Protesting Presentation Design: 5 Common Arguments


I teach a class called Professional Communication and Presentation, and I push my students to become proud members of the presentation revolution.  Because most of my students were born on or after 1990, they’ve grown up in a world of death-by-PowerPoint.  They’ve only seen PowerPoint misused and abused as a tool for speaking notes.  As Garr Reynolds tells us, it’s high time to move into 21st Century Presenting.

PowerPoint by its own definition is a software presentation program; it is a visual aid.  It is not a handout; it is not a document; it is not a textbook.  PowerPoint (or Keynote, of course), makes it easier for people to create slides to accompany their presentation, but the slides are not the presentation.  I know.  This is groundbreaking to most of us.

Let’s think about what a visual aid actually is: communication through the visual medium.  A billboard, a magazine layout, and a newspaper ad are examples of visual communication.  A slide is also an example of visual communication.  Since they have become so easy to use and readily available on our computers, we’ve come to believe slides ARE the presentation.  Through bad habits, we think slides serve the same purpose as a handout.  Because of these bad habits, and because we believe these habits to be the way and the truth, we hate presentations, but we can’t figure out why.

Each month, my students bring up some great points, and we discuss and debate these ideas together in class.  They usually get it – some immediately, some after a few hours, and some after a few days.  Colleagues and fellow teachers, however, seem much slower to embrace the importance of visual communication.  I think it must be because fellow teachers don’t spend 4 and 8 hours a day in death-by-bulletpoint lecture.  With both students and faculty, here are the 5 most common arguments I hear protesting effective visual design:

1.  “How are my students supposed to know the lecture material if I don’t put all of the words I’m saying on my slides?  How will they be able to study for their tests?”

Students aren’t in class to write down and memorize every single word that comes out of your mouth.  They’re there to learn, and we really have to work to understand what that means.  One enormously important part of learning is being able to decide which concepts are important and worthy of writing down for future reference.  If you think your students aren’t capable of making those kinds of decisions, you should help them get there!  It’s one of our responsibilities as superteachers to guide our students toward success; memorization may help students pass a test, but it isn’t learning.  True learning comes from discussion, debate, and activity as opposed to lecture.

You could also give your students a physical or electronic study guide…

2.  “Pretty slides work for the kind of frou frou class you teach, Alex, but it definitely doesn’t work for my class.”

Let’s think about global warming for a moment.  How do you teach climate change to a group of people?  Isn’t that just about the most boring topic in the world?  Lots of data, lots of science, lots of things I need to put in bullet point format.

Well, Al Gore took this boring ole topic and, with the help of Nancy Duarte’s design firm, turned a set of Keynote slides into effective visual design.  If Al Gore can do it with climate change, I assure you, you can do it with whatever topic you’re teaching.

Nancy Duarte doesn’t have a degree in pretty slides; she earned her MBA.  She works with businesses.  In my line of work, unfortunately, the business teachers are the people who protest the visual design movement the most.  The teachers with MBAs cling to their death-by-bulletpoint slides.  “That’s how it’s always been done!” they say.

You can take a set of terrible slides relying heavily on templates, logos, and bullets and make those slides truly visual.  Here is an example of a recent slide makeover I did for the women’s organization I volunteer for.  Consider the effect on the audience.  Death-by-bulletpoint with lots of clip art may be how it’s been done since the 1980s, but, again, we have to embrace the 21st art and science of presenting.  In our world today, people are more attuned to visual communication than ever before, and we have to make certain that our slides are helping as opposed to boring audience members.

3.  “Design isn’t important.”

This argument always amuses me the most because it shows just how good design is.  Design is so good that people don’t even know it exists.  Design is so good people don’t even think it’s important.

Garr Reynolds wrote an insightful article on his blog called “Why Design Matters.”  We should definitely all read it and try to internalize its message.  You really must read the entire article, but this excerpt is my favorite:

“Quality alone is not enough — a lot of people have good quality, right? Instead, the overall DESIGN of the “thing” must be so compelling that it serves as a key differentiator. Companies, then, are beginning to preach design internally and demand great design, not just of the product-development teams, but of all departments. If an organization’s true brand is actually inside the company, then we sure as heck better make sure we have an internal climate that preaches great design and lives incredible design everyday” (Source).

4.  “I don’t need to know about design.  I can just hire a designer.”

I get this argument the most from my students as opposed to teachers.  I tell them, “Sure!  You can hire a designer.  But you have to know enough about design to ensure you aren’t paying someone to design complete garbage for you.”  We must know a little bit about design so that we can ensure those around us are designing effectively for our brand, for our business.

Learning the design basics really isn’t hard!  Start here.

5.  “But I’m not a trained graphic designer.  How am I supposed to learn this stuff?”

Though I love it and would love to work in the visual communication field one day, I’m not a graphic designer, either.  In fact, I can only design really well through Keynote and Pages.  I’ve been designing slides for about two and a half years now.  Imagine how great you’d be if you worked on slide design once a week for two and a half years.

Start with the basics.  Learn a little bit each day, and apply what you’re learning to your Word documents and your PowerPoint presentations.  You’ll be surprised how much you can improve in just one month… For example, after just one 8-hour workshop on visual design, my students know a lot of things and can really see significant improvement instantly in the quality of their visual communication.

What kinds of arguments do you hear protesting effective presentation design?

8 thoughts on “Protesting Presentation Design: 5 Common Arguments

  1. Alex, my (self-generated!) arguments were

    1. They won’t retain it if I don’t show it as spelled-out text. (Kindof a variation on #1 above.)

    2. This isn’t a bumper-sticker topic, so quit trying to force me into billboard-style slides (which is a variation, probably, of 2).

    3. And then you personally heard my #5 plea to you for a “new revolution-inspired template”.

    How did I cure myself? Well for

    #1…I was shanghai’d last week to fly to KY and teach off another instructor’s powerpoint for a course on a topic that I knew well. I was horrified and embarrassed by the slides (even in my semi-enlightened current state), and instead made outlines on paper and talked without pp at all, and instead used the experience of the audience. It went smashingly..(even when I had to pause and check my hand-scrawled notes to make sure I was on-pace). It was pretty clear that Less ended up being More, since fewer (high-priority) points were hammered home & tied to experiences/stories. The feedback was great, (“Thank you – First time in the history of the Army that a course was taught without pp!” was one eval. Untrue, but heartfelt nonetheless.)

    #2…This was (is..) a slower learning process of looking at a TON of “2.0” presentations, watching TED, and re-designing my presentation content. And by “design” I don’t mean layout. I mean design of the whole shooting-match of content, form, flow, take-aways, etc. (And also, this received a boost from my experience last week where I went slide-less.)

    #3. This ended up being easy: steal. After viewing a number of presentations that were deemed “2.0 worthy” (sources: this blog, Ethos3, etc). I just took a design that I liked & would work for me and copied it. Amusingly, it looks like you’ve done it too: Bebas Neue + a script font, orange & black. That’s the look I took. In fact, I’m eying your layout above (photo on one side) with impure motives, because I like that layout better than what I’m using right now.

    Really, this blog has helped me come up to speed quickly on changing my design for the better. Thanks a million, again..

  2. In response to #5, I would recommend the Non-Designer’s… books by (Ms.) Robin Williams, especially The Non-Designer’s Design Book and The Non-Designer’s Presentation Book. In fact if I were you, I’d add them to your “Visual Design” post. ;)

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