The Presentation of Design

There was an excellent post on Medium recently called: 13 Ways Designers Screw Up Client Presentations, by Mike Monteiro which contained thoughtful, if rather strident, recommendations related to the selling of design work. It was a relatively enjoyable read. I agreed with all 13 points. However in his first paragraph, establishing the primary rationale for the article, Mr. Monteiro made a statement that caused me to choke on my coffee:

“I would rather have a good designer who can present well, than a great designer who can’t.”

Like a punch to the gut — it caught me off guard. I had to reread it a few times to make sure I’d read it correctly. After reading the article I kept coming back to that line. “Really?” I kept asking myself.
He went on to say:

“In fact, I’d argue whether it’s possible to be a good designer if you can’t present your work to a client. Work that can’t be sold is as useless as the designer who can’t sell it.
And, no, this is not an additional skill. Presenting is a core design skill.

My emphasis added.

Undoubtedly that pitch goes over super well in rooms filled with wannabe designers who can present really well, busy account executives and anyone whose primary tool is Excel. Certainly for people who look on the esoteric machinations of designers as a slightly inconvenient and obscure, if grudgingly necessary, part of doing business.

But surely it can’t be the mantra of someone who cares supremely about the quality of the design work – about achieving the greatest design?

I never do this, but I posted a brief opinion of disagreement on this point in the margin comments of Mr. Monteiro’s article. And I would have moved on and forgotten all about having done that, but my comment was subsequently met with some amount of resistance and confusion by Mr. Montiero and other readers writing in his defense. It frankly depressed me that there were professionals in our industry that might sincerely feel this way and more so that the article might convince even a single talented young designer for whom presentation is a non-trivial challenge, that this particular thought, as worded, has any industry-wide merit. And then I came across this recent talk he gave where he doubled down on the idea.

So I wanted to explain my reasoning more fully- it’s an interesting debate- but the limited word-count allotted to side comments didn’t allow for meaningful explanations or exchanges (particularly by people who are as verbose as I am). So rather than pollute Mr. Monteiro’s otherwise fine article further, I decided to explain myself more completely in a post of my own. Maybe more as personal therapy than anything.

No matter your field or role, you will never do worse by having strong presentation skills. It will help you align the world in your best interest, without question.

Let me first state — presentation proficiency is a useful skill. No matter your field or role, you will never do worse by having strong presentation skills. It will help you align the world in your best interest, without question. Everyone should cultivate these skills to the best of their ability.

But to what degree does this affect a designer? Does its lacking utterly obliterate one’s potential as a great designer, as Mr Monteiro asserts? And should designers further be “had” principally on presentation skill over other attributes?

Language Logic

Linguistically speaking, his choice of words “A good designer”, and “who can present well” clearly contemplate two separate states of being. This compels one to infer that not all good designers can present well, which is further supported by the fact that Mr. Monteiro evidently turns away “great designers who can’t.”

Which leaves me wondering:
What is demonstrably “great” in a “great designer” who can’t present well, if presenting is a core design skill that dictates the ultimate usefulness of the entire role?
Wouldn’t that mean then, that there never was any such “great designer” to begin with? That this designer must have been, rather, a “poor designer” for lacking presentation skill?
Perhaps a better way to say what I believe Mr. Monteiro meant is:

“There is no such thing as a great designer who can’t present well, because presenting is a core design skill.”

On the one hand this revised statement at least avoids contradicting itself, but on the other I still absolutely disagree with it because, to me, it inexorably expands into the following thought:

“I would rather have a designer who has relatively weaker creative problem-solving, conceptual, aesthetic and technical skills so long as he can, alone, persuade the client to pay for the work, than I would a designer who has vastly superior creative, conceptual, aesthetic and technical skills  who unfortunately happens to lack presentation skill.”

Based on his specific wording, I think Mr. Monteiro would have to concede, at the very least, that design and presentation are separate, independently measurable skills unrelated to one another except within the context of what he prioritizes – in this case the selling,  as opposed to the designing of  work.

Part of what troubles me then, is that no other option further appears to exist to Mr. Monteiro except that every designer present and sell his own work – full stop.   And that the quality of the design work is naturally the first thing that should be compromised to enable this.

And I think that’s an unnecessary, limited, nonrealistic supposition.

When Design Requires Explanation

Great design does not exist in some vacuum, opaque and impenetrable until, thank God, some good presenter comes to our rescue and illuminates it.

Nor is presentation inexorably required in order to perform the act of designing. If it were, that would mean that a tongueless person, who also perhaps further lacked the ability to play Charades, could never be a designer. Which is ridiculous of course. None the least of which because I cannot name any tongueless designers who could not also play Charades, but I trust that within the expanse of probability such a person could nevertheless exist.

But what about basic language and cultural barriers?

