Slidegenius, Inc.

The Overwhelmed Creative Team: A Cautionary “Design Ops” Tale

Back in 2011, fresh out of college, I worked for an advertising agency in New York City as an account manager.

It was one of the most stressful jobs I’ve ever had.

One of my responsibilities was overseeing the creation of my clients’ pitch decks, which — unsurprisingly — weren’t considered “mission critical” deliverables for the creative team.

There was never time to be idle; we were always on the go, brainstorming, producing content, and running to client meetings. The job was stressful but we were fortunate to have the right people that were easy to work with, passionate, and fun.

Over the next year though, the team began to thin. Some members left for bigger opportunities, others were poached by competing agencies, and some even started their own businesses.

Eventually, most of our veterans in the creative department were gone and the empty seats were filled with junior art directors and copywriters. 

I remember being worried about how things would unfold without some of the key employees I had come to rely on. Everyone had to step up. 

And for a while, everything ran smoothly. But as the agency grew and workloads increased, our internal design processes began to break down.

The creative team — consisting mostly of junior employees — were overwhelmed with pitch deck projects. At one point, they were unable to handle one of the decks assigned to them.

I remember it like it was yesterday…

As the account manager, I had to keep things moving and decided to just make the deck myself. 

Never did I think creating the PowerPoint deck would stress me out. After all, I’d used the tool for years to present my school reports and projects. The pre-loaded animations were there for the choosing and I knew I could find some cool-looking pre-designed templates somewhere online and simply visit YouTube for “design hack” tutorials.

Boy was I wrong.

See, the problem is that we’ve all worked with PowerPoint for years (even decades) and we trick ourselves into thinking we know enough.

Think about that for a moment.

That’s basically saying because we’ve driven cars since we were 16 years old, we feel comfortable with how the machine works.

In reality, most of us only know how to get from Point A to Point B (in most cases), and keep ourselves comfortable along the way.

We don’t know how to make the car more fuel efficient, or give it more horsepower to make it faster, or how to adjust the shocks for more on-road comfort or off-road capability—things that would undoubtedly benefit us in our week-to-week (depending on one’s lifestyle of course).

Instead, we use the same vehicle in its original configuration until it’s time to move on—because that’s what we’re used to.

If you think about it, that’s basically the same as downloading a pre-designed template that appears suitable, uploading content, and then hitting the proverbial gas pedal.

I felt I knew enough about PowerPoint to make the pitch deck acceptable.

Let’s be clear: when the goal for any project is “acceptable,” it’s safe to assume—in this day and age—it probably won’t move any needles in the right direction.

To no-one’s surprise, I came up with an almost plain deck with cheesy animations. You know, your typical box-in, appear, dissolve-type effects—stuff that causes Death by PowerPoint and makes you look old.

Fortunately, my presentation skills were good enough to outshine my unoriginal slides and the materials my creative team came up with were downright beautiful. 

But just seeing how the deck came out was a humbling experience. It was definitely something I was not proud of. I used to be so giddy presenting with the spectacular decks that our creative team came up with, but for this presentation, my deck was as good as just writing on the board with a marker

Heck, a whiteboard session might have even been more engaging than what I came up with. What’s worse is I could’ve had more hours to sleep and focus on what I was going to say rather than spend so much time on the deck.

The lesson here is pretty clear: we aren’t necessarily experts when we’ve done something many times, and just knowing “enough” is never good enough in high stakes environments like sales presentations, boardroom meetings, and keynote speeches (among others).

Whether you’re guiding a prospect through a product demo, trying to garner buy-in in the boardroom, or announcing upcoming products at your company’s annual internal conference, your ability to achieve the goals you set out to accomplish with your presentation rests on four key factors: 

1) Your presentation skills (obviously)

2) The narrative of your presentation

3) The design quality of your visual aid (typically a PowerPoint deck), and

4) MOST IMPORTANTLY: your audience’s level of engagement

Thankfully, I had the first one—but imagine what my team could have accomplished if we had all four!

