A few weeks ago, I covered some of the bizarre and obtuse visuals coming out of the difference branches of the military. Well today, I posed some questions to a member of the Pentagon’s “Engine Room;” a new group within the Department of Defense’s Comptroller’s Office whose focus is briefing creation and analytics.
The Engine Room’s efforts are first rate and incredibly needed in a department that often lacks some of the basic principles of information visualization. I would like to thank Tom Paisley and the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) for their time and access.
So now, six questions with Tom Paisley, CTR OSD COMPT. (all images are from the 2009 Summary Justification Book)
Jess Bachman: Hello Tom, to start off, can you tell me who you are and what you do for the Pentagon?
Tom Paisley: I’m a member the comptroller’s “Engine Room” (ER). It’s basically an integration team working for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), or OUSD(C), within the Pentagon. The ER was initiated by Under Secretary Jonas just over 2 years ago as a group focused solely on briefing creation (simple PowerPoint presentations, basically), and have developed into a team that performs more analytic tasks, and often manages creation (including concept and coordination through publication) of major projects for both inter-governmental and general public audiences of OUSD(C) and the Department of Defense at large.
Jess: The Summary Justification book is an impressive document. I remember from doing research in years past, the Weapons Book and other major military budget documents lacked any real sense of design. It was as if they were created in Word 97 in about 30 minutes. This I always found amusing considering the sheer size of the dollars and budgets they were representing. What prompted the shift to a more complete and aesthetic work, and have your target market (being government leaders) taken notice?
Tom: You have to consider that none of the Request documents here are created in any short period of time. The data gathered is complex and often very fluid right up to the date of publication. Our budgets are crafted amidst many variables, and practical and political issues shape how every dime is allocated. It’s an extremely complex process. Even though we’ve re-invented how this information is organized, those dynamic forces still influence our data on a daily basis. Our process for building these documents are designed to accommodate those dynamics. The concept of the Summary Justification book came directly from leadership here at DoD. The Department, and senior management desired an integrated approach to their documentation, and requested a format that 1) summarizes the budget in ways that enhance clarity of purpose, and promote transparency of intent, and 2) provide a vehicle for the Secretary to publicly endorse the request he provides to the President, Congress and the American people. The Summary Justification book has been well received, and serves as an effective summary for over 40,000 pages of detailed budget request data.
Jess: some other documents have gotten the ER design treatment as well, like the GWOT Bridge Request. However most DoD budget documents still could use some a designers touch, like the Green Book, M-1, O-1, P-1 etc. Are there plans to incorporate these documents into the ER’s scope of work? Or do documents that primarily consist of numerical tables ‘speak for themselves’ and not in need of charts, graphs and other explanatory elements of a work like the Summary Justification book?
Tom: There is a strong commitment in this office to migrate all publicly released budget materials into a consistent format (see my comment regarding the 2009 Green Book further down). There are also efforts to better coordinate information across all OUSD(C) documents. Many aspects of the Request are organized to accommodate a particular audience. For example, the topline budget itself can be divided a number of ways… By Service (Army, Navy, Air Force, and DoD-wide), By Appropriation Title (Military Personnel, Operations, etc.), or by a Capability Portfolio (Battlespace Awareness, Command and Control, etc). Each of these perspectives is key to their audiences understanding.
Detailed data support all of our summary materials, and it is often desirable to keep the presentation as simple as possible. However these documents can always be re-organized and annotated to better clarify their context and improve legibility. You’re likely to see more characteristics of the Justification Book applied to our other documents in the future.
Jess: The aesthetic quality and consistency of budget documents among the different branches of the military vary greatly. Even their basic topline budget documents are of different natures. The Army and Navy have ‘highlights’ books whereas the Air Force has a ‘Rollout brief’ and ‘overview book’. The Army and Air Force documents are chart laden, whereas the Navy documents are sparse with supporting graphical content. The Army sticks to pie and bar graphs, the Navy prefers line charts, and the Air Force throws in a bit of everything with a strong focus on concept visualization. Given such differences, where does the ER and the OUSD(C) fit into the budget creation mix? Do you know if there is any cross coordination in regards to methods of document creation? Since it seems like the ER has hit the nail on the head in terms of effective budget documentation, what are the possibilities of these separate branches following your lead?
Tom: You’re correct, budget documents across all the services have distinctly different approaches. Each set is constructed in a way that is unique to the organization that creates it. Our office, however, is primarily focused on the Secretary’s financial documents. We have interfaced with “ERs” that support some of the other Services on occasion, so some coordination currently exists. But an integrated, DoD-wide approach (and how that may ultimately be defined) will have to be addressed more directly in the future.
