Presentation design ideas


Daily inspiration to design better presentations (try them in our new presentation app!)

The shortcomings of application windows

The shortcomings of application windows

The main reason to design a new presentation app that is an alternative to PowerPoint (SlideMagic) is the flaw in the windows/mouse-based user interface design that has been with us since the end of the 1980s. Users can drag, move, place, distort, objects as they see fit. Inexperienced designers will get it wrong and put things in the wrong places.

Over my holiday, I have been listening to this Andreessen Horowitz podcast that discusses whether tablets are finally ready to eliminate the laptop:

Some other interesting points that came up:

  • "Where is my mouse?", the mouse pointer is actually not the most logical computer input device. After 2 decades we have gotten used to it, but is not perfect. In the 1980s, engineers combined multi-tasking and windows as one user interface concept. They are different.
  • Arranging and resizing application windows as actually not that user friendly. Most of the time, you want 1, 2, maybe 3 applications open in a convenient grid. (Similar to placing objects on a slide).
  • One of the big shortcomings of tablets today is the ability to create presentation slides (making small edits is not a problem). Maybe it is time to expand SlideMagic to work with touch screens :-)

Image from WikiPedia

Lower post frequency

Lower post frequency

I am on vacation with my family at the moment, posting might be a bit unpredictable. Going against good blogging practice, I am not working with a big post content pipeline but rather write entries almost all "live". You read it five minutes after I wrote it. Authentic and raw, but less good at incorporating family holiday schedules. Apologies.

Storyfying financials

Storyfying financials

Most presentations have some sort of written summary on the first page. You often almost skip it when presenting live, but it can be important for an important that reads your slide deck at the computer rather than attending a live presentation.

The one thing that I find really hard to summarise are financials. Prose that goes like "sales were x, up y% compared to last quarter but z% versus the same quarter last year at a slightly higher operating margin of v%" makes me totally lose the picture.

Financial journalists fill pages of the Wall Street Journal with this type of texts. And they are upset that it is now possible for an automated bot to do this job: insert a financial table and out comes a perfectly written paragraph. (Robo journalism)

What do I do as a reader? I reconstruct the table back in my head. 

So what to do in a presentation? I recommend a super simple written summary on page 1 (sales were up, but profits down), and then a very crisp financial summary table on the next page. Round up numbers, and use colour coding to show what went up or down.


Image from WikiPedia

The multiple uses of PowerPoint

The multiple uses of PowerPoint

Presenting slides in front of a big audience is just one application of PowerPoint, and probably not the one that is most commonly used. Here are a few others:

  • Corporate knowledge database
  • Product catalogue
  • Project management and planning tool
  • Word processor
  • Story boarding tool
  • Group brainstorming tool
  • Animation editor
  • System design tool
  • To do list and meeting minutes recording tool

A 1980s presentation design tool ended up being the operating system that power most communication inside a company.

Layout puzzles

Layout puzzles

Not every presentation slide is about finding the right image. In my work, I encounter a lot of "layout puzzles": tables or diagrams of boxes that need to convey complex trade-offs and relationships. The challenge is to convey the message simply, without making things too simplistic.

Here are some of the steps I go through:

  • Group things together, split things up until I get to table rows/columns or boxes that are more or less on the same level of importance
  • Edit down text to get clear box/row/column labels that are as short as possible, or when short is not an option, each have about the same amount of words (the number of lines covered is very relevant in typography)
  • Enforce some sort of grid to the page. Each box/column/row should have the same size, or span a multiple of grid elements. (In my presentation app SlideMagic it is not possible to violate this principle)
  • Swap rows and columns so that similar items end up next to each other. Re-arrange boxes in the diagram so that connected boxes are close and connecting lines do not cross.
  • At the final stage, add colour to make visual groupings that you could not create with physical proximity or connecting lines.

This might sound like tedious work, but the end result is often a diagram that forms the backbone of your entire presentation.


Image from WikiPedia

Dressing down the story

Dressing down the story

In many pitch presentations, I work hard to lift a story to its true potential. Show the bigger picture, put things in a historical context of where humanity is going, visualise the - dreaded word - vision.

In some presentations the opposite is required. The audience will get the dream, but will wonder whether any of this stuff is actually real, or happening within the next 2 years or so, because it all sounds too good to be true, or too expensive, or too science fiction.

Thinking about your audience before you start designing is a cliche from communication trainings. Maybe make it a bit more practical and try to imagine what stereotype people would assign to you after they see/hear you speak for 1 minute.


Image from WikiPedia

The problem with projectors

The problem with projectors

I have written about the poor quality VGA projectors that are still sitting in conference rooms of many companies before, but I myself fell into the trap again yesterday. A presentation that looked great on my computer screen was barely readable in a conference room, I have gotten used to high resolution screens and the option to use thin fonts and very subtle colour shadings. Reminder: these do  not come through on projectors.

