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Creativity

"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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Great and difficult starting points

Great and difficult starting points

There are a number of starting points for my presentation design projects that almost always result in great presentations:

  • The enthusiastic CEO with a strong story who is all over the place with bullet point charts, skipping/jumping left, right, and centre
  • The scientist with a strong idea that is buried in dozens of unreadable data charts
  • The engineer with a great product, presented in a presentation that looks like a deck used to present the result of a school end of year craft project
  • The Fortune 500 investor relations manager with a quarterly results deck in a standard PowerPoint 2007 template that is more of a general company introduction than a razor sharp story updating investors about the key business drivers in the last quarter.

Difficult starting points:

  • A confident CEO, with a visual deck (lots of big pictures) that spends too much time on explaining a relatively obvious point, ignoring the "elephant in the room" practical questions that investors might have (yes, we get the idea, but how can you build this realistically in 3 months).
  • A scientist who is so used to her existing slides that her pitch would not change much, even when equipped with the world's most beautiful slide deck.
  • An inventor with a great idea, but no team, no plan, no technical approach

Never a dull moment in my profession!


Image from WikiPedia

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Designing on small screens

Designing on small screens

I have argued many times before here that design work on small screens is difficult. It is OK to fix typos in a presentation on a tablet or phone, but the small screen is not the right interface to focus your creative energy. This was the reason that my presentation design app SlideMagic launched as a web app rather than as "mobile first".

The issue is not constrained to graphics design. Recently I started venturing in iPad apps that aim to be perfect replicas of ancient analog synthesisers. The Moog Model 15 iPad app is a technical wonder by packing so much sound in a small device, and offering a graphical user interface that enables you to connect wires everywhere.

Keith Emerson in front of a Moog synthesizer  ( image from WikiPedia )

Keith Emerson in front of a Moog synthesizer  (image from WikiPedia)

The problem is the lack of screen real estate. You have to scroll constantly to go from one end of a wire to another. You cannot get the full picture of what you are doing. An I think that the experience would not have been much better on a laptop either, still to small. You need a very large monitor to get the same experience as standing in front of the actual instrument.

 This goes further I think. Laptops, and before that, crappy 768 pixel, 80x25 character monitors were big contributors to the design mess in business presentations. A big empty white board works better to design charts than a small A4 piece of paper.

For good design you need a big canvas, and my prediction is that technology will evolve, screens get better, thinner, crisper, pencils and style get closer to the real thing, but if a user interface stays physically small, it cannot beat the blackboard.

 

 

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Note taking on iPad in 2016 (2)

Note taking on iPad in 2016 (2)

I now have spent more hours taking notes and sketching with my iPad Pro 9.7 + pencil combo (read the earlier post). Things are still not perfect.

Taking notes

The big issue is instant availability of your canvas. Keep the screen on continuously and you drain your battery in less than an hour. Do auto-power off and you find your self do this for every single scribble you want to make 1) press home button 2) touch id 3) touch canvas to activate the writing surface. The latter is probably an issue in the Evernote Penultimate app, which has 2 modes: One where you view notes, and one where you can edit them.

Sketching ideas

  • The 9.7" screen is to small for sketching big, bold concepts, I need more space. (But then I don't want to carry an iPad Pro 12" around). You actually need 2 devices.
  • Current apps don't support erasing very well. You have to go into a menu, change the pencil to an eraser, erase, then switch it back again. Maybe Apple can put a sensor in the back of the pencil and make it an eraser, or could enable the use of multiple pencils in the same app. My creative process is rather paper intensive. I use a huge pile of old paper: make a bold sketch, toss it away, make another one, and another one, until I iterate to a chart in 10 loops or so. Even the pretty app Paper by 53 does not accommodate this workflow.

There is hope though. Most of these issues are solvable, and some even via software. We will get there in the end.


Image from WikiPedia

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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

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Talking is the best briefing

Talking is the best briefing

A story line skeleton is hardly ever the best briefing for a presentation. It is useful for an analyst who has the fill in the missing pieces of data, not to convey a powerful sales or investor message.

