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Interview With Nancy Duarte


Presentation design. It's a niche market that only a very small percentage of designers ever consider working in. The basics are pretty easy to understand. No code and no monster high-resolution assets. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Nancy Duarte, CEO of Duarte Design. Duarte Design creates beautiful presentations for Fortune 500 companies so I thought I'd get her to share some of her insights into this niche industry and explain some of the opportunities that may be available to designers looking to find work in this industry.

Q How did you finally decide to commit Duarte to presentation design?

I used to be in denial that we loved presentations. I'd disguise our presentation service in my web navigation or bury it in an effort to be a generalist design firm. During the dot com bubble our print and web business grew like gangbusters. Interestingly though, when the economy tanked, the phone kept ringing for presentations. Even though the work we did was world-class, it was hard to recruit top talent to the shop because of the bad rap presentations have and how pervasive the really bad ones are. While the bubble was bursting, I'd read Jim Collins' Good to Great book. In it he says that if there's one thing you're passionate about that you can be best in the world at, do that one thing. So, we cut out all our services except presentations and determined to be proud of what we do.

Nancy Duarte uncovers common structure of greatest communicators

Q Was there any particular person in the design/art world that influenced you and the company?

There wasn't one particular person who influenced me. We bought every design annual and design book we could and fed ourselves visually. We also subscribed to creativebusiness.com to insights into how to run the business side of things too.

Q How is the role of a presentation designer different than that of a web designer or print designer?

Presentation designers have to understand business story. They take invisible concepts and make them tangible. They must be visual storytellers; able to see what others are saying. Most of my designers can storyboard and entire deck from a script. Most print and web designers are more into the layout of web and print vs influencing how the information is received and the audience transformed. Presentation design is less about layout and more about quick comprehension of the message.

Q What are the main tools/skills of a presentation designer?

We consider PowerPoint and Keynote to be the primary container for assets. Our assets are usually built in Photoshop and Illustrator. Though we're building more in multimedia apps and are exploring tools for tablets.

Q What does it take to be a successful Presentation Designer, what does Duarte look for?

Duarte looks for excellent conceptual and design skills. Duartians need to have that rare blend of both.

Q How important, maybe on a scale of 1-10 (10 being most important), is it that your designers have high level photoshop and illustrator skills?

10! Almost every file that leaves our shop has something developed in one of those tools.

Q What changes have you seen in graphic communication over the last 10+ years?

Wow has it ever changed! Let's see, what hasn't changed? There's been many disruptive influences to the space. Ad agencies and PR firms went through a season of confusion. Programming languages are changing. Devices are taking over. Social media is altering how we communicate. There are actually more opportunity for graphic design than ever. But, to stay valuable, designers need to be thinking designers and not just production artists. Production can be done anywhere, but fresh, relevant creative ideas are hard to come by.

Q Knowing some of the clients on your list, it's a very diverse mix of client types. Can you tell us a little about the types of work Duarte does?

Yeah, I must say, our client list is unparalleled for any other agency in the world. We help establish a story architecture, visual architecture and delivery strategy. Once all that framing is done, we create live presentations, on demand presentation and navigable presentations. Each brand is assigned to a team and we try to hire the best talent to solve each client's needs. Some clients are highly technical, others heavily consumer which means the message and the visual attributes of the brand are vastly different, each one needing its own visual story.

Q Many agencies focus on an industry type. Bio-med/pharmaceutical, automotive, fashion, tech, etc. Is there a focus industry for Duarte?

We do have more high tech business but that's possibly due to our location in the silicon valley. The great news though is that we work with the #1 or #2 brand in every industry. #happydance

Q What is one thing you wish designers were learning in degree programs currently that you don't see from young designers/production artists?

Most designers aren't strong communicators. The investment in communications would help the entire design community. Many time the shy designers have the strongest concepts but don't have the skills to explain their thought process. Many of the weakest TED talks are the ones by designers and architects who have beautiful work to show but lack the communication skills to articulate why they made the design decisions they did. If designers could develop strong verbal skills in addition to visual skills, they'd be unstoppable.

Q You are now traveling more, presenting and speaking around the world, and a successful author, do you feel like you're leading a charge for this type of work?

It's funny, even though I've been perceived as a leader in this field, it's only really hit home the last 6 months or so. With the launch of my second book Resonate, I'm getting many notes of how readers have been transformed and are changing the world. I feel like I'm doing what I was born to do.

Q Both your books about presentations design, Slide:ology and Resonate, are doing extremely well in business communication markets. Do you think it also teaches designers something? If so what would they gain from either book?

One of the most flattering complements I've ever received was from John Maeda, President of RISD. He told me that he gives my books to clients because they explain the business case for design. The books are like design books written to the business market. Resonate teaches how to communicate in a story framework which is the most transformative tool you can use to persuade people. Slide:ology boils down our profession into business language since presentations are the communication currency of business.

Q You have observed, and succeeded, in the creative/design communication field for over twenty years. What advice do you have for the designers out there today, and of tomorrow?

Designers have got to stay on top of the rapid shifts that happen. Things shift with lightning speed now. Some are obvious and some are more nuanced. The best thing that I ever did was to stop getting so involved in the day-to-day. By having the time to look up and around, it helped me work on my business instead of in it. The insights helped me shift my business and allowed me to stay on top of what was going on. Just know that whatever you do now, won't be what you do in the future because client needs change and you need to notice when they do. If you're so caught up in the day-to-day, you'll miss it.

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