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Creativity

Breaking the step-by-step guide

Breaking the step-by-step guide

Most things we get taught are presented in a step-by-step sequence: history lessons starts with the stone age, kids need to play a boring flute before being allowed their guitar, presentation design goes from thinking about your audience, key messages, flow, charts...

As I am trying to refresh the coding knowledge that is still left from my 1990s computer science degree I now see how this approach totally does not work for me.

  • Most concepts are not step by step, sequential. You need to increase your knowledge of all the steps involved gradually, rather than mastering step 1 100% before going on to step 2
  • Brains get bored, and switching from skill training effort to another is a great way to expand your attention span.

Here are ways I sometimes dive deep into slide design, even at the beginning of a presentation:

  • Often there is that one killer slide that you simply know has to be in the deck. Why wait?
  • Nothing better to wake up a bored brain than quickly putting together a beautiful slide master with title pages, separators.
  • "Sweat work" is another way to do something useful when creativity is stuck: plopping in a P&L, creating the team slide, all easy wins
  • Super detailed comparison tables are nerdy slides that often don't make it past the appendix of a presentation, but, they put the entire story of a presentation on one page (yes, I know), and can serve as a great guide line for the story of the entire presentation, or as a check list to see that you have not forgotten anything. Better design that one first.

Hence, I stick to that zig zagging creative process.

PS. Think about this from your presentation's audience perspective as well. The logical, step-by-step, build up might work for a patient computer, not for easily bored humans.


Cover image (of a Tel Aviv traffic jam) Photo by Jens Herrndorff on Unsplash

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How to start a new presentation slide

How to start a new presentation slide

When starting a new slide, most people think of what to write in it, then worry about composition which usually involves moving text boxes around so that everything still fits on one page.

Next time, start with the composition, then do the writing. Think how a few boxes and arrows can visualise common business concepts in a slide:

  • Something is bigger than another
  • Something is growing
  • Torn between opposing forces
  • Reinforcing loops
  • Ideal fit or a mismatch
  • Trade off
  • Dead end
  • A sequence

Put the shapes, align and distribute them, now add some text


Cover image by dylan nolte on Unsplash

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Starting to use the store myself

Starting to use the store myself

Recently, I have started to use the template store myself for the few bespoke design projects I still do for long standing clients (SlideMagic gave me a really attractive rate :-)). My hard drive is filled with 1000s of slides and still it is difficult to find a nice clean layout to use as a basis for slide number 1001.

Up until a few weeks ago, I started every slide pretty much from scratch, I have gotten pretty fast in setting up yet another 4x5 table grid. But even I can't beat search the store for "table" and re-download that slide again and hit the ground running.

I am continue to monitor which slides people decide to buy, and which slides are downloaded by subscribers. Many subscribers download a lot of slides right after they made the purchase, and then don't return for a couple of weeks. Initial downloads include slides that you can only use in very specific situations, like these sheep. They hardly ever download the same slide 2x. There could be 2 possible explanations:

  • Less likely: after that $99 annual subscription, you better make sure you get what you paid for, maybe the store will stop running somehow before the 12 months are up.
  • More likely: we have built up the habit of mining through old decks, and recycling slides into a new presentation.

As a designer who now uses its own store, I would encourage you to think Netflix, iStock, Spotify: your slides will always be there, and search is there to help you find the slide you need at the moment (and nothing else). Change your design process:

  • From: open your consolidated SlideMagic deck (which took time to assemble from all the individual slides you had to download), pick 20 designs you think you are going to need, see how you can tell your story with these 20 designs
  • To: scribble your story flow on a piece of paper, create a deck of empty slides with just titles, search the appropriate slide template on SlideMagic

It will take you less time, and you get better presentations. And remember: I am constantly adding new slides so your first burst download will run out of date soon.

Having said that, I am willing to look into a technical solution to combine multiple slide downloads in one deck, my commerce platform cannot handle that (yet).


