Great Design Goes Mainstream

June 4, 2012

Place settingFor the past several years, I have been working with people who share my conviction that the same design principles that are used to create award-winning websites, compelling logos, and stunning point-of-purchase displays can and should be used in PowerPoint presentations. This viewpoint isn’t commonly shared; the majority seems to believe that PowerPoint is nothing but a necessary evil that must be suffered through like some kind of horrible rite of initiation. These people are missing out on a powerful design trend: the mainstream acceptance of good design.

We are surrounded by increasingly sophisticated designs without necessarily being aware of it. Think about how easy it is to order just about anything under the sun from Their revolutionary website sets the bar for great user experience. Industrial designer Phillipe Starck’s work for Target changed the way mainstream America believes even such mundane items as dustpans and trash cans should look. When Apple introduced the iMac in 1998, with its translucent case and bold blue accents, it smashed the paradigm that personal computers needed to be housed in beige boxes.

For some reason, this increased design sophistication doesn’t always carry through to a company’s PowerPoint presentations. Tired sales reps and harried admins are still banging out text-heavy, bullet-pointed borefests in much the same way they did in the late eighties when PowerPoint first hit the market. The only difference now is some of the “cool” animation effects and clipart available in PowerPoint 2010. But presentations can be made much more effective with great design. And the public is increasingly demanding great design.

Welcome to the Era of Design proclaims the headline of a recent blog on by Adam Swann, head of strategy at gyro. This article talks about how design is becoming mainstream, affordable, and expected in today’s marketplace.

In an era of design, bad design really stands out as being, well, bad. Today’s innovators stay ahead of their competition by ensuring that great design is carried out in all aspects of their marketing mix.

Your turn

What role does design play in your business?


March Slide Makeover of the Month

March 30, 2012

This month’s slide comes from Design Dispatch subscriber Bob Carpenter of BidRx. His company wants to become the eBay or the Priceline of the pharmaceutical business. By logging on to BidRx, people will be able to get competitive pricing on their prescription medicine and save a bundle in the process!


BidRx slide: before

There are some pretty compelling data in this table to support Bob’s assertion that people will save money by using BidRx, but this layout makes it hard to find. Tables are usually a bad idea to show an audience because with so much to analyze you lose people’s attention.

There’s a lot of extra information in this table. Showing the prices down to the penny might be accurate, but it clutters the table and doesn’t help to show the overall trend that BidRx’s prices are lower than Medco’s. And is it important for people to know the exact dosages of each medicine?

The biggest takeaway from this slide is that consumers stand to save up to 86% on this prescription. That’s a huge discount and is the key value proposition. So why is it so tiny and at the very bottom of the slide?


BidRx slide: after 1

The first thing I did was to change the title of the slide. I like to think of slide titles as headlines, so they should be attention-grabbing and interesting. Next, I presented the data as a column chart, which makes it easy to compare Medco’s prices against BidRx’s.

The color choices I made are deliberate. In a financial setting, red = bad, so I’ve set up Medco as the “bad guy.” The BidRx columns are blue, a soothing color associated with health care.

The second image is what the slide looks like after the animation. I don’t want to leave it to chance that the audience will understand that BidRx’s prices are lower, so I tell them and I circle the amount people will save.
Next, I created a second slide to call out the even greater savings that could result from a competitive bidding situation:

BidRx slide: after 2

I copied the chart from the previous slide, then animate the bars going down on two of the medicines and point out the lower prices with green arrows. Then the same summary box appears.

Want to get your own slide makeover? Design Dispatch subscribers each receive a free slide makeover, a $100 value! The Design Dispatch is your monthly guide to great PowerPoint.

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How much does it cost to redesign a PowerPoint deck?

February 28, 2012

The money questionPeople always ask me “How much is will it cost to redesign my presentation?” Every design job is different so the costs vary from project to project. I’m not trying to hide a trade secret here, it’s just the way it is. Only after I’ve had a conversation with a potential client and reviewed his deck can I give an accurate estimate on the project cost. In designing PowerPoint presentations for the past twenty years I’ve had projects that have cost between $500–7,500 depending on a large number of variables.

The good news is there are many ways to help keep the costs down on your next PowerPoint redesign project.

It’s all about preparation

Time = money. The more time the designer has to devote to your project, the more it’s going to cost. Here are some things you can do to make sure the designer doesn’t have to spend a lot of extra time on your deck.

