What Does “Design” Mean, Anyway?

Every year during and after the Presentation Summit, a fascinating exchange of ideas takes shape. This happens without fail — in the hallways and ballrooms during the days of the conference, in the lounge after hours, and in the post-conference evaluations that we read. This year’s discussion took its most salient turn with two observations from two patrons in two evaluations.

Here is the first:

“I absolutely loved the common-sense approach to packaging messages and designing presentations with a focus on the audience and how they can best absorb the message. This is designers teaching us design in the best possible way. Bravo!”

And the second:

“The conference was a disappointment. The design sessions were for people who have hardly used the program. There were numerous sessions presented by non-designers. I can just see this conference doing so much more to bring up the level of craft.”

Were these two people attending the same event? This is reminiscent of movies that depict the same scene from two perspectives that are so different as to be comical.

Of the two quotes above, the first was delivered by a man in his 40s who has attended the conference many times. He represents the millions of people who came to presentation from using PowerPoint, not from having pursued an education in graphic design. He holds out hope that his slides might one day look better, but what he really wants to accomplish is to craft better stories and to build slides that help him tell those better stories better.

The second quote was authored by a young woman, I’m going to guess late 20s, making her first trip to the conference (and probably her last!). She is a graphic designer by trade and her slides are beautiful. She came to the conference to network (which she succeeded in doing) and to further hone her design skills (which she did not). She was frustrated because few in the building, if any, exhibited her eye for slide design.

Neither of these people was wrong in his or her assessment. He was right that we pursue common-sense approaches to presentation design. And she was right that our Design track did include presenters who would not call themselves professional designers. The only thing she was wrong about was her assessment about software usage: none of our sessions is for people who have hardly used PowerPoint; 99% of our patrons use PowerPoint on a regular basis. But several of the seminars were geared for people who don’t have much sense of good slide design.

This is at the core of the debate that we spark every year. It goes to show you how differently we can interpret the word design, and how challenging our task can be as choreographers of conference topics.

To bring this issue into sharper focus, I will reminisce back to one of the first years we held the conference. One of our seminar tracks was entitled “Design and Décor,” and that did not sit well with one of our design stars, Nancy Duarte. “Can you take out the word décor in the track name?” she asked. “There is a huge difference between it and design, and decorating a slide is bad.”

I agreed that there was a big difference between the two words and maintained that the track was intended to include both concepts. Both she and I had encountered the situation in which a client only wants to pretty up a slide, without regard for how the slide deck functions, how it was built, or above all, what message it is trying to communicate.

Slide decoration is not an intrinsically bad thing, unless it is done in lieu of design. And Nancy had bore witness to that enough times that she had soured on the word itself. “Décor is simply for visual pleasure. If you look at dictionary.com they even use words like decorative baubles to describe it. Whereas the word design has its origins in the word designate. That means there is an intentional way to designate or display things for optimal visual and cognitive intake. Randomly placing baubles in places because you like them there is very different than thinking through hierarchy, purpose, and intentional arrangement of the information.”

This had me thinking back to the days when interior designers were called decorators. We had a terrific one who would have been offended by the suggestion that she dealt in baubles of visual pleasure. But it was when I spoke with Julie Terberg about this that the issue came into sharper focus. When Julie performs makeovers at our conference, she often does not have the luxury of being able to scrutinize the message or revisit the foundation of a slide deck. Sometimes, she’s just in rescue mode! Yet she too bristles at the idea of being a mere decorator of slides. “I never use the word décor. I would use the term embellishment or design element. I like to try to create a cleaner layout, simplify, create consistency, pick up elements that might be pleasant already. Décor says that you are fancying it up, sometimes to excess. It has a negative connotation. We don’t want to just fancy them up.”

Julie put her finger on it: The word has a bad reputation. In far too many cases, the only help that a bad slide deck gets is a futile attempt to get prettied up — the quintessential lipstick-on-a-pig situation. So it’s no wonder that the mere suggestion of taking into account the aesthetic nature of a slide deck is met with scorn.

To avoid this type of confusion when working with clients, I make the distinction between “presentation design” and “slide design.” The first is a more inclusive notion of how you go about conceptualizing and building a presentation, while the latter focuses more on aesthetics. There is nothing wrong with wanting to have well-designed slides, unless that is all you pursue, in which case you won’t end up with much at all.

This is why two people who attend our conference can draw such starkly different conclusions about it when regarding the same word. The gentleman was grateful for our focusing on presentation design, while the woman wanted us to offer more on slide design. Add to this challenge the fact that we get many repeat patrons and must therefore bring variety to our offerings. Add to that the equally salient fact that there are core principles so important to the discipline that we must offer them every year. Add this all up and you can begin to see why I have just about lost all of my hair.

In a funny sort of way, I consider it a greater testament to the strength of the conference that we engender both types of commentary. If everyone loved all of our content, it would seem like a hollow experience. Not unlike the word design itself: it’s only when you take in the good and the bad that you begin to develop a sense of what is truly important to you. May that word continue to beguile us for many years to come…





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