Cover image by Henrik Dønnestad on Unsplash

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Finding inspiration via search

Finding inspiration via search

A very significant part of my efforts to get my template store up and running goes in its search engine. I am surprised myself how well it works. My bespoke client work is the test case for it, and whenever I start out on a new slide, I give the search engine a go, and voila, most of the times a suitable lay out pops up.

Business presentations are a bit like business English: you actually don't need a big vocabulary of layouts ("words") to make a decent deck. 

You can use the search engine to you advantage without shelling out a dollar to buy a slide. Simply search for a concept, and maybe you can "borrow" the design that comes up, or the search results remind you of slides you designed before.

Here are some examples of how you can use the search engine:

  • Look for a business concept, anything to do with talking about the competition
  • Find specific well known strategy frameworks: 7S, Porter forces, etc.
  • Search for a specific layout: Venn diagrams, 2x2 matrices
  • You need a slide to visualise 4 things: look for the number four
  • And you can always try your luck with using SlideMagic as a stock image engine (try Stormtrooper), images on SlideMagic are free to re-use

I am monitoring the search terms people use closely. If a key concept is missing, I will add the slide, if a keyword does not match a suitable slide, I will fix that. At the moment, I am constraint by the search engine in the eCommerce platform that powers my site, which means that I need to work with keyword tagging of slides. As SlideMagic grows, I envision migrating to a custom search engine that can offer higher levels of intelligence. Ultimately, this will be the real differentiation of the site: coming up with the right slide layout on request.

Photo by Kyle Popineau on Unsplash

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"Do you have a standard process?"

"Do you have a standard process?"

Some clients ask me. The answer: "no". Each situation and story is different. I jump back and forth between high level story line design to graphics design details to numerical analysis.

Is this the best approach to presentation design? Probably not, but I can pull it off for a two reasons: many years of experience, being a 1-person operation, mostly having 1 contact person at a client, and having clients that self-select, i.e., if they uncomfortable with this approach they would not choose to work with me.

As soon as you deal with multiple people, at different levels of experience, and an agency that tries to scale up, there is no escaping to a formal process with specific end products at specific times.

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Business document production workflows

Business document production workflows

Production of documents and reports inside corporations is a hugely inefficient process, because of a number of reasons:

  • Using the face-to-face meeting format to discuss small text edits
  • Do zero preparation for such a meeting, and start reading analyzing the text with the junior analyst in front of you
  • Because of this lack of preparation, completely upend the start of the presentation because critical bits are missing, without reading things to the end
  • Having too many people involved: lots of captains on the ship giving contradicting input
  • Refusal of senior managers to make tiny text edits directly into the text themselves

I remember this from my early days as a junior analyst at McKinsey. Fight 1 hour of traffic to drive to a meeting with a senior client and/or partner. Listen to small talk, get send out to make paper copies, multiple people making edits to slides with pens, make copies again, back into the car, in the office at your desk failing to read the hand writing, going back and forth via fax machines until you get it right. Technology has moved on a bit, but document editing is still pretty much the same today.

When I start to work with a new client there is usually a small adjustment process, especially when we are on different continents. Am I a junior analyst who needs paragraph by paragraph instructions? He is 7 hours ahead, but hey, I am the client and get to set the meetings. Better schedule frequent update calls to make sure he stays motivated to press on. 

After a while, clients discover the luxury of an overseas design partner. Make small text edits yourself, jot down broader comments in a box on the slide, hit send before leaving the office, and hey, all is done when you come in the next morning. Sometimes not being in the same physical location makes life easier for everyone involved.

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40 minutes in

40 minutes in

They exercise is good for many things, creativity being one of them. I do the occasional exercise in the form of mountain biking. Preferably, I would roam around on single tracks all the time, but time constraints often limit me to loop around Tel Aviv, close to my home.

And here is the weird thing that is happening to me: every time at about the same time/distance in the run, I get some pretty useful ideas for design problems I am struggling with. I started to notice, because the choice of tracks around my home is not that big, the weather in Israel is pretty much the same every day, so these bike runs happen at more or less the exact same circumstances.

