Pansy Cheung Provisional RGD recently founded The Visual Narrative Company specializing in building customized high-impact presentations. In an interview with Amy Eaton RGD, she shares her journey.
Why did you decide to focus on presentation design? Does designing presentations differ from designing other multi-page documents?
I fell into presentation design by accident. In one of my previous roles at an agency, a big part of my work was designing presentations not only for our clients, but also for my agency’s leadership team and internal communication documents. It was an acquired skill that I picked up along the way and I became competent in creating presentations using software not typically used by designers.
Presentation design differs from other multipage documents, because we have to account for the auditory aspect as well as the visual aspect of how someone consumes information. When someone's presenting, in person or on a video call, we have to deal with the visual of what they're seeing and also how that visual ties to a talk track or whatever they're speaking about. There is a fine balance between making sure the idea is translating in a way that is not confusing, while also being visually compelling. You also need to take into account how people like to present themselves and the uniqueness of the presenter. It needs to be a cohesive experience all around or the audience may wonder if it's a presentation that the speaker didn't create or that the presenter didn't practice and you don't want that.
Where do you find inspiration? How do you keep up with trends in the field?
I find inspiration from listening to things like Ted Talks or even watching Netflix or TV shows and seeing how design is alive in those different formats. For example, in TV shows you'll sometimes have parts of the storyline where there are breakers or areas that use a different type of narration. I like to see how there are different forms of communication being applied, the visual and the auditory tying together in one piece. Another place I find inspiration is listening to podcasts and seeing the websites and little thumbnail images that represent them. They give a sense of the look and feel of what you're consuming through your ears, like a hint about what they're going to talk to you about or the feeling they’re going to evoke in the audience.
Presentation design is a pretty small and niche area. There aren’t necessarily any trends that are going on with presentation design specifically, it really flows with graphic design trends. It’s interesting to see how those design industry trends can be worked into presentations in different ways.
Did you notice a big change in presentations when we switched from in-person to virtual events?
Yes. And I would say the reason is because people finally realized that the attention span of people virtually is shorter than in person. The importance of design and making sure that the audience is getting what they need out of a presentation has been really important with this switch. Attending a virtual conference is different than being in person – there's a lot more vying for your attention with many of us living in our workspaces now. It feels like there is more of a focus and interest in seeing how presentation design can play a positive role in helping elevate events and I suspect it'll continue to be that way in the future.
What is your design process when starting a new presentation design?
Before I touch any design software, or even think about what the look and feel is going to be visually, I like to map out the story and what I want the audience to take away from it. That is the North Star to guide everything that will come throughout the process of creating the actual document.
I usually start with an in depth conversation involving lots of questions with the presenter – what their goals are, what they're looking to get out of it, what emotion they want the audience to be feeling by the end of it. From there, we'll start to parse out the bits and pieces that they need to include in order to tell that story. For example, if they're trying to persuade investors we want to make sure we're telling the full story of what the problem is that their product is going to solve and the market that they're trying to get into. The story needs to be compelling in a way that conveys feelings like anger or hope along with the information about what this product can do. From there, we start to hash out the story of how we can actually compel someone to make the decision in favor of the presenter.
Once I have all of that I would place it either in a notebook, on sticky notes, or just do a quick sketch and start to position the slides. From there l take it into the computer and start to build it out in Google Slides, Keynote, PowerPoint, etc. It's a little bit different from how we normally approach communication design projects, but I would say not so different in terms of the storytelling aspect and how design can really elevate that experience.
What are some common design errors you see in presentations?
While many people think too much text is a no-no, I think it depends on how the presentation is being used. Let's say it's a presentation that you're sending someone in an email as a PDF, you're not there to present it, maybe it's a pre-read. In those instances, it's okay to have a lot of text because you want the recipient to have enough context to really understand what you're going to be talking about later on.
A common design error would probably be not connecting the slides together. A presentation is almost like watching a movie, if there are different chapters and each one is a different slide, they need to flow nicely into each other in a way that seems natural. Thinking about transitions in between slides is something that is often overlooked, but very important in order to make it feel cohesive.
Do you typically work with existing content or are you part of the conversation early on? What do you prefer?
I prefer to be a part of the content creation process, but that's not always the case. I do feel that the job is easier when I'm brought in earlier on, rather than just getting the content dumped onto me. Even if that is the case, I will often make content suggestions and edits and move things around according to what I feel is best for the presentation. And of course, explain the thought process to my client and get their OK on it.
Content curation is so important. It's not just about how it looks visually on the page, but also what it's saying. In my role as the designer, there is a little bit of copywriting, lots of editing and lots of content suggestions. In this field, it's important to really understand the content you're designing for; you’re not only making a great looking layout, but understanding what it is you're trying to say and designing around that, versus the other way around.
Do you ever get pushback from clients you are designing presentations for? How do you deal with that?
They're the ones that are presenting and they're the ones that are telling the story. As designers, we are the stewards of whatever is comfortable for them to say and present. If I get pushback, I will always explain from a design perspective why I've made those decisions. Whether it's cutting down copy or adding filler or specific descriptive words, they usually see how it aligns with their brand after I provide an explanation.
Oftentimes, especially with pitch decks, they will change it up every time they pitch to someone different. I don't ever feel like they're ruining my work if they change the words, or even if they change the design of things. It's important for me to always deliver in editable format, which is why I design directly in the presentation software. At the end of the day, there's a bigger purpose behind the presentation and they need the freedom to make those changes. I give my suggestions and the background on why I made the decisions and then ultimately it's up to them if they want to run with it.
One last fun one — what is your favourite 90s jam?
S Club Party by S Club 7!
Pansy Cheung Provisional RGD has been bringing her collaborators' visions to life since 2014, specializing in environmental, information and presentation design. She has worked in a number of industries including design, healthcare and education. Throughout her career, Pansy has launched engaging physical and digital experiences for clients and used her storytelling skills to strategically support design solutions.