Summer posting schedule

Summer posting schedule

Work will slow down a little bit over the next few weeks, so expect posting here to be a little bit less frequent as well. I hope you are having a great summer as well!

Robo photo shoots

Robo photo shoots

I was always wondering why it is that whenever I look for images of the exact same person, in the same outfit in different positions, I always end up with a search screen full of Asian models. Via Petapixel.

Fusion chart

Fusion chart

In the 2 images below you can see how to create a "fusion chart" where lots of stuff flows into something central. In the second image, I changed the color of the white triangles to grey and drew strong border lines so you can see what shapes are involved.

Building image grids in PowerPoint

Building image grids in PowerPoint

Making a grid of images in PowerPoint is tricky. Images never have a consistent aspect ratio, and when you place a lot of them on a page, the guide suggestions always snap in the wrong place somehow. Here is a survival guide.

  • Copy all your images inside the page and select them all
  • Right click and go in "format picture"
  • Tick the "size" icon, and click "size" 
  • Hit "reset" to kill any aspect ratio distortion
  • Hit "lock aspect ratio"
  • Now select each image one by one, hit "crop", hit "aspect ratio" and pick one
  • After this, select all the images again, and give them the same width with a numerical value
  • Position the images on your grid
  • Take each image in turn, select "crop" and move/zoom the image mask for the right composition

The above was a major consideration when designing the image grid system in my presentation app SlideMagic.

Tech research for the outsider

Tech research for the outsider

"Oh, [tech research company] must have a chart on that!". Many startup pitch decks features charts, forecasts, and quotes by Gartner, IDC, Forrester, and others to back up their market claims. Here is how a potential investor looks at these charts:

  • Every deck they have seen over the past 10 years probably includes a $1b market forecast by one of these. Most of these companies are not $1b businesses.
  • These research agencies do a reasonable job at mapping out what people are spending today on technology, forecasts are based on this picture of today, where an analyst applies different growth rates in an Excel sheet to get to a number that is 3 years out. It is an extrapolation of market trends, not a thorough research about how IT could change fundamentally
  • Research relies on a categorization of the IT market with ambiguous names, it is never clear what is included, excluded, where a new technology fits, whether markets are double counted
  • Overall IT spend grows at a steady pace, that's how corporate IT budgets work. So a revolutionary new technology cannibalizes investments in other technologies. Research reports hardly ever show sharp drops in the size of market segments. Rather, when a new technology emerges, people relabel, redefine the market segments to reflect the new reality. So again, not a helpful basis to forecast the future.
  • The quotes in the research report are loaded with jargon, but most importantly, all sound the same. A product manager might be really excited that a Gartner quote includes "it will definitely think about considering making my IT infrastructure more scalable next year by investigating [technology X]", but for an investor this sounds all familiarly vague. 

So how to use this type of information? Treat it as just another data point, but don't make your entire pitch dependent on it.


Image via WikiPedia

Soft edges around images...

Soft edges around images...

...never look good. At least, I have never seen ones that do. Soft edges are right up there with standard PowerPoint colors, low res images, clip art, and distorted aspect ratios: all tell tale signs that it is going to be "that kind of" presentation.

Leaving out some key statistics

Leaving out some key statistics

Sometimes it can be tempting to leave out a key financial metric, because it does not look very good. So instead of "revenues", we show "bookings adjusted for inflation, excluding south east Asia and before sales commissions", which go through the roof in terms of growth.

Someone who sees the chart will immediately turn suspicious and ask "what about revenues?" If you are there in the room, you can explain things, if the person is reading the chart as part of cold email, you probably won't have the opportunity to recover your credibility and integrity. 

If you show financials, you have to show them properly. If there is a need to explain things, do it transparently. The alternative, leave them out in your first deck and save them for meeting #2.

 

 

The bullet points are your starting point

The bullet points are your starting point

Most finished slides show a list of bullet points as the final design, they are the finished product.

Instead, consider them the starting point. Ignore that guilty feeling of writing bullets, ignore the worry about a poor slide. Write all out, re-write it, write it again, and again. Take a step back:

  • Is this actually what I want to say? If not go back to step 0
  • Do I pad too much, can I cut fluff, buzzwords?
  • Do I write too little, can a layman understand what I mean?
  • Do I say something 2x? If so, delete one
  • Is one point a sub point of another one?
  • Are all points equally important?
  • Do I combine 2 important points into one?
  • Do I make 2 completely different points, if so split the slide
  • What is the basic structure of my story: a contrast, a ranking, a cause-effect, a trend, a missing puzzle piece, best of both worlds, an overlap?