  • Do your own copy editing. If you have 500 words on a slide, the designer has to read the slide, determine the main message, take away 99% of your text, then come up with a striking visual to convey your message. Multiply that by the number of text-heavy slides in your deck to get the number of extra billable hours.
  • Have a script or an outline. It’s much easier to design visuals for a script than it is to design a script around visuals. A strong story is essential for a successful presentation.
  • Have just one main idea per slide. Often, people will load tons of text onto a single slide (see above). The designer’s job is to clarify and simplify messages, so each text-heavy slide will need to be broken down into two or more new slides. Again, more copy editing equals higher cost.
  • Give the designer a finished draft. Make sure you and your team have done all you can with your deck before giving it to the designer. If the designer works on slides that you later decide to cut, you’ll still be charged for the time it took to redesign them.
  • Provide a single point of contact. You and your team should discuss edits with each other, not individually with the designer, which causes confusion if conflicting instructions are given.
  • Give as much lead time as possible. If a designer has to work nights and weekends, hire extra staff, or cancel previously scheduled work to meet your tight deadline, it’s going to cost you.

Getting an accurate estimate

The more upfront you are about your needs and expectations, the easier it will be for the designer to provide an accurate time and cost estimate for completing your project. Let the designer review the deck you want redesigned so she can predict any additional costs like those outlined above. And if you are able to provide a cost range that’s within your budget, it will help the designer to figure out how many resources to allocate to each part of the project.

February Slide Makeover of the Month

February 16, 2012

With February comes Valentine’s Day so I thought I’d draw inspiration from William Shakespeare to address a common problem in slide layout: How do you format a quotation?


Valentine's Day before


Apart from the pleasant background color and graphics, this quotation is about as florid as a wet dishrag. This font, Verdana, works well when you’re after a clean, corporate look, but it’s a total flop when used for this particular quotation. I think that this slide could really benefit from a picture, don’t you?


Valentine's Day after 1

Now we’re talkin’!

The addition of the violin and sheet music evoke feelings of romance and beauty and speak directly to the words in the quotation. I’ve also used a more playful font.

Look how I can change the mood by using a different image and font:

Valentine's Day after 2

It’s not likely that you’ll have to illustrate Shakespeare any time soon, but you can use these ideas the next time you include quotes in your presentations. You could use a picture of the person you’re quoting or images suggested by the quote. And play around with how the type is positioned; for this style you want to break away from the template, if just for a little while.

January Slide Makeover of the Month

February 1, 2012

This month’s slide was adapted from a real presentation I worked on in December. So as not to reveal proprietary information, the data have been changed but the slide layout is essentially the same.


Favorite veg table slide: before

This slide took me a little while to figure out. I can tell that the four data points are supposed to add up to 100% and that they have changed from last year to this year. And I know that the diagonal lines that connect data points indicate whether percentages have increased or decreased from one year to the next. But what’s up with the table underneath the graph?

If there are two different types of charts the assumption is that there are two different data sets. In this case, however, the two charts present the same data. It took me a while to figure this out, and I didn’t even have a presenter talking to me at the same time. Imagine what the audience would be going through.

The color choices are not good because they are too bright and don’t harmonize with the background. It’s the default color set, and it shows.

Adding to the confusion are the grid lines and the vertical title at right.

All in all, this slide requires way too much work on the part of the audience to figure out what’s going on.


Favorite Veg chart: after 1

A pie chart is a much better way to show how percentages add up to 100%. Because it’s easy to see what wedges have gotten larger or smaller I have eliminated the comparison lines.

Notice the colors I’ve chosen? These are the colors of the vegetables in question. Not all data lends itself so well to obvious color choices, though, so when in doubt use the palette that comes with the template you’re using.

Because I have added titles to the wedges there’s no longer any need for a legend. I’ve also removed the vertical text because it was completely redundant.

But what if you wanted to reduce the text even further? In this case, using photographs as fills is a great solution:

Favorite Veg chart: after 2

Now it’s obvious which vegetables are being charted!

PowerPoint vs. Prezi: Which is better?

January 17, 2012

PowerPoint vs. PreziThroughout history, there have been many great rivalries: Red Sox vs. Yankees, Coke vs. Pepsi, Mac vs. PC. In the battle for the hearts and minds of the presentation community, perhaps there is no greater clash than PowerPoint vs. Prezi.

