My design agency is called none

Following a conference talk, one of my fellow keynote speakers once asked me which agency created my slides, because he “liked my visuals more than his”. My answer was straightforward and simple: I always create my own materials.

For sure, crafting a nice looking PowerPoint takes a good chunk of your time, but IMHO it’s always worth the effort. Of course there are graphic design agencies, who are more than happy doing the work for you. There are many good such agencies, but also mediocre ones. No offence to the good ones, but I had a not-so-positive experience working with a graphic (re)designer in the past. That’s an understatement, as he totally ruined the concept behind my presentation when he neglected and overrode some (implicit) color coding I had built in.

At another occasion, another graphics guy introduced an overload of visual effects and animations to my slideshow. I had to tell them that such animations distract the audience from my key messages, and force me to concentrate on ‎timing and control instead of on my narrative. Furthermore, animated slides are often hard to edit and/or update, because of duplication and non-accessibility of grouped and hidden objects.

For a colleague’s presentation, another designer (?) created a single slide with 133 (!) words, written in 10 point (!) font size. I’m aware that not everyone is a follower of Guy Kawasaki’s 10-20-30 rule, but this specific visual was unreadable, unpresentable, and thus unacceptable.

Here’s another piece of advice: always double-check your original messages after bullets or handout texts have been rewritten. Particularly in the case when you’re using technical language or subject specific jargon I once discovered that my Linux kernel was faulty replaced by a nucleus. If content needs to be translated to a foreign language (even if it’s one you’re more or less familiar with) it may be a good idea to have the presentation reviewed by a native-speaking colleague.

Finally, like every father who thinks his kids are the most beautiful children on earth, I often prefer my original slides over the revamped ones. They contain my visual signature and they’re part of my personal brand. That’s why my graphic design agency is called None. And when I asked the other speaker about how much he had paid the design company for authoring his presentation, I was flabbergasted by the amount of money he spent per slide. Well, if I ever lose my voice, I know a lucrative alternative to public speaking: creating or remaking other people’s slides…

If you’re looking for slide design tips and some do’s and don’ts for using fonts, color, images, bulleted lists, multimedia, and templates in your slides, you may read my article “Why look and feel matter in business presentations“.


The legacy of Steve Jobs

I just finished watching Apple’s “Let us loop you in” live stream.  A near-anticlimactic event without any spectacular new product announcements – but rather new features on, and different colors and sizes of the Cupertino company’s smartphones, tablets and watches (and wristbands.)

There were also no surprises in terms of the CEO’s presentation style. Tim Cook has never been able to reach the speaking heights of Steve Jobs, even though he keeps delivering a consistently good speaking job.


As Carmine Gallo observes in one of his Forbes articles, Cook has skillfully taken over the techniques of his famous predecessor to introduce new products. His presentations are also rich on photographs and images. And, even when Cook talks more statistics, his slides only have one number on it —the number he wants his audience to remember.

What is probably more remarkable than Tim Cook giving a Steve Jobs-like talk, is that nowadays almost any device manufacturer or software developer is trying to mimic Jobs’ presentation style and templates.

In some of my presentation skills workshops, I’m showing Bill Gates’ infamous slide that he used for  introducing Microsoft Silverlight. It’s a self-explanatory example on how overcrowded visuals may blur the message and overshadow the speaker.


But, in preparation of writing this blog post, I watched some recent product announcements by some of Apple’s direct competitors: Samsung, LG and Huawei. Look at the video captures below. Sometimes it’s even hard to identify their visuals as not being created by an Apple designer. All of them have rigorously adopted Steve Jobs’ principles: focus, design and simplicity.




The only advice they all might have missed is Jobs’ “Think different” – and in this case, probably, “Use different visuals” too…

More reading:

In sweet memory of Aldus Manutius

While cleaning out my closet, I dug up an original 1987 printed copy of the Aldus Guide to Basic Design by Roger C. Parker. It dates back from the early days of affordable laser printers and desktop publishing, when Aldus Pagemaker was one of the most popular applications in this area. For the trivia lovers: the software package was named after Aldus Manutius, a Venetian renaissance printer and publisher who lived between 1449 and 1515. Aldus and PageMaker were acquired by Adobe in 1994, and the final version of the software was released in 2001.


In the second half of the 1980’s, when I was teaching a Desktop Publishing course at Apple Computer, I used this publication as a reference to tell, show and instruct my pupils about the basic rules of page layout. And, well, the booklet’s content is still more than relevant today.

It starts with a simple-but-great customer-centric definition of graphic design:

“The purpose of graphic design is to make it as easy as possible for readers to understand your message.”

No, I’m not going to repeat all the guidelines Parker is giving about margins, columns, fonts, headlines, quotes, images, etc. You can buy a 2nd hand copy of the book online for a few cents – which, in my humble opinion, is still worth a thousandfold in value.

As a teaser, here’s a summary of the advise provided in chapter one:

  • Be willing to experiment. Creativity often beats experience, and a great design is usually the result of many alternate attempts.
  • Be flexible in applying the rules. Graphic style and content always need to be adapted to a publication’s purpose and audience.
  • Consistency helps to organize information. Be consistent in the way you handle the various layout elements, within a page, within a section, and within a document. (Note: this is what I introduced in an older posts “Don’t feed the chameleons.”)
  • Let the style of your publication develop according to the placement of its elements. Style is defined by a combination of your personal ideas, skills and experience, and the document’s specific requirements.
  • Recognize design appropriateness for symmetric and asymmetric balance. The layout you create may guide a reader’s eye movements over a page. One can use design elements to create an asymmetry that attracts visual interest.
  • Organize each page around a single dominant visual element. Putting a dominant visual element (like a headline or an image) on a page provides both a focal point and a resting spot for the reader’s eyes.
  • Design your publication in terms of facing pages. Two pages that may look good on their own may be difficult to read when presented side-by-side. This problem can be handled by constructing facing pages as a single entity.