So, the inspiration comes 40 minutes or about 16 km in. Maybe it is this exact amount of exercise you need, or there is something about that specific location....

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Editing the bullets in a cafe

Editing the bullets in a cafe

I have seen it many times in coffee shops. Two people at a laptop. One doing the typing. The other stretching back, looking at the ceiling, and rephrasing that sentence until it is just perfect and encapsulates everything: "With flexible automation, value delivery is now ensured throughout the customer journey". "No, I think that should be "value creation". "Yes, you are right, change it". "Make "automation" bold, italic, underline", that is the key message here". "Red color as well?" "Yes, this starts to look perfect".

  • Noisy coffee shops are not the best environments to do design work
  • When you really get into the story you are touching on highly confidential issues (weaknesses, strengths, competitive positioning, development pipeline) that you do not want to discuss in public places
  • Bullet point phrasing does not equal visual slide design

Image by Gavin St. Ours on Flickr

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Clean that keyboard

Clean that keyboard

Clean crisp design work is unlikely to happen in a messy working environment. No, most employees have little influence over the interior design of an office, but your own desk? You can do it. Apple keyboards look horrible after a year of use, but are easy to wipe clean. Buy a nice pen/mechanical pencil, invest in a beautiful notebook (buy it yourself if it is against corporate purchasing policy), peel off the Intel inside sticker from your corporate laptop. Clean up the outdated post it notes on the whiteboard. Wipe the whiteboard. Open the blinds.


Art via WikiPedia

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Trends in presentation and pitch design

Trends in presentation and pitch design

I opened some old presentations on my hard drive and started thinking about how my work has evolved over the past years. Here are some observations:

  • Starting points of presentations (the briefing decks I see) have gotten a lot better. Garr Reynolds, Apple product launches, TED talks, etc. etc., and maybe most importantly a younger post-overhead project generation is joining the workforce, raising the bar in presentation design
  • The audience has evolved as well. People know the general drill of a startup pitch, the Internet or a smartphone is not as strange as it was in the early 2000s. People have the courage to cut a bad presentation short. 
  • Back in 2003, I was probably one of the very presentation designers in the world, now there are thousands. 
  • Given the above, my work is moving on a bit. While I still do the proper upgrading of the look & feel of a presentation, it is completely not the most important thing I do anymore. Actually, my graphics and visual concepts are getting simpler, and simpler, maybe even regressing to what I did a few years back.
  • Orchestrating the flow of a pitch is still important, but as pitches get shorter and shorter, and everyone has pretty much settled on a classical investment pitch are start to focus more and more and the pacing of the story. People skip over important things too quickly, while spending far too much time on the obvious, and finally sometimes they do not even touch on a very fundamental missing step in their arguments. 
  • My favorite design work are the "puzzles": diagrams that need to show very complex trade-offs, technology infrastructures, or relationships of multiple factors impacting each other. In the end, these diagrams look very simple, but they can take a relatively long time to construct, burning through endless amount of scrap paper in the process.

Here it all comes back to my presentation app SlideMagic: the final technical slide design is increasingly a very, very simple diagram. The tricky bit is 1) get the pacing right, 2) find that simple composition that summarizes that complex relationship.


Painting by Max Lieberman

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Designer state of mind

Designer state of mind

Creative jobs are different from managerial jobs. I started noticing the difference when transitioning from being a management consultant to a presentation designer. It especially obvious with being sick. As a consultant, I could usually function pretty much normal with the help of some coffee until drastic body feedback such as fever or a splitting headache prevented you from going any further.

With design work it is different. You notice that something is "not right" in your head 1-2 days before the onset of other symptoms. You can't come up with any good ideas, or you can't focus on your creative work and decide to do the monthly accounting. So, sometimes after these 1-2 days, I do actually develop symptoms, or things disappear while others in close proximity do get sick. 


Image from WikiPedia

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Provoking input

Provoking input

In some projects I am literally stuck with lack of inspiration. The slides don't look good, the concepts don't pop out. To get going again I actually send the draft slides to the client, who inevitably will come back to me with "hey, we are not there yet". But in addition, it is often the few other comments that she makes, that provide a way out of the impasse. 