After this process you should have a razor sharp list of "what should go in", plus a good understanding of the structure, the "verb" of the slide. Now create a composition solely based on that info. 

When you insert a new slide in my presentation app SlideMagic, you are presented with a number of slide templates which are not put in randomly, I thought about every single one of them pretty hard. These are the usual "visual verbs" I encounter. Try using them as the basis for your next slide design.

Where visuals are crucial

Where visuals are crucial

If I sit down with a client, in almost all cases, the pitch of a company comes out fine verbally. People know how to tell their story. The order might not be perfect, there are some repetitions, here and there one of my questions needs to be clarified, but all in all, in 30 minutes we got a pretty good understanding of what is happening.

My work is to translate that story into visuals. And given the above, there are different types of slides.

Some slides are absolutely crucial to understanding the pitch. These are the ones that people are opening their laptops for, and pull up page 37:

  • Screen shots and images of applications/products, in many cases it is actually unclear what the product does. This is specifically the case in internet applications, or medical devices where a picture of the actual product explains a lot.
  • Data visualization that emphasizes how big something really is compared to something else, how fast things are growing or declining. Visuals do a much better job here than spoken word
  • Complicated relationships, competitive positionings, IT architectures. These cases require a map on which both brains can sync to disentangle these complex structures.

Other slides are mere backup for the spoken word. They help to make the story more powerful, but are not essential: large photographs of metaphors (endless road, squeezed orange, confused customer) or simple text charts that support the flow of the story.

The purpose of the last group of charts is 1) to give your company a professional look & feel, and 2) make it possible for people to read/digest the story without you being present.

Selecting freelance designers online

Selecting freelance designers online

Engaging a freelance designer online can be a bit scary: someone in a different time zone, who you cannot meet in person... Here are some thoughts (in random order) that could be useful both for freelance designers, and their (potential) clients.

  • Designers prefer a smaller group of clients who come back regularly over 1-off jobs. There is a lot of switching / friction cost involved when taking on a new client. So you are unlikely to find designers who will deliver an incredible sales pitch, do a crappy piece of work, then over charge and hope to get away with it. 
  • Good designers are busy, so if someone cannot meet tomorrow's deadline, it might be a good sign.
  • It is too time consuming and stressful for designers to stage a huge price negotiation dance for every project they do, so most will quote their rates, without padding in anticipation of haggling
  • if the work load is highly unpredictable (you have never worked with this client, the scope of the project is not clear), then it is not helpful to insist on a fixed project price. A good designer will either refuse to do it, or add an extraordinary "unforeseen" charge in the budget.
  • Squeezing out free work for a freelancer to prove herself probably upsets the designer, better is to risk a bit of money, and do a small test project. A few slides will  reveal instantly what the skills of the designer are. This is also an insurance policy against demo slides that might not have been developed by the designer in question. Also compare this small investment to what it would take to hire a permanent designer, and the risk you run when making a hiring mistake.
  • When doing your test project, do not only watch out for the quality of the work, or how quick the turnaround time is. What is more important is that the material gets returned at the agreed time, that the dialogue is responsive. You want to test the way to work together, in preparation for very critical deadlines where you have to rely on this stranger.
  • Finding a freelancer online is the first step in a longer cooperation, so the way she responds to feedback and learns is almost as important as the quality of the first work that she presented to you

Favorite metaphors

Favorite metaphors

People have different presentation styles, and their favorite stories. It is very hard to "force" a completely new visual story metaphor on a good presenter who does a great job selling to customers or investors.

For example, when the CEO "forces" her particular visual analogies in the sales decks that should be used the a 10 person sales force, the result is not always good. The slides will be put on the screen, but then the audio track usually deviates with "hmmm, another way to look at this is [FILL IN FAVORITE STORY].

I usually see how flexible people are with coming up with a completely new way to tell a story, especially with someone with strong presentation skills.

One idea at the time

One idea at the time

In technology, a new product often involves a complete new approach to a problem that did not exist before. Benefits impact on multiple fronts: it makes things cheaper, faster, or all of a sudden you can combine things, do things differently. The story is far more complicated than "this car now runs at y liters gasoline per 100 km versus x".