Remembering Life Before PowerPoint

I’ve been doing a bit of research today to see how old PowerPoint is. It looks like PowerPoint, originally Presenter, has been around since 1988. But it used to be just linear and without much features back then. Animations and transitions started with the 1997 version. All throughout high school until college, I probably sat through hundreds of lectures and reports in PowerPoint format. When I entered the work force, PowerPoint has always been essential in all my office jobs. Sometimes, we wouldn’t even use it for presentation purposes- PowerPoint makes it so easy to make storyboards and hand outs. If you want your hand outs or notes to be more visual or even just to look different compared to your usual Word document, go to this presenting tool, print, and go!

PowerPoint has been so useful and widely used in presenting that I started to ask myself, how was life before PowerPoint? I’ll never know how it was for a lot of people, but let me share to you what it was like to me. I wasn’t born yet when PowerPoint was created, but I grew up in the Philippines in the mid 90s, and lectures meant the teacher would write on the chalk board. On the first day of school and on some special school events, the blackboard would be filled with greetings and drawings made with bright colored chalk. It has been natural for the first part of the lecture to be written on the board with good penmanship, and the latter part would be a little more sloppy because our teacher’s hand is probably shaking from writing so much. Not only that, her hair had a lot of chalk dust too. Eventually, lectures progressed to manila paper or cardboard.There were a lot to activities for us to learn in fun forms like games. Our reports would be in the form of skits, songs or dances or artworks. It stimulated our minds to not just work on the content of the lesson, but on how to keep the presentation or report fun and interesting enough to keep the class awake. Then it went on to using transparency films and overhead projectors. Boring, boring, boring. I remember back in high school, our teacher brought a transparency to help us visualize a character named Dona Geronima, who was so fat and got stuck in a cave. The class was so boring and almost all of my classmates were daydreaming. I was seated next to the projector and out of boredom, I tore a piece of my notebook and shaped it to a party hat and put it on the transparency without the teacher noticing. I kept cutting shapes from my notebook and added it to the transparency, having a chicken leg on her hand, confetti, presents, balloons, etc. My classmates were starting to notice and it woke them up, passing on pieces of paper to add to it. Our teacher eventually noticed, but instead of reprimanding us, he laughed and gave us the transparency film. I don’t know, I guess he liked creativity, haha!

Anyway, so a little after freshman year of high school, teachers and students were using PowerPoint. I’m so sure everybody was grateful. No more shaky hands from writing forever, no more chalk dust. Everything can now be typed and saved and can be made in less time. Students don’t need to take notes too if the teacher’s willing to send the PowerPoint hand outs. The adaptation of PowerPoint in our lives has proved to be beneficial, yet here I am thinking now that it could have done some damage too.

Don’t get me wrong, I love PowerPoint, the heck- I have a job right now thanks to PowerPoint. But I also think that PowerPoint, like most of technology, has made us less creative. It made presenting easier and more basic. Just type the words, click on a little animation (or auto animate if you’re extra lazy) and you’re good to go. We all think we can get away with it without putting much effort- and we do. It just became easy and we think the basic output we create is already enough. And that’s true, just a little effort can get you through sometimes because a lot of it was already created by the computer. Unlike before, we you had to put a lot of effort and thinking out of the box to keep the lecture or presentation creative or interesting.

So what’s the point and moral of this entry? Nothing really. I’m not sure. Maybe I’m just letting out my brain farts. Maybe I’m making a big deal of people being less creative because of technology. Maybe I’m just dramatic because I’m hungry. I really have no idea. Or maybe I’m trying to get others to put more effort and bring in some creativity to their presentations and keep it beyond basic. Compared to the efforts of manually writing your lecture or presentation with chalk or a marker, a lot of the work was already done by your computer. Think of more ways to keep it interesting, may it be in the content of your presentation or in the manner by which you present.