I now work and live in Switzerland with a team of highly international designers: German, Swiss, Swedish, French, Ukrainian, British.  And so perhaps I see this more acutely than Mr. Montiero, who lives and works in America.  But the native languages and references of these great designers are all quite different – and this would obviously affect their ability to present to, say, an American audience. If I valued their universal presentation skill above their great design skill, well – there would be no team.

That said, it would be interesting to see Mr. Montiero present to a roomful of native Chinese executives.  I wonder whether he would attempt to learn Mandarin, or choose to have a Mandarin translator interpret his words and meaning, or ask the Manderin-speaker on his team (if he has one) to assist in the presentation.  More critically, I wonder if he would be eager to define his presumed lack of fluid, confident Mandarin presentation skill as weakness in his design, or in his skill as a designer.

I’m admittedly being obtuse here, but only to illustrate the fault in the mindset. Great design is worth defending with presentation support, and I would argue there are even those projects where, counter to Mr. Montiero’s opinion, design actually does speak for itself.

 …design which is not “great” rather usually does require a fair amount of explanation. Enter “good design”

This is because design is, in part, a language of its own. Indeed great design results in, among other things, the communication of function.

So where design is truly “great”, as opposed to “good”, its value must be nearly, if not sometimes wholly, self-evident. Great design is observable — at the very least, by the designer’s own team, for example. More on that later.

In contrast I find that design which is not “great” rather usually does require a fair amount of explanation. Enter “good design”, or worse, which may in fact require some presentation skill merely to compensate for its relative lower quality, its relatively weakened ability to self-communicate.

Supporting Talent

If you limit what you value in design talent by requiring that it absolutely be accompanied by self-sufficient sales skill, then you are shutting yourself off to some of the most creative and talented people in the world.  Indeed many people become designers and artists in part specifically because their brains don’t connect with the world the way people who are good presenters do!  From my point of view it rather requires a kind of tone-deafness to the psychology of creatives to not see this.

My old friend, Sir Ken Robinson, speaks on the topic of creativity all over the world, and he often points out that exceptional intelligence and creativity take many forms. That rather, our reluctance and systematic inability to recognize and accommodate these varied forms of intelligence and creativity – our resistance to individualizing our interaction and support of it – results in an utterly wasted natural resource. He points to many famous creative people — at the top of their respective fields — who simply didn’t fit in “the box”, they didn’t easily align with the system. And that only through acknowledgment of their unique skills and provision of personalized support, could their inordinate brilliance find its way into the world. These are the people who often dominate their profession once the standardized models surrounding them are challenged to support their unique strengths.
And I suppose I feel something similar is certainly true here. From my perspective, great talent must always be nurtured and supported. Even if, no, particularly if, that merely requires the support of a presentation.

From my perspective, great talent must always be nurtured and supported. Even if, no, particularly if, that merely requires the support of a presentation.

My expectation is that the people who buy into Mr Montiero’s stance don’t like this idea in part because, for them, it probably perpetuates an old archetype of entitled, high-maintenance designers; insulated royalty who idealistically prefer to ignore business realities and design in a bubble. Of the managers and the operational and sales functions having to serve and adapt to the designers whims— of having to support and compensate for someone who isn’t carrying his weight in the business sense.

In reality, the type of extra effort required to support the development of truly great creative work in any field is exhausting and something that anyone lacking sufficient constitution gets quickly fed up with. So it must feel good, refreshing even, to be able rally behind this concept, to shed all those feelings of subordination and responsibility, and demand that designers do that work themselves, to say:

“Designer, if you can’t sell the work yourself you’re not good enough! Because guess what, it’s always been your job – alone!”

And although that stance may feel refreshing and proactive, it’s misguided.

The Business of Design

“Work that can’t be sold is as useless as the designer who can’t sell it.”

With this excerpt from the article, here again, I take issue. Sure, in the business of design, work that can’t be sold is (usually) useless. Agreed. But why on Earth is it the only option that the designer alone sell the work? And why does that make one’s world-class, insanely-great design “useless”? This designer obviously works on a team, since Mr. Monteiro “would rather have” one of a different sort. So where is the rest of this team?

Of course in business, presentation must happen — it’s a requirement in the client-based sales of design. But how we go about accommodating that requirement within our agencies, I think, is a fair debate, and a relevant topic.

In my teams we frankly rely on one another. Does that sound odd?

Since we have already established that great design can be identified in isolation without the accompaniment of a formal sales presentation, that means great design is observable. At the very least, it’s certainly not going to be missed by a seasoned team. Especially, I assume, by someone like Mr. Monteiro, or his fans, who have all undoubtedly worked in design for a very long time. Surely each would acknowledge being able to recognize great design work if it were shown to them without the benefit of a sales presentation?

In my teams we frankly rely on one another. Does that sound odd?

So when this truly great designer who can’t present comes to you, lays an unbelievably brilliant piece of design work on your desk, perhaps the best you’ve ever seen, and mumbles to his feet:

“Yeah, um…well, this is what I did. ….er… I uh…. don’t know what else to say. (inaudible… something about “…my mom… ”)

What does Mr. Monteiro, or any of the people who would argue with me do?

