Imagine that eureka moment when a design idea becomes fully formed in your mind. Suddenly, you know exactly how your product will look, move, feel, and perform in order to set itself apart from everything else on the market. This moment is a critical creative breakthrough, but now comes the truly hard part: convincing others that your idea is as groundbreaking as you believe it to be.
At some point in time, all designers have to stand in front of co-workers, managers, or clients and explain what makes their design valuable, novel, and commercially viable. That’s not easy to do with just a couple of drawings and a few minutes of speaking time. And it’s especially difficult for designers who are typically more comfortable poring over specs than speaking in public.
That's why design presentations have gained a reputation for being somewhat of a necessary evil.
That attitude is understandable, but it’s not inevitable. A great design presentation is an opportunity to introduce a product and explain how it satisfies a consumer need or want. It’s a way to explain why your design deserves to be in production — a pitch every designer should be eager to make. Plus, design presentations are a way to solicit critical feedback and integrate the wisdom of the crowd into future iterations. As much as design presentations inspire dread, the truth is that they’re good for designers and designs alike.
The Elements of a Disastrous Design Presentation
The fundamental challenge of a design presentation is taking something that is totally new and making it comprehensible for your audience. You may be able to illustrate how something looks and describe how it works, but that doesn’t mean your listeners actually get the product. They still don’t understand what makes it a good design to greenlight or an exciting product to buy.
This problem is common because designers tend to be myopic by nature. We are great at focusing in on minute details and exacting specifications, but truly great products are more than the sum of their parts. When design presentations become about highlighting every detail or feature — instead of explaining why a product as a whole has merit — decision makers can’t really decide whether to move forward with a design.
The presentation aspect is another challenge. The goal is to be engaging and educational, which mean different things to different audiences. Designers must tailor the auditory, visual, and interactive elements of their presentation based on who they are presenting to and what they want to communicate. Trying to deliver the same presentation to every audience will inevitably leave some people confused and unimpressed.
The final — and perhaps most fatal — mistake that designers make is presenting to themselves instead of the audience. Excited presenters focus in on the design details they are most proud of instead of the ones consumers really care about. As a result, they deliver their presentation to match their own learning style, rather than adjusting it to meet the audience’s expectations. These kinds of presentations sound great to the person delivering them, but they leave the audience with tight lips and glassy eyes.
As a young designer, I remember being so proud of my design sketches. I put my heart and soul into each one and wanted to share them all with the client. I pinned numerous concept sketches up on the wall, thinking that the client would just love to see all the available options. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect: Instead of being excited by the possibilities, my client was overwhelmed and didn't know how to proceed.
After that, I realized the importance of framing a product design need, then taking the client on a journey to show how one (or, at most, a few) design options solve that need. I never task audience members with the job of determining what to do next. Instead, I give options for them to choose from, carefully outlining the pros and cons of each direction.
Acing the Design Presentation in 3 Steps
The consequences of a bad design presentation run deeper than embarrassment and awkwardness. They cause good designs to end up in the trash and keep exciting products from ever reaching the shelves. The presentation may be the problem, but the design itself is what suffers.
Here are three steps that will help you make the right points in the right ways during your next design presentation:
1. Give structure to your presentation
You know your design better than anyone else, which makes it tempting to speak about it off the cuff. In practice, however, this approach leads to meandering presentations that skim over important details. Neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor purportedly rehearsed approximately 200 times before she delivered her famous TED Talk in 2008, which has since been viewed nearly 23 million times.
An effective design presentation takes the audience on a creative journey, so structure your presentation like a story: with a beginning, middle, and end. Begin by describing the target audience and what types of problems it faces. Be as detailed as possible. Then, transition to explaining how your design appeals to that audience and solves its members' problems.
You don’t want to rush into the reveal because that's when your audience begins to form its final impression. Structure your presentation so it logically explains how your product fills a need in the market, and weave vivid details and illustrative examples throughout.
2. Break down the pertinent details
You're probably presenting to an audience of consumers or business leaders, not fellow designers. Don’t assume your audience understands what makes design details significant, and don’t focus exclusively on features that appeal only to design enthusiasts.
Steve Jobs was a master communicator precisely because he was able to think in terms of the specifics but communicate them within a context his audience would understand. It's how he was able to so clearly describe the benefits of Apple's newest offerings without getting tangled in all the details. He spoke with clarity and precision, and he never used jargon.
Your presentation must communicate the most important information as clearly as possible. That involves explaining why and how specific details were incorporated into the design. It means moving beyond things like aesthetics and functionality and focusing on details like cost and production requirements. Referencing specific facts and figures during your presentation makes it much easier for the audience to get on board.
3. Finish strong
You want to leave your audience with a powerful, lasting impression. Too many design presentations simply fizzle out. The key to going out with a bang is to bring your presentation full circle. Work an anecdote, study, or interesting idea into your introduction, then reference it again in your conclusion. Research shows that repetition helps ideas stick. And by returning to a familiar idea, the presentation itself gives the idea greater context and meaning.
A design presentation may be a professional obligation, but it’s also an opportunity to get other people as excited about your ideas as you are. Instead of viewing it as something to suffer through, look at it as a challenge worth mastering.
Victor Lazzaro is the resident product development specialist of PopFoam, the leader in the injection molded EVA closed-cell foam process that specializes in complex geometrics. As an independent designer, Victor has been consulting with PopFoam for 16 years and has worked with the company in a number of different applications.