The tendency of a company insider is to create a chart that explains everything. It is a bit like 5 people speaking at the same time, each expressing one nuance of the story.

  1. Skill level one: write out the entire story in verbal bullet points
  2. Skill level two: craft some sort of visual diagram that brings it all together

The diagram works for people who understand the story already, all the elements of the story are now in one concise page. Every element of the diagram is a visual reminder that unlocks a full story in the viewer's head. 

The fresh audience does not have this background. The only way to tell the story is isolate what is really important, and design charts specifically around that. Then, if you have to, you can construct a page that ties it all together, after the audience had a change to grasp the individual components.


Image via WikiPedia

Story vs outline

Story vs outline

When people write a presentation outline, they usually write questions: "why there is a market opportunity, why we are best to capture it, why it is great to invest in us".

The questions are mental shortcuts for the expert presenter, the answers is crystal clear in her head. The presentation looks incredibly logic on paper, yes, this is exactly what we should be talking about, answer these questions.

Missing though is the actual bridge between the questions and the answers in the head of the expert. Difficult for the audience to understand, or for the junior analyst to work on.

A better way to make a story line as actually write down in super short sentences the answer to these questions. You will bump into issues like repetition, order of arguments, where to go in detail, where not, where buzzwords pop up etc. etc.


Templates for others to fill in

Templates for others to fill in

Some projects involve getting a lot of similar presentations from different business units or people. Examples: the annual investor day, or the annual budgeting round. At the start of the project, the same question comes up? What presentation template to send everyone in order to ensure that things look consistent.

My take:

The most important thing to get right is the programming of the template, not the slide layouts: fonts, colors, default shapes, everything should be hardwired in correctly. 

It is very hard to prepare a complete presentation in the absence of specific facts, or a specific story. No business unit is exactly the same. And if they were the same, these uniform presentations combined would make a visually boring story!

One thing you can do is separate data collection from the the summary presentation. Be strict on format for collecting data (boring tables that are well designed), but give freedom for telling the story.

You could do things in 2 steps: send out the broadcast master template, let people work with it a bit, then schedule follow-up calls to make adjustments.

Or: you can have one business unit push a presentation completely to the end, come up with a finished product, and use that as a visual example for the other units. To see slides filled with data is much clearer than empty theoretical layouts.

Vertical axis titles

Vertical axis titles

Typically data charts have confusing axis labels. Some sort of title horizontally across, some sort of subtitle below it, and then a upright, flipped axis label on the y-axis, and a label on the x-axis. Too many labels, and also, I don't like to have to tilt my head to read the y-axis label.

Here is what I usually do:

  • Put a slide title that tells the message that the data is supposed to show ("facebook users are getting older")
  • A subtitle that describes the unit: average age of a facebook user
  • Omit the y-axis label, and leave the x-axis label out all together, if the columns' base says 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, people will figure out that it is by year

Chauvinism in the tech industry

Chauvinism in the tech industry

There were a lot of posts this weekend about harassment in the tech industry (here is one). I get to see a lot of entrepreneurs and investors in my work as a presentation designer. I think that it is good that women bring out the stories in the open, and people are confronted with the consequences of their behavior.

Here are some random observations of a service provider sitting on the sidelines of the VC funding pitch process, nothing of this relates to a specific individual, nor am I taking sides.

VCs come in different forms. Some of them are career executives who worked their way up in the ranks of an organization, and/or managed to raise a fund themselves. Others inherited money, others had a big exit themselves, others were early investors in a tech giant. It is that second group that is different I notice. They are incredibly confident of themselves, make highly intuitive decisions, work mostly solo rather than having a big investment committee to convince. I think that after 10 years in a world when you do make/break decision making, and people constantly come "begging" for your cash, your perception of reality can change a bit.

Related to this is the mixing of personal and professional communication. Twitter DMs, facebook messages, late night networking parties with a healthy supply of alcohol, blur the boundary between work and play. In more traditional industries there is far less of this. Even in finance. A 25 year old pitching her internet startup to VCs at a conference is in a different setting than a 25 year old heiress trying to sell her family business to private equity funds.

People that bubble to the top of hierarchies in finance or business have some sort of charisma, an ability to convince others. There is a disproportionate share of them. You see in social settings that they tend apply that skill in social settings as well (most of the time without crossing the line).