It is hard to force creativity....

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Adobe Illustrator designers vs PowerPoint designers

Adobe Illustrator designers vs PowerPoint designers

Now and then I encounter a PowerPoint presentation at a client which is clearly the work of a designer who comes from the world of Adobe / brochures / infographics. Here are the differences with my style:

  • Often, an incredibly spectacular opening slides (sometimes 2-3), lots of detailed artwork, lots of time invested. Serious designers with powerful graphics design tool out-design me easily.
  • But after a few pages, the design quality drops of, and you can see that these slides are created rather last minute, in a back and forth between the executive and the designer. Maybe there is the occasional icon, but most of it is text bullet points, which are formatted by a professional.
  • Usually PowerPoint's template functions are ignored, guides, color schemes, defaults, making it very hard for anyone but the designer to add/change slides. "Insert new slide" gets you a blank standard PowerPoint page with nested bullets
  • Heavy use of custom fonts, looking way better than the standard PowerPoint fonts, but they cause issues when displaying the file on other computers without them. Versions of old presentations usually continue to live through the organization without people even realizing that their headlines show in Arial rather than the intended font
  • Massive file sizes as the images are kept in at their highest resolution

Business presentation design is a blend of practicing good design, and making compromises to deal with the practicality of working with lots of non-designers. Being able to deal with frequent changes, keeping design standards up (also on page 5 to 20), and making sure that everyone can make decent looking edits in the presentation.

I am sure that Adobe Illustrator designers can write a similar post about PowerPoint designers trying to edit a basic vector illustration...

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More creativity

More creativity

Some tips on creativity from a book on music production that I recently read: Music Habits, The Mental Game, by Jason Timothy. Most of them are applicable to any creative activity, and that includes presentation design. Here are some that stuck with me (in random order):

  • Have a note book / recording device at hand at any time to write down good ideas you will for sure forget 5 seconds later
  • Kill social media distractions
  • Learn what times of the day you are most creative, and don't do your monthly accounting during that time
  • Productive and creative are not the same thing
  • When your brain wants to be distracted it could very well be that you are on to something difficult that nobody has ever done before, keep on pushing
  • The genius just tried harder and for more years than you did
  • Be yourself, find your own style, you can never catch up by imitating someone else's
  • Don't blatantly steal, but instead, write down what inspired you in a piece of art, put it away for 2 weeks, then look back at it again and build on the attributes of the work, rather than the exact same thing
  • Finnish your projects all the way to the end, and do lots of projects
  • Watching more tutorials, reading more books, buying more tools will not really help if you are not applying what you learned/bought instantly. Get good at using the tools you have
  • If you want to build a habit, you have to do it every day, no excuses, even if it is just 15 minutes

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Working with background music

Working with background music

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. When I have to write something (this blog post for example) or need to come up with a visualization for a tricky concept, background music disturbs me. It like the melody of the music highjacks my brain and takes things in a different direction than the storyline in front of me.

Cleaning up charts (make-over work), or building financial/economical models works great with music in the background though.

That's maybe why many people end up writing things late at night: finally it is quiet.


Image from WikiPedia

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Uncovering cosmic patterns

Uncovering cosmic patterns

Design is all about uncovering patterns and proportions that are somehow hidden in the cosmos. Architects, music composers, graphics designers, chefs, film directors, painters, authors, each is hoping to uncover a genius composition that has been hiding in plain sight for a few billion years.

Recently, I was introduced to the patterns that jazz guitarist Pat Martino is using to teach chord shapes on the guitar. The diagram in the video (if you are interested) shows how he uses turning triangles and squares (visual objects) to construct chords (audio).

In other videos, Pat explains how he uses words as musical inspiration. For example, he assigns a note to each of the 26 letters of the alphabet, and then creates words ("beautiful" for example) to see what they sound like.