The better approach is to set back and talk things over, that's when big ideas come out.


Image from WikiPedia

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Big meetings or email input

Big meetings or email input

Usually big meetings to collect input on a presentation draft are an inefficient use of time. Conversations get side tracked, people make ambiguous comments, introverts who might have intelligent points to add do not speak up (and vice versa). For smaller comments, it is best to have them send to you by email.

There is one exception though: when the overall way to pitch the story is not clear, you have to discuss it with everybody present. Otherwise you end up going back and forth in numerous iterations with a fundamental re-write of the whole pitch. When you do run this kind of meeting, try to keep it focussed on that subject: the overall approach to the story, and not editing sentences and headlines on individual slides.

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Freelancer at capacity

Freelancer at capacity

After McKinsey, I now spent almost 14 years as a freelance designer. And my work has gone through a pattern that many others are experiencing as well:

In the beginning you run after every piece of work you can get your hands on, invests tremendous amount of energy in projects to over-deliver, producing work that would not meet today's quality standards (I sometimes cringe when I encounter my early design work). At dinner parties you have a highly elaborate pitch of what you do, and what you don't do (that story changes monthly).

After a while your work pipeline starts building up. Reputation spreads, and happy customers come back to you for more work. You become more efficient at what you do. And at some time, that efficiency starts eating into your work. You try to please everyone and the only way to do it is to start cutting corners. The result: stress and work that is not as great as it could be. Designs still look a lot better than when you started out (you have learned a lot along the way), but the sparkle in the eye of the client is less bright than it used to be. I hit that point a couple of years ago.

I made a conscious decision to change things. Only accept projects that I knew I could add great value, and take things all the way. This means saying "no" to a lot of distractions. Creative work requires a lot of concentration and even the shortest coffee chat can render an entire morning useless. Out go:

  • Clients who want to salami slice your pricing
  • "Oh, just do a quick polish"
  • Favours to friends and family, I can't afford it
  • Deadlines that get moved forward
  • "We can meet tonight at 22:00 if you want"
  • "The meeting is tomorrow"
  • "Let's just meet for quick coffee, we can start working in 2 weeks"

The result: much better work and happier clients. The problem is that you have to go through the first 2 phases in order to be able to pull of the third one.


Image taken from WikiPedia

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Full circle

Full circle

Most presentation design processes go through the following circle:

  1. You scribble  a clean, crisp, story on a white board
  2. That scribble gets translated into the first series of charts/placeholders
  3. Now the dilution starts: lots of data, backgrounds, footnotes, and story line restructuring until we have a bloated, generic collection of charts

The successful presentation design project goes further: cutting things back to reach that level of freshness of stage 1. But there is a danger of cutting too much. Throughout the process, the team has gotten so familiar with the material that they have lost track of the starting point of a cold audience. Things that might seem totally obvious to them (after 2 months of work) are not that clear to a first time audience.

Was all the data digging a waste of time? No, it is good to get your facts straight, as long as you don't lose the creativity you had in that first kick off meeting.

As a professional presentation designer, I usually come in in stage 3, lots and lots of data, and my kick interview brings back the thoughts that came up in stage 1. An unfair advantage of the outsider...


Art: Kandinsky: Circles in a circle, 1923

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Back to pencils

Back to pencils

I have tried many tablet note taking apps, but have gone back to the pencil. And of the many pencils I have tried, the Lamy 2000 propelling pencil is my absolute favourite. It is made out of plastic, but has a great feel to it, it has the right thickness, the right balance in the hand and looks great! The origins of the pencil go back to the mid 1960s when the Lamy pencil called in the help of a Gerd Mueller who has previously been designing for the Braun electronics company.

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No, also presentations cannot be designed by committee

No, also presentations cannot be designed by committee

Marketing, Investor relations, corporate communications, business development, everyone likes to have a say in the design of the next keynote address of the CEO at that important industry conference.

