Perspectives on presentation design: Notes from the field

As a freelance presentation designer and brand consultant, I am often called upon to help business development and consulting teams create persuasive high-dollar-value pitch decks and technical deliverables. From my view of the market, I see an increasingly robust awareness of the value that a presentation designer can add to projects. In the last few months I have worked on projects for diverse New York City-based clients, including an online investment advisor, an international auction house, a global advertising company, and a digital consulting firm. Speaking from experience, a presentation designer can elevate whole campaigns, helping teams make a greater impact through visual communications that are user-friendly and closely aligned with an organization’s overall brand strategy, and focus the audience on a clear central message and call to action.

It has been interesting to get the practical perspectives on the presentation design process of both the business development teams and in-house designers with whom I have worked on my projects. I always emphasize to both groups that presentation design is a holistic process and involves much more than working in PowerPoint (although I do a lot of work in PowerPoint, as well as Keynote, and sometimes I perform supporting design work in Adobe Creative Suite (CS) and Microsoft Office). While on-screen slides or a printed presentation deck can be an important part of a presentation (and sometimes aren't required at all), other aspects of presentation design should not be overlooked, such as concept development, brand strategy, speaker coaching, event support, and supplemental materials. Below I give some perspectives on presentation design, from the point of view of presenters and designers I have worked with, as well as my own perspective.

Your conference room is ready. 

Your conference room is ready. 

The presenters

Generally, I find that the “presenters,” a group that usually includes client-facing teams, sales and marketing people, technical experts, and other types of professional service providers, can come to me with any level of presentation design skill (from novice to pro) and are not always well-positioned to assess their own proficiency. Leaving aside speaker ability, I have seen many business presentations that did not make good use of hierarchy, typography, color, layout, or visual language. Audiences are sensitive to subtle visual cues, and even an inadvertent change in the typeface used on a slide can suggest an unwanted meaning. These types of design issues can look unprofessional, make a presentation confusing, frustrate an audience, detract from the effectiveness of the overall message, and put a brand at risk.

I recall one time when a friend who is a consultant at a large firm proudly displayed to me on his BlackBerry device a little infographic he designed as part of a larger presentation. Here was a highly trained lawyer and international business consultant attempting to design infographics — why would his firm expect that this technical specialist, in addition to practicing in his core area of consultancy, should also labor as a professional designer as well? Keep in mind, professional services firms design and produce all sorts of pitch materials, B2B presentations, technical deliverables, thought leadership pieces, and other collateral for clients and the market. 

Generally, I find among presenters a lack of understanding of the capabilities of presentation software, and therefore a failure to take full advantage its potential to communicate their ideas. Prior to my arrival on a recent project, a badly advised client was under the impression that animations and hyperlinks were not possible in PowerPoint, which resulted in a series of workarounds that complicated workflow and prolonged the overall design process. 

This becomes a dollars-and-cents issue too — consultants are paid on a time and materials basis... it is much more time and cost-efficient to team them up with a design pro.

Sometimes presenters have interesting design ideas but don’t know how to implement them. Understandably, most presenters lack the proficiency to build complex animations, create effective data visualization, and work with images, maps, vectors, and video files. I also see a lot of large file sizes and failure to make use of slide templates, which are signs that the user is not following best practices. This becomes a dollars-and-cents issue too — consultants are paid on a time and materials basis. Rather than have them wasting time clicking around in a software in which they are not proficient, it is much more time and cost-efficient to team them up with a design pro.

In-house graphic design teams

Many of my clients have in-house graphic design teams that are called in to help with the presentation design process, usually reluctantly. In-house graphic designers implement and maintain the client’s brand identity, i.e., they design for what the market thinks and feels about the brand across all digital and print collateral. However, most designers are neither trained in presentation design nor are they proficient in the use of presentation design software. 

A kind of "hands off” approach to PowerPoint among many graphic designers surprises me since PowerPoint is industry-standard for the business world, and (as may be interesting to users of Adobe InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop) is a powerful layout tool that even has a pen tool, a type of Pathfinder tool, an eyedropper tool, and image editing capabilities. Of course, this is not to say that presentation software could replace Adobe CS. Rather, presentation software should be considered another design tool among the many tools designers have to work with. From time to time, I might do work in Adobe CS to complement my presentation design work. For instance, I might create icons in Illustrator and retouch images in Photoshop, and later add these elements in PowerPoint. When used in this way, PowerPoint plus Adobe CS can make a powerful combination. On the other hand, sometimes an in-house resource has proficiency in PowerPoint, but this is usually not a substitute for working with a dedicated presentation designer unless that resource also provides a holistic presentation design service as well.

How do you change the line spacing in PowerPoint again?

How do you change the line spacing in PowerPoint again?

At the same time, the design team can be super-helpful in the presentation design process. For example, in-house designers maintain brand identity and style guides, image libraries, and proprietary files such as logo designs. I consider them close allies in the presentation design process and try to minimize the impact of projects on them as much as possible, which they seem to appreciate.

My perspective

I was a client-facing business consultant and attorney for 15 years prior to becoming a full-time designer. In my career I have designed and produced hundreds of print and digital pitch decks and technical deliverables, and so I always try to approach my projects in a holistic way based on my practical experience. 

Today, I start any presentation design project with a detailed intake form. This structured approach helps me understand and define the expectations the client has of me, the roles of presentation team members, project timetable and milestones, and the presentation audience, venue, and format (on-screen or print), among other considerations. Some practical assessments also have to be made up front regarding what software and other technology is available and may be used for collaboration and at the event. At this early stage I also like to speak with someone from the design team to understand the client’s thoughts on brand identity and to gather up any relevant design assets, such as style guides, slide templates, and other resources. Concept development exercises early in the process are always helpful, such as creating mood boards, audience personas, white boarding, and card sorting. 

I like to hear a 30-second "elevator pitch” directly from the presenter at a kickoff meeting. This helps presenters focus on their core message. Speaker coaching can be part of the process as well. At a minimum, I like to rehearse under conditions similar to the actual event to the extent possible. The presenter can also learn a lot by watching a recording of himself or herself giving the presentation in rehearsal. In some cases, more advanced coaching may be required, for instance, to get over bad habits or fear of public speaking. 

Sometimes presentation designers attend presentation events to provide audio and visual support (usually larger events like multi-day conferences in a ballroom setting). For smaller events, I like to take at least a mental walk through the venue and the technology that will be used ahead of time with the client, and prepare for certain contingencies with backup plans in case something goes wrong.

Another area that is often overlooked is supplemental material — pre-reads, leave-behinds, micro-sites, and other collateral that can be tied into a presentation event or larger campaign to make it more effective. With the right materials, a presenter can generate impact before and after the actual event that is not limited to one or two hours of face-to-face presentation time.

As a final thought, organizations ought to think broadly about their overall presentation strategy alongside their brand identity strategy. For instance, since I am often called in on tight deadlines and that is never optimal, I suggest that clients look at their calendars over the next year (for important meetings, conferences, trade shows, upcoming product launches, and other events) to make an assessment of their presentation needs. Public speaking for client-facing teams can also be part of regular internal training. A well-designed PowerPoint template (along with training on how to use it) can do wonders for employee efficiency and consistency issues. Rather than looking toward just the next one-off presentation, many organizations would do well by planning strategically to take the best advantage of the opportunities their presentations provide and align resources accordingly.

Follow the author on Twitter @tj_katopis.