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Presentation culture

Presentation culture

CEOs are banning PowerPoint presentations from meetings to improve company culture:


From: Bezos, Jeff

Sent: Wednesday, June 09, 20014 6:02PM

To: [REDACTED]

Subject: Re: No powerpoint presentations from now on at steam
A little more to help with the question “why.”
Well structured, narrative text is what we’re after rather than just text. If someone builds a list of bullet points in word, that would be just as bad as powerpoint.
The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than “writing” a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related.
Powerpoint-styel presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.

Jeff
— Jeff Bezos, CEO at Amazon https://www.hirevue.com/blog/coach-blog/what-i-learned-from-jeff-bezos-about-sales-management

During his first two months as Diageo’s North American chief marketing and innovation officer, James Thompson counted every single presentation slide he was exposed to in meetings. The final tally was 12,000, which to him was way too many.
”It stops conversation. It makes people feel secure they’ve communicated what they wanted to. But, in fact, it doesn’t move anything on,” he said. So he has instituted a PowerPoint ban in some meetings. “Just talk to me, please” is his plea. His goal is to ensure his marketing team is “not totally buttoned-up all the time,” he said. “We just want people to be at their best, and that is usually when they are able to think and respond and build rather than sell.”
— James Thompson, North American CMO at Diageo http://adage.com/article/cmo-strategy/powerpoint-ban-diageo-changed-culture/306739/

Bad presentations are bad for company culture. And boring the audience is just one aspect of this. People forget the other ones:

  • People waste incredible amounts of time editing footnotes in slides, time that could have been spent much better
  • Presentations are used to keep subordinates busy and under pressure by requesting zillions of updates to the slide deck by 9AM
  • Company management is now mainly suggested slide edits ("cut it to 5 slides') in emails that go up and down the corporate hierarchy

Presentation documents have become the language that corporate management uses to agree on ideas, and it is a pretty inefficient one. It is time for a change. I don't think completely banning visuals in meetings will solve the issue. A better alternative is to ask employees to use a super simple presentation tool to back up their pitch to colleagues and I am working on that.

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"We just need an hour together"

"We just need an hour together"

"I just need an hour of your time to sit together to improve my slides. I know exactly what I want to say in tomorrow's presentation and all the slides are ready, they just need to be more visual"

I get this type of request often, and I usually turn it down. In one hour, 24 hours before the presentation, you can fix the layout of the slides a bit, but this is where it ends...

A proper presentation design process needs to go through a number of stages:

  • The first briefing, what is the idea you are actually pitching
  • Maybe in the same meeting, the more in depth questioning of the issues. The designer needs to ask the naive/ignorant questions
  • Then putting the whole thing to rest, and scribble some ideas for potential slides over the next few days to come
  • The creation of a basic graphical look and feel, usually I pick a "no brainer" slide for that, the content is crystal clear, it is just about style, fonts, colors layout.
  • Then the drafting of the full deck, going back and forth between "no brainer" slides and the tricky ones.
  • This draft gets then iterated back and forth
  • Finally: rehearsing

It takes more than 1 hour, it needs more than 24 hours, it is not a polish of the existing presentation, which will have vanished totally in the process.


Image from Wikipedia

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It is not your fault

It is not your fault

Back in the days as a junior analyst at McKinsey you would often see a deck or listen to a presentation that you would not understand completely. Being 23, I usually kept quiet and assumed that this was my problem, not the presenter's.

Now at more than double that age, I still have the same issue: I often don't get why something is so special, so unique, so difficult to do from reading a slide or listening to the presenter. My IQ has not changed much (it probably got worse), and yes I have learned things, but the biggest difference that I have gained the confidence to know that it is not my fault. It is OK to ask a question that might sound trivial.


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People like to be told what is beautiful

People like to be told what is beautiful

I have been touring the city of Rome for a few days with my son which was great fun. It is amazing to see how tourists gather around sights that guides and guide book say are famous or beautiful. I snapped the double helix Bramante staircase in the Vatican museum (picture below), my guide was surprised I wanted to see it and he had to look for it. You can see on the picture that not many other people were interested.

IMG_0981.jpg

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