Designing a Better Deck: Interview with Nolan Haims

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Nolan Haims is on a mission to stop boring presentation designs. You know the type: a list of round-bulleted paragraphs that no one wants to read. Or charts that convey too much, or not enough, or (most often) nothing at all.

But designers—who are often simply handed an outline and the instructions to “turn this into slides by tomorrow”—face the unenviable challenge of having to be hyper-creative on the spot. Fortunately, there’s help. Nolan has recently published a deck of cards called The Better Deck Deck, to help spark your inspiration. (Get the humor? It’s a “deck” to help you with your “decks!”)

Nolan is also speaking at the upcoming CreativePro event, The Design + PowerPoint Summit.

I asked Nolan why he created The Deck, and a few other questions. His answers are below.

The Better Deck Deck, by Nolan Haims

You were an InDesign guy for years, and QuarkXPress before that, right? What got you involved with presentation design?

I was indeed a QuarkXPress user back in the day! Then I taught InDesign for a while in the early days of the program before I ever started teaching presentation design. But I started working on presentations early on in my design career, largely because the people I was working for had a need for it, nobody else offered it, and I enjoyed being the only one who could provide the service. 

Plus, presentation design allowed me to call upon my background in theatre, as a director and writer. After all, a presentation is, ultimately, a performance.

What aspects of design and production do you think are similar between designing for PowerPoint and more traditional graphic design?

When it comes to the fundamentals of design, there is absolutely no difference between presentation and other graphic design disciplines. One of my favorite definitions of graphic design is the “interplay of text and image.” When I train non-designers to build presentations, I give them this definition, plus the explanation that if they have ever placed a word and a picture on a slide, then they have graphic designed. 

Now, obviously the difference between those students and trained designers is that the latter brings to a slide color theory, balance, hierarchy, typography, and all the other aspects of design—at least they should do that. 

But it still astonishes me when I see talented designers abandon all their training and produce awful looking slides with the excuse of, “It’s just PowerPoint.” Remember that PowerPoint really just offers you a blank canvas, and you can do pretty much anything you want with it. Obviously, like any medium, there will be limitations—you don’t have as much typographical control as you do in InDesign, for example—but the best designers thrive on limitations… that is certainly true of the best presentation designers.

What gave you the idea to make The Better Deck Deck?

Long ago, I found that presentation designers—myself included—often suffer from a form of writer’s block I call “bullet point freeze.” This is when your client sends you a slide full of bullets, and you just have no idea where to start—most of all, you just want it to look “not like PowerPoint.” 

Over the years, I came to understand that the solution to this situation is a technique called “chunking,” in which you separate out each bullet point into its own text box and lay them out in some designed way on the slide. As I designed more and more presentations, I found myself using more and more variations of this fundamental technique, and then returning to these layouts whenever I found myself stuck on a slide design.

I wanted to create a tool for people who want to get rid of bullets, but don’t possess the design knowledge or years of experience that I have. And I wanted them to be able use the tool quickly and repeatedly. A book would have been too cerebral, but a deck… a deck of cards with 52 techniques—and over 150 real-world slides using those techniques to serve as examples—that was the solution.

How did you make the Deck? 

It wasn’t easy or quick. A few years ago, I started reviewing tens of thousands of slides I had created over the years, in order to identify the chunking variations I had used. When I started cataloging and naming them, I found about 60 or 70 distinct techniques. Next, I narrowed these down to the strongest, and collected the best examples of each. 

In most cases, I had to redesign the original slides in order to scrub identifying client information. But I’ve tried to keep the examples as close as possible to the original slides I designed for clients. I like to think I did a good job of anonymizing the content, but I did have one client tell me, “I’m so glad one of our slides made it into The Better Deck Deck!” He wasn’t upset; in fact, he asked me to redesign a series of other slides, using specific cards he picked out from The Deck. It was almost like he was ordering off a menu, and I was happy to oblige.


About Nolan Haims

Nolan Haims has decades of experience designing visual communications for the largest brands and organizations in the U.S. having created thousands of presentations including TED Talks and keynote addresses for Fortune 500 CEOs.

As Vice President and Director of Presentation for Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm, he created and ran a department dedicated to raising the agency’s bar on visual communications and created multi-million dollar-winning pitches.

Nolan trains organizations to think visually, speaks at national conferences, and writes extensively on visual storytelling. As one of only 15 Microsoft PowerPoint MVPs in the country, he regularly advises the PowerPoint development team on the industry standard software.

He runs his own design consultancy in Montclair, NJ.

More Resources To Master Presentation Design

If you are looking to further develop your PowerPoint and presentation design skills, you need to join us at CreativePro Week, May 9–13 in Washington, D.C. (and online). CreativePro Week features over 40 of the industry’s top experts — including Design + PowerPoint Summit speakers Jole Simmons, Stephy Hogan, Nolan Haims, Mark Heaps, and Mike Parkinson — to help you master PowerPoint, InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, Acrobat, and more. In addition to over 100 HOW-TO sessions, you’ll also have on-demand access to the event, sessions, and all resources for a full year (for the days you sign up for). Members get a special discount on registration! Sign up today.   LEARN MORE AND REGISTER NOW
David Blatner is the co-founder of the Creative Publishing Network, InDesign Magazine, and the author or co-author of 15 books, including Real World InDesign. His InDesign videos at LinkedIn Learning (Lynda.com) are among the most watched InDesign training in the world. You can find more about David at 63p.com.
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