Jess: On a more technical note, what software or programs does the ER use for its content creation? Word, Illustrator, Quark, PowerPoint, Photoshop? What did you use to create the graphs and charts?
Tom: We use a number of programs. Microsoft Office is a core toolset throughout the U.S. Government, and, as you can imagine, the environment that exists in this office promotes a solid understanding of Excel and its charting abilities. In the ER, we also use Illustrator and Photoshop to augment our materials. Covers and complex layouts would be very challenging without them, to say the least. We will expand our capabilities as our needs expand. We are always looking at new ways of showing statistical data, and every appropriate medium is considered.
On a side note, tools and processes for coordinating projects like these can’t be achieved by graphics software alone. To help streamline the task of interfacing with literally hundreds of people
on a document that changes hourly up until the point of production, we have invested in some tools and practices that are specifically designed to address these types of challenges. For example, to manage configuration control and accessibility, we use Microsoft SharePoint. This web-based collaboration tool lets us create project websites that enable secure storage and data sharing for each document we create. It’s important to note that tools like this, while helpful, doesn’t replace good old fashioned client interface. Working closely and directly with experts in each area is key to overcoming challenges that crop up on a regular basis.
Basically, the design principles we use here are very similar to the ones you apply in your work. For example, The Budget Graph poster uses several tools in concurrence to show relationships in a layered method. Its very effective in combining elements in ways that let a viewer engage it from many directions and levels of detail, very neatly integrated and presented. It would be nearly impossible to develop that approach without tools that let a designer quickly and effectively change direction and establish the dynamic balance needed to optimize information density. We’ve also recently employed the idea of “sparklines” (An excellent description of them can be found in Edward Tuftes 2006 book Beautiful Evidence). You can see our interpretation of them in the Green Book reformat found on the OUSD(C) website. Again, software tools are an essential part of the visualization process, and as we adopt a broader range of elements to communicate them more effectively, we’ll also broaden our means to achieve them.
Jess: You mentioned before that you were responsible for creating the cover of the SJ book. This is the most artistic page in the book and probably in the entire realm of official Pentagon documents. I think it’s a great cover, striking and cool. What led you to include those elements that are entirely new to Pentagon documents, like the cropping of the logo, the blue coloring, and the ‘grunge’ work.
Tom: All of our products, regardless of size and complexity, benefit from the entire team we have in the Engine Room. Data visualization, cover designs, and formatting decisions are all products that profit from an integrated team approach. Very few tasks here are carried out in isolation.
The departure from a more stoic cover approach can be credited to the Under Secretary and the senior management here. Their desire to create a professional looking document like this simply allowed the ER to offer packaging alternatives that would enhanced of quality of our products. As with any design initiative, having a good idea is not enough by itself. We engaged our leadership early and worked with them to create visual themes that were professional and focused on a new and distinctive identity. Including them in process early provides ownership in the final design, ultimately resulting in improved products, and (most importantly) happy clients.
Moving ahead, we hope to create unique packaging themes for each individual budget year. This helps distinguish documents of one budget year from another, and also adds an interesting variation to the documents thematically. The CIA, in their World Fact Book (published annually), updates content in a standard, consistent format without much variation. The cover design, on the other hand, substantially changes for each edition. If you look on their website (they have a gallery of all the covers from 1981 to the present), you’ll see what I mean.
Jess: The other part of the JF book that really excels in terms of design is the individual weapons summaries. With the transparencies, halftoning design elements, and overlapping images, they feel more like a glossy magazine breakout then a stodgy Pentagon document. How do you convince the higher ups to literally go outside-the-box? Or did these decisions come from the higher ups?
Tom: Again, you can credit the leadership here for that. In order to consolidate materials logically, they elected to roll the weapons book into the Summary Justification book as a chapter. The biggest challenge was to keep within page allocations, while including all the existing data from the stand-alone book. Remember, the Summary Justification and all other budget rollout documents are not only sent to those within the government, but also available to the public at large. Designs consistent with magazine or catalogue layouts tend to appeal to a broad range of people and are much more easily understood. It’s important to not only fit the information into a smaller space, but also to make it more attractive while preserving legibility. We worked hard to achieve the balance we thought was necessary for this new format while maintaining usefulness, and at the same time structuring it to support the Budget Request more explicitly.
Jess: Thank you top for this opportunity and insight. I’m looking forward to the future of the “engine Room” and your well crafted products.
Tom: Thanks for the opportunity to talk about these new directions. As I’m sure you’re aware, it’s always gratifying to get positive and productive feedback from your peers.