Now we have a dilemma:

  • Presentations designed for retina displays are not readable on crappy VGA projectors
  • Presentations designed for crappy VGA projectors look "1990" on a retina display

My presentation app SlideMagic should be OK, it uses fat Roboto fonts and reasonably blunt shadings. For PowerPoint, think about where your deck will be used most: a person reading the attachment of an email or an audience watching things on the screen. If the latter, test your presentation before the all-or-nothing pitch.

Repeating yourself usually does not help

Repeating yourself usually does not help

When a VC says "no, sorry", she usually means it. Arguing and repeating your viewpoint over and over is not going to change her mind. 

  • She heard the point before, thought about it, and did not find it convincing enough
  • You now come across as a nagging CEO, might be difficult to work with
  • You are arguing about a point that she says was the reason she turned you down, but the real reason might have been something else ("I simply don't like you") which she is not sharing with you.

What you can do is inject new information into the conversation. A new customer signed up. A similar company got funding. A new team member came on board. A new way to slice the customer data gives a new insight. Chances that it will work are low though.


Image: Franklin's footpath by Gene Davis

PowerPoint 2016 for Mac bugs

PowerPoint 2016 for Mac bugs

I have written very positive reviews about PowerPoint 2016 for Mac, even calling it better than the latest version of Apple Keynote. But there a few annoying bugs inside. This blog is read by a lot PPT experts, so maybe one of you can help.

  • I encounter a persistent issue with setting theme colours. I tried to pick new ones and then save them as a new template, it refuses to do so. I go back to PowerPoint 2011 to set up new presentations.
  • Image compressions is now a crucial feature. In all my presentations I need to go down to 150 DPI to keep files below 10MB. But when I do compress images, often things go wrong. Especially with cropped photos. The image gets replaced by a big white box, with a miniature version of the original photo in the top left corner.
  • Many fonts have now more granular weight control: thin, light, regular, bold, black. This is great for design, but the good old "bold" button for a quick style edit does not work anymore for some reason.
  • Whenever I do copy-paste of a small item (a tiny arrow for example), an annoying dialogue box pops up, covering the entire object and making it impossible to move. 
  • Still, PowerPoint crashes often, especially when working with data charts. (Here is a trick to recover your work)

Are these just me?


Image from WikiPedia

"Ooff, but we answered you already"

"Ooff, but we answered you already"

Often, when I start a presentation design project, I find that the real message of a pitch is buried.

  1. Buried under buzzwords and jargon that make the pitch sound the same as any other presentation out there
  2. Buried under "short cuts": this is a bigger problem. Over time, the company has developed an internal proprietary language where certain key terms summarise the entire concept behind the company. The insiders understand it perfectly, to an outsider it sounds meaningless.

As a result, I tend to get back to the same questions in a briefing meeting. "Why are you different again? What is the difference between your product and the one that company is offering?" My first version of a slide deck often contains deliberately blunt charts that force the client to react and correct a positioning that I think I understood (sort of).

Some people in the room fear that they hired the wrong presentation designer, who keeps on asking the same ignorant questions. Most of the time, I manage to convince them by the time my final product is delivered.


Image on Flickr by Nic McPhee

Keynote for iCloud, a mini review

Keynote for iCloud, a mini review

I had the opportunity to spend some time in Keynote for iCloud last week. We were editing a Keynote file with many people and needed to stay on top of versions. Keynote for iCloud was the logical solution.

It is amazing to see how web apps have evolved. After a relatively long wait time to upload/open the presentation in the browser, it is almost as snappy as if you are working on a desktop app. Browsing through slides, dragging and dropping of images, all great.

The issue is that there are a few features missing compared to the desktop version that are really important to me:

  • Distributing objects horizontally and vertically. The one biggest mistake people make in slide design is incorrect alignment of objects on the slide. Keynote for iCloud has the "soft guides" that pop up when you drag an object, but as soon as you have to deal with a lot of boxes, there is no way to line things up properly. A similar problem happens in resizing table columns and rows (but you could argue that this is a power user feature that not many users will miss).
  • Manipulating themes, especially colours. You can't set them in Keynote for iCloud, your only choice is to pick a template when creating a new deck. When uploading an existing slide deck, the theme colours get copied, but only for shapes. In tables they do not appear. And in data charts you cannot set them either. 

A smaller issue is that an animation that my client created in the desktop version did not play in iCloud presentation mode. I am not a big fan of animations in presentations so in theory this is not a big deal. But, differences in PLAY mode can create unexpected surprises when you deliver an important pitch and all of a sudden your content is displayed differently in the heat of the discussion.

