that can make a visual impression.
2. Desire for data.
An allergy to risk and the need to save face should something misfire, mean that much more content is necessary to convince most Asians. They want statistics, comparisons, analysis and so on. Goods are expensive in Japan, for example, and so are mistakes. Small homes and high prices make them want to be sure before they buy. An unforgiving business society, where there are rarely second chances, make businesspeople want to be sure before they decide. Data is a means for making an informed decision and justification for the decision should things go south.
3. Need to see how things relate to each other.
The desire to see how things relate to each other affects how much information needs to be incorporated onto one slide or page. Because of the need for context, a great deal of peripheral information may be included. This adds a lot of secondary information that provides a larger perspective or framework. From the vantage point of the bigger picture, something may look different than when considered in isolation. And when it comes to seeing how everything fits together, it all needs to be included on one slide.
4. A single character can be telegraphic.
Chinese characters, and the Japanese kanji version, don't have to be converted into sounds to grasp the implication. Because of this it's easier to look at a busy bouquet of characters than a jumble of long and short English words that must be strung together to produce meaning. (This applies more to a PowerPoint slide than to the website above.) Characters can be processed quickly without clashing with an accompanying picture in the way that $100,000 is easy and fast to grasp because it is more symbolic than the written words. When we write it in words, it ends up being one hundred thousand dollars, which would be incredible cumbersome on a graph with other numbers written out. (Picture a bar chart with 8, 10, 6, 2, 5, and 3 on their corresponding bars. Now picture the words eight, ten, six, two, five and three instead. The different lengths and sound-dependent words don't mesh as well, and are harder to process with the graphic than the numbers. Each character, on the other hand, is the same size, not sound-dependent when used telegraphically, and can be combined vertically or horizontally, so they are easier to integrate as part of the whole picture.)
A Zen ink drawing and a cluttered PowerPoint slide, these are the Ying and Yang of the cultures, two contrasting sides to the same social and business structures.