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Your Content Affects Your Design. Get Over It.

By Nolan Haims

Last week I was working on a fairly important C-suite level presentation. The stakes were high, and it had to be done right. After the designer presented an initial few approaches using preliminary content, our client grew frustrated that it looked “too PowerPoint-y.” I agreed and suggested splitting up many of the slides to allow for one message per slide, instead of the current blocks of bullet points on each page. “Absolutely not,” I was told. “We can’t change any of the content.” I attempted to explain to the client that turning one slide into five wouldn’t change the message at all, but he was having none of it.

Later the client sent us a deck he had seen and liked, asking that his presentation be designed in the same manner. This other presentation was certainly well-designed, but it also had one message per slide. Each slide contained only a few words, and bullet points were nowhere to be seen. I tried to explain that the content of this other deck allowed for good design. His content was making this an uphill battle, despite our best efforts.

The client, like many, saw the design and the content of the presentation as mutually exclusive, when actually the two are inherently linked and each has the potential to improve the other. Here’s what I mean:

As with all graphic design, effective presentation design means designing content, not simply a frame around that content. Imagine McDonald’s asking an agency for an ad campaign without revealing the product to be promoted. Sure, the agency could come up with a McDonald’s-themed poster “template” using the company’s colors and style, but it’s ultimately going to fall flat when the product is inserted at the end—healthy salads for Mom should not get the same design treatment as a new Happy Meal for the kids, right?

While most would see the logic in the above example, every day countless presenters ask designers to create a “template” they can later drop their content into. This helps nobody and, in my opinion, is often a random exercise in design. I rarely design the look and feel of a presentation before knowing a healthy percentage of the content and even more rarely even design a template in the traditional sense. I prefer always to design content itself, not just a frame around that content. And if you think for a moment that you need a template for your presentation, I urge you to look at the slides of two of the most visible presenters today and tell me if they use templates. (Hint: their last names are Gore and Jobs.)

But let’s get back to how content affects design and vice-versa with an example:

Let’s say you are creating a 15-minute in-person venture capital pitch for your new online perfume startup. You create a list of 12 solid business reasons why your company is destined for success including management’s financial acumen, familiarity with the fragrance industry, the many degrees held, and on and on. And then you create a half dozen financial charts examining the environments, predictive cost analyses, etc. One slide even addresses the fact the consumers are shopping more online today than they did 3 years ago. (Duh.) So you drop all of this information onto 30 PowerPoint slides (you think 2 per minute is a good ratio) and ask your designer to create a “killer deck that really POPS and impresses.” And one more thing: “Don’t touch the content.”

Even the most talented designer in this case will be destined for failure. If the slide about the fragrance industry today has 4 distinct messages—how does one make all 4 points “pop?” If financial data is such that you have to fit 6 charts onto 3 slides (and the client insists on showing ALL the numbers), how can the designer focus the audience’s eye on a key takeaway? 12 solid business reasons? How does one visually cement these in the audience’s memory? Icons or imagery might help, but in an effort to remember them all, the audience will probably remember none. If you throw in the fact that the designer might be given a day to turn around a first draft (“we have a meeting on Wednesday, need this ASAP!”), it would be no surprise to see a template with some perfume bottles at the bottom and lots and lots of bullet points. Disappointment all around.

So how can the content aid the design which will ultimately aid audience comprehension? Simplify and focus the message. Instead of beginning with 3 packed slides of research, begin with a true story from an interview with a consumer about her perfume shopping habits and frustrations with retail stores. (Visual: 100 different perfume brands on a counter with a single figure displaying annual industry sales.) Then move into the 3 reasons why people are hesitant to buy fragrances online: can’t sample, no customer service, difficult to return. (Visual: Ghostbuster-style slashes through the words “sample,” “customer service,” “returns”). Then you hit your audience with your unique selling proposition: “We will be the Zappo’s of fragrances.” (Visual: “Zappo’s of fragrances…”)

You can see where this is going. All that detailed financial and background data may indeed be important, but let that be designed as a text leave behind separate from the on-screen presentation. By limiting and focusing your content, you will allow for good presentation design. And good dynamic and memorable presentation design (i.e. strong visuals, singular messaging on a slide, limited text, etc.) will lead back to help create strong content. Imagine after creating 15 strong slides as described above that you realize you didn’t address past successes with other businesses (something you know is a make or break item for the audience). It will be no problem to add that slide in, but you will now have to match that slide’s look to the rest of the deck. So instead of 3 paragraphs on 3 examples, you’ll have 3 logos, each with just a few words describing the pertinent major success. That’s how design can help content.

So, remember that client who insisted his content was not to be touched? Well, once he saw how the designer was able to treat the few slides scattered in the deck that did have minimal content and singular messages, he said he thought he might be able to remove some bullet points here and there for us…I’ll let you know how it turns out next week.

Nolan Haims' guest post for PresentationExpressionsAfter careers in theatre and the circus, Nolan Haims moved into the world of presentation, designing sales presentations, pitches and keynote addresses for Fortune 500 CEOs, leading financial institutions and all the major television networks. Currently he is Presentation Director for Edelman, the world’s largest independent PR company. He writes about visual communication at