When the team "works" on a presentation, you usually get the following pattern:

  • Long meetings in a conference room, with a few people dialing in by phone (people who cannot see the slides), discussing the key messages on each slide
  • Long email exchanges without an organised discussion thread to log changes

Design by committee also does not work for presentations. Here is why it goes wrong:

  • In the end, you need to pick a consistent approach to the story. Mixing and matching parts of approach A and parts of approach B is not going to give you a "best of both worlds" result. The only way to get something consistent is to have one person write it.
  • A committee focuses on the slides, adding footnotes, changing headlines, shuffling the order. And while doing that, they feel like they are "programming" the verbatim of the CEO (who is not in the room). Wrong, in the end the CEO will pick his own story, sometimes despite the slides.
  • In a committee there is no one doing the real work, at the end of the meeting, the most junior person at the table probably gets tasked with "incorporate all comments into a new version and email it around by 9AM". That junior person might have dropped / not understood a few comments, and probably lacks the spine to push back against more senior executive in the company (who made a point that does not make sense).
  • You will for sure miss the contribution of introverts
  • The casual observer in a committee meeting often does not have the in-depth understanding of how the presentation is built, and what is written on which slide. As a result, noticing that important elements are missing, she will suggest to add comments, bubbles, and footnotes on random slides to make sure that the key messages are "at least written down somewhere".
  • Committees under time pressure like to give drastic input. After a 3 hour discussion: "oh yeah, the deck is too long, collapse 35 slides into 10", leaving the junior team member confused what to do.

A better approach:

  • Interview the CEO/the person who is actually going to give the talk
  • Get the committee together and "shake the tree" for all messages and issues that need to be included
  • Now, design the whole deck start to finish
  • Then ask input from the committee and be tough with accepting comments

Art: Claude Bernard and his pupils. Oil painting after Léon-Augus Wellcome

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SlideMagic as a sketch board

SlideMagic as a sketch board

Some of you out there are probably still afraid of using a new presentation design tool that is still in beta for live presentations. Here is another way to get started: use SlideMagic as your sketch board.

Many of you use bullet points to sketch out the content of a presentation. Maybe in a word processor, maybe in PowerPoint. The problem is that once you have iterated those bullets and everyone agrees to them, it is hard to turn those lists into visual designs.

Here is where SlideMagic could come in handy. It is very easy to set up charts that are not lists: a quick table, a quick contrast between two options, a quick 2x2. Jot your ideas down, and if you set your accent colour and logo, the whole sketch board will probably look better than a finished end product in PowerPoint.

Use SlideMagic to form your first ideas of your presentation, until the moment has arrived when you "have to" translate the designs to PowerPoint or Keynote. You can of course, but I think many of you will find that it is much easier to stick to SlideMagic after trying a few pages.  


Art: an unfinished painting by William Berryman, created between 1808 and 1816

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You cannot force creativity

You cannot force creativity

I tend to work on presentation design projects in bursts: dive in, get stuck, put it away, work on another project, get back to it, put it away again.

Even when you stop working on something consciously, your subconscious mind continues to chew on things. This article discusses recent research that proves that the subconscious brain can solve real problems.

There is another benefit of this delayed approach. When you get back into things some details of the story have faded to the background a bit. It is this "numb" state of mind that is useful to piece together the story that really matters, you have to explain it to yourself again and it might come out clearer without the distraction of these details. In addition, other details might come to the forefront which you thoughts were not important.

All of this explains why presentations that are created at 3AM at night before the 9AM meeting are not very creative (most management consulting projects). It also explains why an outsider or senior executive/partner can walk into a room and articulate a story much better in 3 minutes than an entire team who has been working on it 24/7 for the past 3 months. It not all experience, it is also being able to take some distance from the subject.

What to do? Start thinking early about the presentation of your results. The problem of how to communicate your project, is a different one from the problem that your project solved (read that sentence again). While you still might end up finishing your presentation at 3AM, if you started early enough to think about it, your presentation will be much more effective. 


Art: The Inspiration of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio, 1602
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