I suspect that Apple had to make decisions what features to include with the mobile version of iCloud in mind. But these 2 shortcomings forced me to take down the Keynote deck into the desktop version, warn my client not to touch the file, and upload it again after I was finished.

Two lessons here:

  1. Slide design software still does not get what are the key features needed for layman designers to make decent slides. (Which is why I created my presentation app Slidemagic which is all about grids and alignment)
  2. Users are demanding. If you offer a product under one brand, users expect all features that they have gotten used to, to appear on all platforms. I experience this myself with users who view my presentation app SlideMagic as an extension of PowerPoint and complain where the pie charts are.

Keynote for iCloud is not there yet, but it is getting close.

Uncovering secrets

Uncovering secrets

I heard the same thing from 2 sources this week. When we design, we are not really creating something new, but we are uncovering a secret that was there hiding in plain sight for billions of years.

Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal in the context of building innovative businesses:

John Frusciante, guitarist of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, on creating music:


Image from WikiPedia

Presentation design without the design

Presentation design without the design

Most business presentations can be done perfectly without sophisticated and complex visual concepts. That image of an elephant balancing on a ball, or a 3 dimensional constellation of rotating database cylinders might not be necessary to get your point across.

Instead focus on the non-design challenges:

  • Finding nice full page images that can introduce the problem you are trying to solve
  • Recutting, regrouping, re-wording the key problems and your solution in a very clear and crisp table
  • Deciding what are the key statistics and data you want to use to show that your solution works and that the company is having momentum
  • Organising the more "boring" facts about your product/company in some decent looking tables in the back of the deck (team, product offering, pipeline, terms, etc.)

Full page images, tables, and simple graphs, that's all  you need (and all you will find in my presentation app SlideMagic). Doing more complicated things is more risky:

  • A perfectly executed simple slide looks a lot better than an amateurish looking effort at something that is more than you can pull of.
  • You can hire an expensive graphics designer to do the concept for your, but her style will be dramatically different from the slides you want to add yourself to the deck last minute

Keep it simple, and do that really well.

Presentations are short cuts

Presentations are short cuts

Many of a company's operational processes have become a lot more efficient over the past decades, partly with the help of automation and computers.

Above the factory floor, middle management of corporations gets more efficient as well. Computers take over routine tasks, and slide/dice data so it becomes easier to make decisions.

Human communication among decision makers is pretty inefficient. People are bad at formulating and selling their ideas. Presentations have helped though: they have replaced long-winded memos and forced people to get to the point faster. Visuals are easier to digest, and more importantly, it is faster to skip through useless pages of a presentation (PGDN, PGDN) than looking for "the meat" in a text document.

This realisation might help you with the design of your everyday presentations. It should look decent. It should get to the point. It should show interesting, unusual, unexpected facts and insights. You want to get to a decision, you are not aiming to publish a complete, scientific document.

Here is where my presentation app SlideMagic comes in, adding even more shortcuts to make corporate decision making more efficient, and less cumbersome, boring and time consuming.


Image from WikiPedia

Beyond the presentation

Beyond the presentation

The investor or sales presentation is not the only thing your audience will check out:

  • Do you have a proper email address or are you still using your gmail?
  • Is your LinkedIn profile consistent with the claims in the presentation?
  • Does your web site have the latest company logo and is free from cheesy stock photos?

If you do not have much to share with the public yet on your web site (you don't have any customers yet, your product is not finished, etc.) it is often better to keep things brief (Coming soon, we are working on [...]) in a really crips and professional look, than padding the page with marketing buzzwords and claiming that your are a Fortune500-like company with 20 offices, delivering flexible and scalable ROI to 100s of clients around the world.


Image from WikiPedia

The real competition

The real competition

As a CEO you are paranoid with competitors who are doing things that are very similar to what you are trying to do. But that is usually not the competitive differentiation you need to emphasise in a sales presentation, especially if you are a tiny startup.

The real challenge will often be to get the client to break away from her current practice. Either a big established product, or maybe she is not investing at all in the sort of solutions you are trying to offer.

In my case as the CEO of presentation app SlideMagic, I could pitch it against other new and small presentation solutions that are out there in the market. But that is not the choice people need to make. I even would not consider PowerPoint to be my competitor for a feature-by-feature comparison. I am competing against the inefficient approach to presentation creation and delivery in corporations. And that is a real challenge :-) 


Art: The Chess Players, by Thomas Eakins

Two ways to look at the valuation of your company

Two ways to look at the valuation of your company

Two different storylines about the same company:

  1. CEO: I am running a great company: we are getting really good traction and be able to double sales to $1m in the next year. 
  2. Strategic acquirer: these guys have a piece of technology that is the missing piece in my system back end that can generate $200m in revenue next year.

You are not pitching yourself, you are pitching an audience. Understand it.


Art: The Cholmondelay Ladies, by an unknown artist.