Up-and-comer Prezi brings its A-game to the fight. It’s nimble and dynamic. You can do lots of cool presentation effects with it. Your presentation lives in The Cloud. You don’t need to buy any software. It isn’t PowerPoint.

Grizzled veteran PowerPoint is putting up quite a fight, though. With its robust animation and multimedia tools, it’s possible to create presentations that look like movies. It has some great drawing and photo manipulation tools. You can output decks as video files or, using a site like Brainshark, create standalone presentations with sound and animation.

Is it possible to create dynamic, kinetic presentations in PowerPoint? Absolutely.

And here are two examples of some killer Prezi shows:

PowerPoint and Prezi do have something in common, though. You have to approach each project with a solid foundation, whether it be an outline, a storyboard, or a script. With all of the whiz-bang effects that each tool offers, it’s easy to focus on the medium rather than the message, which is absolutely the wrong approach. Sometimes Prezi shows move so much I have to shut my eyes to keep from getting motion sick. And if I have to sit through another PowerPoint deck that uses Bounce animation to bring in bullet points…

So, which is better, PowerPoint or Prezi? It’s simple: the better product is the one you’re most comfortable using and which helps you to be a better communicator. If you’re used to PowerPoint and can use it to create strong presentations, then PowerPoint is better. If the bold swoops, zooms and pans that are the hallmark of a Prezi show drive home your message, then Prezi is better.

Keep your eyes on the prize — audience engagement and acceptance of your message. Don’t get carried away with needless special effects and make sure your message is the most important thing that audiences get from your presentations. That’s the knockout punch.

Ready, Fire, Aim! The wrong way to design a PowerPoint deck

January 10, 2012

missed targetI once got a call from a woman who wanted some PowerPoint advice. She said something along the lines of, “Well, I’ve finished all the slides, now I need to work on my script.” “You fool!” I wanted to shout. “You’ve done it backwards! Throw it away and start all over again!” Then I pictured myself throwing her laptop across the room, adjusting my beret, and storming out as she gazed in stunned silence at her ruined computer.

Well, imaginary artistic hissy fit aside, I did tell her that she was doing things backwards. Most creative endeavors start with rough drafts and/or sketches. You use these to build a solid idea then work through a number of changes before arriving at a finished product. Think of an artist’s sketchbook, a reporter scribbling notes, a photographer taking test shots with a portable phone, or a songwriter noodling around on a piano trying out different melodies.

“What does this have to do with PowerPoint?” you’re probably wondering. It has everything to do with PowerPoint, because with forethought, planning, and creativity you can make each deck a strong part of your company’s marketing mix. If you start from the ground up, you can make decks that do a better job of communicating your messages. If you start with the design first and develop the message afterwards, then to quote Foghorn Leghorn, “You’re doin’ it all wrong, boy!”

Start with an outline

An outline is a great tool for getting your thoughts in order, organizing them into a logical progression, and exploring ideas. It’s how I started every paper I ever wrote for school, and it’s how I start all of my PowerPoint presentations to this day. You can create the outline right in PowerPoint, either in the Outline view or right on the slide.

All of what you’re trying to say — the facts, your story arc, examples, whatever — goes into the outline. Think of the outline as the core dump of your brain.

Now, a lot of folks do that then say “Done!”, slap their laptops shut, and call it a day. Wrong wrong WRONG!

Now do the visuals

The outline is only the beginning. You don’t want to be the schlub who reads bullet point after bullet point to an increasingly bored audience, do you? Of course you don’t!

The outline goes into the Speaker Notes so that you can reference it to keep on script, but the slide is where the magic happens. The slide is where you add the photos, graphics, words, video, and charts that support your message.

Use the slide to do what words cannot. Choose images instead of descriptions, videos instead of still photography, graphs instead of tables, brief sentences instead of paragraphs.

And don’t forget that you as a presenter will be there to guide your audience along the path of knowledge that you lay out. Whether you are presenting live, using cloud technology like Brainshark, or conducting a webinar, you yourself are a very important part of your presentation. You are there to tell the audience what you want them to know; the PowerPoint deck supports you, not the other way around.

I don’t know if that woman took my advice. It must have seemed harsh since she’d spent so much time on the slides by the time she called me. I wish she’d called me at the very beginning so that I could have spared her hours of work. But at least she gave me the idea to write this post so that I could help you!

Your turn

Do you use an outline to form your presentation ideas? If not, what method do you use?

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