5 Parts to Make your First-Round Design Presentation Compelling

Hero image of a diagram of 5 steps in the center. The top and bottom show sample slides.

Design school taught me how to ideate like a badass, but it never taught me how to sell my ideas. Starting my graphic design career at Bluewolf, I had to learn this first-hand when trying to articulate my design decisions to my team and colleagues beyond our creative group — marketing, sales, recruiting, you name it. Like every other tech startup, we were a scrappy team that had to move fast. Our approach to presenting our design work was simple: a short verbal description of the project, then ta-da! The design! It sufficed since we only had a few stakeholders on any single project. At that time, my impression of presentations was that, plus PowerPoints we’d make for the sales team. For a designer, those sales PowerPoints weren’t sexy work, that’s for sure.

After Bluewolf, I spent a brief stint designing presentations for Facebook’s F8 conference. That experience opened my mind to a world of possibilities with presentation design. It was capable of dynamic animation! It can be editorial with visual storytelling! It’s a magazine that moves!

It all came together when I attended First Round, a one-day conference where agencies and studios shared their original presentations of initial design explorations made for clients. It sparked a fire in me to deliver compelling creative presentations. Since then, I’ve been actively finessing my presentation prowess by connecting the dots from all my previous experiences. This is a culmination of what I’ve gathered from First Round, research across how design and sales teams pitch ideas, and personal experience. I hope this provides a foundational framework for you to better communicate your creative ideas to win your clients’ hearts and minds.

Before I get to the presentation structure, it’s important to start with the right mindset: the presentation is not about you or your amazing idea. It’s about your audience and their creative challenges. Your presentation should say, “I hear you. I get you. And this is what we can do together.” Hopefully, you will have gotten to know your client and learned what they care about and what resonates with them. Injecting comments from previous conversations or speaking in their language (especially if they’re not a designer) will allow you to build rapport with them and make your ideas sound more appealing. Once you have that, it’s an easy five-part structure: context, current state, strategy, design, and conversation.

If you’re interested in trying out this presentation model, I’ve created a Keynote template you can download and reference. Let me know how it works out for you in the comments below.

Note: The project featured in these slide samples is for a fictional client, Create Fest, and for demonstration purposes only.

5 steps diagram. 1 is Context. 2 is Audit. 3 is Strategy. 4 is Design. 5 is Conversation.
Five steps to successful creative presentations

1 / Context: Set expectations

In the beginning, it’s important to frame the conversation so everyone is looking at the artwork with the same set of lenses and judging it with the same mindset. Here are a few sample slides to show first and why they matter.

Project goals
This is where we align with everyone on what the north star is. Establishing objective goals from the start reduces the possibility of subjective feedback later on. If they do come up, you can always refer back to how your design decisions tie to the project goals.

Sample slide of project goals
Project goals for a fictional client, Create Fest

Most likely, this project is not the only priority your client has. Sharing a recap of previous conversations or feedback will help arm clients with the right information and allow the presentation to run smoothly. This can be as simple as a bullet point list or complex as images of previous explorations.

Today’s meeting & expectations
Once you’ve covered the past, you can focus on the present. Establishing an agenda and a clear objective for the meeting adds structure so everyone knows why they’re in the room and how they should participate. Sharing upfront with your clients what they’ll see, or even what they won’t see, will frame the content that’s to come.

Going back to knowing your audience, you can add some flair here. For example, if your client is new to working with creatives, let them know that they’re not going to see a logo that will do everything for their brand. Ask them to keep an open mind, as we can talk about what’s not working for a better iteration.

2. Audit: Remind everyone where we are

With a million priorities in mind, most clients can’t recall 100% of their current design or brand. So we need to take a moment to see where we are. What does the current brand look like? What were all the creative assets made for last year’s campaign? How did our conference booth look again? Show a visual reference early on to set a baseline for your audience.

Grid of logos showing the competitive landscape for creative festivals
Grid of logos showing the competitive landscape for creative festivals
The competitive landscape of music and art events for Create Fest

This can be visualized in the form of an image grid that shows an audit of the current design, or a competitive landscape that places the client’s logo in relation to direct and indirect competitors.

3. Strategy: Align on the thinking

We’ve set the context for the meeting, reminded our client of where we are, and now we’re ready to introduce them to where we’re going. But there’s one more thing before the eye candy. Strategy. Here, we share the logic behind the creative concepts to prime our audience. Without the rationale, design is just pretty pictures — no meaning, no substance. I would argue that this is the most important section in the entire show.

These slides are typically the result of research, conversations, and deep exploration of the client’s brand and their design challenge. Here are a few examples of commonly used strategies.

Brand narrative
A clear brand narrative is a great starting point for any concept. I currently design at ServiceNow, and with every new project, we first aim to tie our concepts back to our brand story before jumping into the creation process.

A paragraph that explains the Create Fest narrative
A paragraph that explains the Create Fest narrative
Sample brand narrative for Create Fest

Words paint pictures. Strong adjectives can communicate the mood of your design. To gain even further alignment, accompany the words with images.

An animated GIF of the words Curious, Inspired, and Daring, along with an accompanying photo
An animated GIF of the words Curious, Inspired, and Daring, along with an accompanying photo
The Create Fest brand is curious, inspired, and daring.

