Sometimes we voice strong opinions on topics touching the design and visual communication industries, sometimes we dispense advice to students, professionals and clients. If you’re into that sort of thing, this blog’s for you.

Presenting Design Work

Art by CSA Images

Art by CSA Images

Bob Dylan once said, “You can't be wise and in love at the same time.” No quote rings truer when it comes to designers presenting their work. Designers by nature are passionate about the work they do, but the contemporary climate designers work in often asks them to do everything twice as fast—and with smaller budgets. Therefore it’s difficult to switch gears between the love of the work and the process of selling it.

A great presentation has the soul of a well-made documentary and the intelligence of a well-defended court case. Presentations are so important that they should be given almost as much attention as the design solution itself.

What makes a great presentation?

A great presentation has the soul of a well-made documentary and the intelligence of a well-defended court case. Presentations are so important that they should be given almost as much attention as the design solution itself. And in the I-need-it-yesterday world we live in, that can be a hard thing to do.

It goes without saying that the presentation of design is an art form in and of itself. Just like design and the creative process, the art of presenting should have a step-by-step structure. If you really want to make your presentations impactful, it’s a good idea to design your creative process with the necessary steps to give you the correct information and documentation needed for a successful presentation.

Think of it this way

Presentations are stories, nothing more. Your job as the presenter is to tell that story in the most compelling way possible. Selling ideas isn’t easy. When it comes to presenting work I have one guiding principle: Have a reason rooted in design theory for every decision you make, backed up by research.

If you can find that balance between passion and intelligence—being in love with your work and being wise about it at the same time—your presentations will be clear, information-based stories told not by a designer infatuated with their work, defending it to the bitter end, but a person in love with the solution to the problem at hand. When this transition takes place you will be seen as a real business partner, not a prima donna that’s hard to work with.

Imagine this:

You wake up one morning and your car doesn’t start. You have it towed to the dealership and you take the bus to work. The next day you get a call from the dealership and they inform you your car is fixed and ready to be picked up and that you owe them $1,500 for the repairs. You ask, “What was wrong with my car?” The dealership replies, “You know, we really don’t know. We fiddled around with the engine yesterday, tried to start it this morning, and it fired right up. When can you be by to pick it up?”

Now I would hope you wouldn’t pay that dealership a dime until they told you exactly WHY your car didn’t start, HOW they fixed it, and WHAT parts it took to do so. Yet so many design presentations lack that same kind of detail.

Step 1: Start with Why

Everyone wants to know WHY. It’s how our brains are wired. By starting with WHY you have a platform to lay out your approach, show them you understand the problem you set out to solve, all the while giving your presentation a natural, conversational way to walk them through your process and presentation. The WHY phase of your presentation should outline the following:

An overview of the project and its objectives
Doing this gives the presentation a framework. Much like a good documentary, you need a beginning, and there is nothing wrong with setting up and recapping the project as you understand it, and organizing its solution.

Outline problems that needed solving based on the project objectives
Based on your and the client’s understanding of the project’s objectives, outline the problems and list the challenges in order of importance. This way you can give the presentation a structure and order. This also helps your audience follow along mentally. Remember that you are the communicator in the room, not them. Don’t assume they are simply going to pay close attention to you simply because you are standing up in front of them.

Step 2: Continue with How

The natural extension of WHY is HOW.  The HOW phase of the presentation allows you to explain and show them the various solutions you came up with based on the goals and problems that were laid out and explained in the WHY stage. By outlining the paths you took, showing which ones worked, which ones didn’t, and what you learned from each, you show a great evolutionary path of HOW you came into what was to become your solution. By showing them what doesn’t work and how you came to make your conclusion proves that you have explored all the possibilities, and why you eliminated them as a solution. It also shows them what elements survived, further demonstrating the evolution of the project.

Show them your research (or a clean, concise variation of it.)
Again, clients are paying you to solve problems, not make things look pretty. Explaining your research and how you did it gives your presentation the weight it needs.

What conclusions you made based on the research
Verbalize your thought processes. It shows your client that what you did has meaning—meaning to their project and the solution. Explain your research as the catalyst to show the client color choices, font choices, and other basic design decisions.

Show them sketches, thumbnails, doodles, color swatches, etc. 
Show them how you cook in your kitchen. Let them know what you tried, abandoned, and why. This backs up your solution by showing that you tried multiple approaches and eliminated them based on your research, experience, and hard facts.

Finish the How phase of your presentation with the raw decisions you made
At this point they should have a good understanding of why you did what you did and how you got there. Colors, photographs, illustration styles, font choices, copy choices, rhythm, motion, balance, contrast, all the elements that a designer uses to design.

Step 3: Finish with What

All too often designers want to impress clients with a lot of designs, so they start with WHAT they did. Sadly, this often involves simply standing up and showing 3-5 different concepts, and describing WHAT color was used, WHAT typography was used, WHAT dimensions were used, WHAT illustration style was used, etc. All the while these designers just hope that the client likes at least one of them, or at the very least likes one enough so that they can do a series of revisions, continuing in the hope that they will like one of those.

This is the shotgun blast approach. I suppose this sounds like a good idea at the time of signing the client, but it takes the presentation from a great story about WHY and HOW the work was created to a long and often annoying defense of WHAT you did. Starting with WHAT reveals the end of your story at the beginning, taking away all the exploration, process, education, and reasoning that went into the project. By finishing with WHAT you did it gives the audience the final reveal to the story you have been telling.

Unveil the solutions
Present a series of solutions that show all the decisions you made. Be honest. Tell them the pros and cons of each—this helps them understand why and how you did what you did.

Recommend the best solution 
By handling your presentation in this controlled, organized way you have been slowly unveiling your ideas, education, experience, and perspective. If done right, this should give the client all the confidence they need to look at your solution with educated eyes.

Answer their questions with facts
It’s okay to sell intuition—but do it in small doses, and it should always be done in a way that makes sense to the spirit of the project.

In closing

There are times during a project when you need to be in love, and others when you need to be wise. Being able to shift between those two states is the sign of a great designer.