Although the Aldus Guide is addressing the authors and editors of written publications, all the above rules (except for the last one) are good for presentation designers too. In case you’re looking for more tips and tricks for creating better slides, you may also reread my post about “Why look and feel matter in business presentations”.

The making of Guernica

“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction” – Pablo Picasso

Last week I visited the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, renowned as the home of Picasso’s Guernica. The famous mural-sized, black-and-white painting was created in 1937 after the devastating bombing on the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, and is considered one of the most powerful visual political statements ever made by an artists.

The painting was impressive indeed. Its visual message overwhelming. Undoubtedly the work of a genius.


After intensively and extensively admiring the masterpiece, a series of small black-and-white photographs caught my attention. Posted on the wall opposite the canvas, they depict the making of Guernica. The snapshots were taken by Dora Maar, Picasso’s muse in those days, and show the consecutive development stages of the artwork.

Thanks to these historical pictures I could witness how some key components of the composition, like the bull, the horse, and the (light bulb) sun, were created, destructed and recreated by the Spanish painter.

While observing the metamorphosis of Guernica, I had to think of Dale Carnegie’s quote about delivering a presentation:

“There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave. The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.”

Just like Picasso’s masterpiece evolved during its inception, conception and creation, your presentation’s messaging, storytelling, and visualization may change over time – although an act of destruction is seldom required.

More reading:

Who put the ram in the ramalamadingdong?

This is a plea for user-centric design. A call for easy-to-use technology. For simple applications with clean GUIs. For PowerPoint slides that care more about their viewers’ experience than about their presenter’s ego.

Last night I was called in by a neighbor to help her fix a problem with the doorbell. Actually, the wiring problem was quickly fixed. But when she asked me if I could also change the annoying bell sound  ―a long and loud bong-bong-dong-ding-ding-bong-bong-dong-ding-ding chime, as warped hourly by the Big Ben in London― I came to a stunning observation.


The questioned doorbell device was preloaded with a series of 20 merry melodies, ranging from Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca, over Rossini’s infamous William Tell Overture, up to an almost-a-minute-long recital of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (at that moment I also realized that joy is a subjective term). But… there was no simple bell chime inside. No dingdong. Not even an old fashioned riiiing.

So, here’s my advice to all doorbell makers, product engineers, GUI designers and PowerPoint authors: keep your creations simple and sweet. Don’t over-design and don’t over-implement. Most doorbell consumers, including me, are happy with a plain dingdong and don’t need a loud and excessive ramalamadingdong.

Look ‘n’ feel matter – bulleted lists

I have only one important thing to tell about bullets: they are dangerous! So, use them scarcely and with caution. If you eventually shoot one into your own foot, you will be the only one to blame.

Although bulleted lists are probably the #1 layout component that people associate with PowerPoint presentations, they can make your sheets dull, boring and ineffective. As your brain interprets every letter as a picture, wordy lists literally choke it. As a consequence, people tend to forget what you have spelled out. Your visuals should only contain your key message(s). Keep the full text details for the handout. Make people listen to the words you say instead of read the characters on your slides.

If you want to use bullets anyway, make sure that each slide contains only 1 message (read my “Master of the house” post on how build a message house). Explain it in maximally 5 lines of no more than 7 words each. Highlight a few key words to help your audience focus. Avoid complex, multi-level lists and nested bullets. Each statement should start with a capital letter. Never use fly-in and fly-out animation effects.


As an alternative, try to convert your bullet list into a series of visuals – one slide per bullet point. Although this approach will make your PowerPoint look longer, you actually won’t spend more time presenting it. After you have iterated all key messages, you may still consider showing the (original or shortened) bulleted list on a summary slide.

Next week, I will talk about using video and multimedia in your presentations.

Other articles about this topic that are worth reading:

An opera in four acts

If you’re planning to give a talk, and the only Aida you know is a four-act opera by Giuseppe Verdi, then it’s time to take a look at or to read Robert Plank’s blog and learn about this great methodology for structuring presentations.

As an example, here’s a short presentation (also in 4 acts) that I have composed to illustrate the AIDA principle (view it on SlideShare).

First act: In which I am grabbing my audience’s Attention by starting with e.g. a trivia fact, an intriguing quote or a provocative question.

AIDA_attentionDid you know that Verdi refunded the opera’s admission price to a student who wasn’t very impressed with Aida? The young guy even asked him to be reimbursed for the money he spent for food on the train, but Verdi admonished him that he could have eaten at home.

To make a bridge to the rest of the presentation, I would add a statement like “I hope that I won’t have to pay any one of you after this presentation,” and even offer some cookies to the audience…

Second act: Trying to make sure that I’ll get their Interest and time for listening to the rest of my presentation.

AIDA_interestThis is the moment to introduce the other AIDA and tell the public that this is a methodology that had made sense for (almost) every presentation I ever gave.

Third act: Creating a Desire by giving them some compelling details and examples to show the value of my proposition.

AIDA_desireNote that there’s a variant of AIDA, AIDEA, where the “E” stands for Evidence. In this additional act there’s opportunity to further elaborate on proof points, case studies and facts & figures.

Fourth act: The grand finale. Calling for Action, to make sure that the people in the room are ready for taking a next step with me or my company. In this case, I am taking the opportunity to shamelessly promote my blog ;-)

AIDA_actionAs it’s always wise to summarize at the end: AIDA is an acronym that is easy to remember, and –even better– a technique that works with (almost) every story you want to tell.