A prime example of these two strategies combined is my recent work for ServiceNow’s global workplace interior guidelines. When I first approached the interior design, it seemed like the world was my oyster. Eventually, we anchored our thinking by applying brand characteristics — human, simple, and engaging — to interior elements. For example, simple meant minimal spaces, clean lines, and no-frills furnishing.

Visual spectrum
If we ask ten people to picture something “modern,” we’ll most likely get ten completely different images. Establishing a visual spectrum allows you to develop a shared visual vocabulary.

3 sliders with an image on opposite ends that correspond from Modern to Classic, Fun to Serious, and Accessible to Upscale
3 sliders with an image on opposite ends that correspond from Modern to Classic, Fun to Serious, and Accessible to Upscale
Brand spectrum for Create Fest

Your goal here is to have the clients nodding all along the way — acknowledging the project goals and saying yes to the strategy you’ve worked on together. This yes-yes-yes rhythm primes the client to be agreeable to the design ahead. By this point, you will have built up the suspense with slides full of words. Which is fine. Armin Vit from UnderConsideration describes this section as “foreplay for the visuals about to come.”

4. Design: Inspire with a storied concept

Finally, the crescendo. Here’s where you need to pull out your storyteller hat. Sure, your designs are beautiful and thoughtful. That’s table stakes. Lorinda Mamo puts it best, “Every great design begins with an even better story.” What will make yours a cut above the rest is how you tell the story of your design. This goes back to knowing your audience. If your client isn’t a designer, they’re not going to care about kerning or color relationships. Instead of using design speak, talk in their language. Make it relatable. Make it emotional. Make it meaningful.

The structure is typically as follows.

Introduce the concept
This is the verbal introduction to frame the visuals to come. Give the concept a name. Add a brief description in a sentence or two. If the presentation gets passed around, there’s enough context to ground the idea for fresh eyes. Naming your ideas 1, 2, 3 only works when it’s a straightforward project where no deep concept is necessary.

The concept for Create Fest’s branding

Share the inspiration
A mood board or series of images now sets the tone. Here is where you do a little show and tell of how your ideas came to be. Maybe show some process photos. (Don’t forget to document your process!) When you show that you’ve explored all possible avenues it strengthens your final recommendation and builds trust in your client. This also invites clients on the creative journey and brings them into the process.

Moodboard of the Collective Collage concept

Apply the concept
At last, the big reveal! The new logo. The updated cover. The fresh system. What’s important to demonstrate in this section is how flexible the design can be and how it works as a system. Show the black logo on white. Then white on black. Then with photography. And how does it work with illustration or as a pattern?

The Create Fest branding

Bring it to life
Mockups FTW! They’re absolutely wonderful for two things: stress testing your design and making it feel real for your client. Dieter Ram’s second principle for good design dictates, “Good design makes a product useful.” A design is only as good so long as it works, and a mockup makes for a great litmus test of the design’s usability.

A mockup of an enamel pin or wayfinding signage

For example, when you put your visual system together on a website — type, image, logo, the whole shebang — do they all jive? Always remember, don’t mock things up for the sake of mocking up. Instead, use them as a tool to explore a wide range of applications with real-life, relevant examples that are true to the brand. If you do a good job here, clients will say, “Give me one of those!” There’s nothing like seeing the design in context.

To wrap things up, showcase all the options on one page to make it easy for assessment and discussion. If you have multiple concepts, show your ideas in order from safest to riskiest. When the first concept is a small evolution of the previous design, your audience knows from the outset that you understand the brief. This allows them to be more receptive to the later, more visionary ideas.

5. Conversation: Define next steps

The final slide lists out upcoming milestones so everyone’s aligned on the next steps. The room is ready for discussion. I try my best to avoid the, “Can you go back a few slides? One more. Wait, no, now forward one.” If it’s a short presentation, staying digital makes sense. Otherwise, go analog and post up the presentation on physical boards to allow for an organic flow. Since we’re working more virtually these days, perhaps you can replicate that analog experience by posting your slides on a digital whiteboard like Freehand. If you designed an app or feature, hand out the prototype on devices. It’s up to you to determine the best environment for conversation and feedback for your design.

The show should flow from nebulous to substantive, vague to concrete, idea to outcome. This framework is a foundation. Not every presentation, nor every client will warrant this exact formula, but it’s a starting point. I should also point out that a presentation is not a pretty facade for a bad idea. Ideally, this structure will also guide your design process and push you to deepen your strategy, strengthen your concept, and stress test your designs. Once you have this foundation, then you can break the mold. Maybe go beyond the presentation like the agency Character.

At First Round, they shared that they’ve ditched the traditional design and presentation model entirely. Instead, they prototype their designs by physically producing wild postings, apparel, apps, and animations. In their lab space, they curate an exhibition that allows their clients to immerse themselves in an experience of the new brand beyond the screen.

Happy presenting. Let me know your thoughts or how this works out for you in the comments below.

This article is officially published on The Design Loupe.

  1. Which of these tips was new or stood out to you?
  2. Share a presentation that you’ve nailed, or failed (and what you learned from it).
  3. If you’ve tried any of these tips, how have they worked out (or not) for you?

Art Director & Design Writer on Branding, In-House Design, Tech. Currently: ServiceNow | Blog: thedesignloupe.com | Portolfio: emmalinh.com | Social: @_emmalinh

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