As a professional presentation designer I notice what is clear to everyone: if you are a beautiful appearance on stage you have an advantage in catching the attention of your audience.

Nerd / tech culture in itself is not chauvinist, look around in the computer science department of a university (I spent 5 years there). But companies can be, this independent of whether this company is in tech or not.

Being a man, I can still sense the culture of a place almost the moment you walk in. As a service provider I get to see lots of different companies. The personality of the senior management, the type of support staff that is hired, the way people interact, the layout of the office, the furniture, everything radiates culture. The same is true when observing the dynamics in a late night bar discussion at a networking event.

I don't have a solution for all of this. I think men should behave, women should out the stories, and build an "early detection radar" to avoid getting stuck in the wrong situation.

 

2-step image search

2-step image search

When searching for an image, there are 2 steps:

  1. What sort of image works best?
  2. What actual image is the best (and can I use without copyright issues)?

Recently, I needed a panorama overview of a retail store. Most stores do not have 20 meter high ceilings (a waste of space, a waste of energy), and stock image sites only provide images of actual stores under an editorial license (news papers can use them, marketing presentations not).

A broad Google search brought me to the Galeries Lafayette in Paris (step 1), after which it was easy to find a nice, high-res, creative commons image (step 2).

Maximizing screen real estate

Maximizing screen real estate

Everyday I see clients squinting at tiny slide images on their screens. No, you can't do anything about the physical size of your screen, but you can fix the window arrangement.

The most obvious adjustment is to make the PowerPoint or Keynote application as large as possible. But the aspect ratio of slides and its implications is often overlooked.

If you design 16:9 slides the width of your screen is the bottleneck, minimize menu bars on the left and right of your slide (format panels, slide icons). If you design 4:3 slides the height of your screen is often the bottleneck, minimize slide notes boxes.


Image via WikiPedia

PowerPoint template management

PowerPoint template management

PowerPoint templates in big companies are a mess. When thousands of people start sharing PowerPoint files it will take less than 3 months for a corporate template to be vanished due to the many personal modifications and mistakes people make. Here is a survival guide.

  • Create a simple template
    • Use a PowerPoint expert to create it, not an Adobe Illustrator master, because you need to know how to set default colors, shapes, text boxes, page numbers, left-to-right orientation, etc.
    • Create some sort of a box of drawing guides to limit the canvas and leave white space around the edges. Many people might ignore it, but they will have a mental urge to put things inside that box. Put the drawing guides on the master slide so they can't be moved by accident.
    • Keep it super simple, I would go for one title slide and one regular slide maybe a separator
  • Teach hygiene (this is the hard part). Ask employees every time they create a new presentation to start with this template. Every time. Even if they want to reuse 90% of an existing deck, have them open the clean template, copy paste the charts from the old file into it and save the file.

I wonder whether it is possible to do the hygiene thing with a macro button in PowerPoint automatically, it must be.

Given the above mess, you will understand why it is not possible to modify the slide template in my presentation app SlideMagic.


Painting via WikiPedia

Corporate videos

Corporate videos

As a presentation designer, I get to sift through a lot of corporate introduction videos, most of the time, I am looking for some decent still images that I can use as a background for an introduction slide about a customer or strategic partners.

A lot of money is going into these videos. Sophisticated motion graphics, upbeat music, soothing voice overs.

Most of these are hosted on YouTube, so you get a sense of how many people actually watched them. In most cases: a few thousand at best, but many have far, far fewer views. The majority of which is probably the creative team and the people reviewing drafts at the client.

Why? I do not have scientific evidence, but here are some possible causes:

  • There is actually not that much information in these videos, except for the usual buzzwords about helping improve the environment and making the world a better place. An analyst who wants to know what the group is all about, can spend the 3 minutes it takes to watch the video better in other places on the web site.
  • (Related) These videos are full of stock video cliches: pretty board rooms against a view over the park, happy families running in that park, a drone going up the corporate sky scraper.
  • In the case of conglomerates, a large part of the video is spent on justifying the existence of the group, what ties them together? This is a hugely important issue for the conglomerate management, but for the student, investor, journalist, customer, potential employee, it does not merit 50% of the 3 minutes.

In short, these videos are actually produced for an audience which is the management of the company, to reconfirm their perception of the image of the place they work, and less so for an external audience.