I’ll tell you what I wouldn’t do, I wouldn’t yell:

“Somebody get a worse designer in here and start all over! Pronto!”

I would sit down patiently with this great designer who can barely put two words together, along with members of our team, and talk it through.

This is where a couple things happen, first it’s at this time that a strong director is sometimes called upon to be a mentor, a psychologist, a parent or friend to nurture, to listen and understand, to pull words and thoughts from someone whose mind literally doesn’t work that way. Yes, that sometimes takes work, but in my world-view,  great design is well worth it.  This is also when the team comes together to build our common language.   The fact is, the whole team needs to understand the project anyway. We all need to internalize why it works and what makes it so insanely special. Each of us.

If the design is actually great, at most, this exercise takes one hour.  Usually quite a lot less.  Rather I find we enjoy discussing truly great work, it sets the bar.  And we probably spend more time than necessary doing that because we love doing it.

And I have never in my 30+ year career been faced with a situation where someone on the team who was indeed exceptionally skilled at presenting could not assist a great designer who can’t present well.

Oh sure, it’s super-duper convenient to have great designers who are also great presenters — but those are rare creatures. Unicorns. You better believe that your search results get exponentially narrower with each search term you add. To combat this natural rarity, Mr. Monteiro claims he would rather broaden his search results by dropping the term “great design” from a search that includes “can also present”.

Whereas I prefer the reverse.

What the Client Wants

Obviously Mr. Monteiro is a busy person who runs a company that hires designers. This company cannot survive if design work is not paid for by clients. Perhaps because he has very little time, he has therefore decided that he needs his designers to be able to present well, as well as design. In fact, his preference for designers who can present is so strong, he will choose a designer with lesser design talent to accommodate that.

Hierarchically this clearly places the quality of the work below one’s ability to persuade the client to buy it.

Hierarchically this clearly places the quality of the work below one’s ability to persuade the client to buy it.

If one were to take this to heart (and I am not suggesting that Mr. Monteiro necessarily takes his own advice in running his studio), to me this would be a very cynical, virtually dishonest, platform on which to operate a design firm that promises great design solutions. Indeed it’s a hiring platform that is perfectly engineered to systematically lower, rather than raise, the qualitative bar. One that prioritizes not the best work, but the ease of the financial transactions. And one that takes advantage of unsuspecting clients.

Where I come from that’s called selling out, and as a client, if truly great work is what I’m in the market for, any team that operates that way is the team I wouldn’t knowingly hire.

Good and great are relative of course, but in principle, I simply cannot imagine passing on what I would perceive of as great design in favor of something lesser-than just so that the rest of my team and I don’t have to put effort into assisting with a presentation. Because in the end — that’s all this boils down to — a willingness to apply the required effort to sell the greatest solution.

If you’re not willing to support a great designer with help in presentation — you might as well tell your clients you routinely compromise on quality because you don’t like to work that hard.
Surely your clients would vastly prefer having the best possible talent in the world on their project.

Common Ground

Honestly when I originally wrote this post I just didn’t think Mr. Monteiro probably had the opportunity to be as critical as I am being about the language of that particular statement yet. I guessed he might have accused me of splitting hairs.  Of playing semantics. I was sure if he were really pushed against the wall on this topic he would probably concede that this particular stance seriously needs to be re-worded.  But his recent lengthy magnification of the idea at his recent talk makes me think he sincerely believes it, as I interpreted it.

That said, the two skews in which I think Monteiro’s language and my beliefs on this topic are in absolute alignment are:

  1. Regarding a fully independent designer, one who wishes to work in total solitary — not part of any team — contracting design skills directly to paying clients. Then I agree, having presentation skills will be critical in the event that you wish to support yourself on the sales of that design work.
  2. And that as a universal rule, presentation is an excellent skill to nurture in yourself if you are a designer, or occupying any other role on the planet, quite frankly. Presentation is just a good skill to have no matter what field you are in or role you play. It’s a skill that will always serve you well in affecting the world to suit your interestes. Everyone should do what they can to improve their presentation skills.

The lone swordsman aside, if you have even one other partner or team member, there are almost always alternatives that will allow great work to be presented and sold.

And if you are indeed a great designer, a lone swordsman, and feel genetically incapable of presenting well, I’d suggest you develop a professional relationship with a strong sales/presentation partner.

FYI — that’s generally called starting a company.

Apology

I’d like to sincerely apologize to Mr. Monteiro for being so hard on him in this piece. I’m sorry. I rather respect his thinking in every other way so I have felt conflicted the whole time writing this. I think if you haven’t, you really should read his article because it otherwise contains some solid advice and can help you be a better presenter.

…Just maybe completely skip the first two paragraphs. Truth is, the thrid paragraph is actually a much better opening bit.

Lastly —  To any truly great designers out there who can’t present well or don’t feel comfortable doing so:

I admire and respect you. I’m hiring great designers all over the world.  Send me a message.