The trick to pitching a design without striking out

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August 06, 2014
The trick to pitching a design without striking out.

thumbnailHow you present your design solutions (whether it be to another team member or a client) has an impact on how they view the quality of that solution as well as you the designer.

When I say presentation, I’m not talking about the words you use etc. Yes, knowing how to use the correct words is valuable when presenting your ideas, but what I like to focus on with my presentations is making sure that I’m selling them on the story and value that the solution provides them. To me I don’t care too much about the words I use, as much as making sure they understand my idea completely.

In this post i’m going to break down step-by-step how I present my design ideas to my clients effectively.

The power of presentation

What’s the difference between an Apple computer and a Dell? The easy answer is nothing. They’re both computers and serve pretty much the same purpose to the end user. However, why is it that consumers will spend more money on an Apple computer? Sure, the quality of the materials used to build the product may be slightly better, the lack of viruses and ease of use, but is that really enough to make you justify the extra cost? The true answer is that Apple has perfected the presentation. They make you believe that you’re not buying just a computer, you’re buying an Apple computer and there IS a difference.

From the moment we first hear about the new Apple in a Keynote presentation, to the first time that we get to play with it in the store, to the way it feels the day we get to unpack our very own Apple computer, all plays a huge part in how a consumer views the quality of the Apple product. It’s in that presentation that makes us believe that the computer is a better product, and well worth the extra hard earned money we spent on it. Even though it does pretty much the same thing as a Dell.

Apple is not the only brand that has a great focus on presentation. Car manufactures and clothing companies all work the same way. Those who win over the consumer are often the ones with the better presentation. Jeans are jeans until one is hanging on a rack at Target and the other is folded nicely on a shelf at Abercrombie.

Before we get started with the actual presentation we need to talk about first impressions…

The first seven seconds is really important

Did you know that you only have 7 seconds to make a strong first impression? That goes for interviews, client meetings and even presentations. To ensure your presentation goes smooth, start by focussing on those first 7 seconds. There are a few things that help:

1) Be on time and dress nicely. Firstly, they're taking time out of their day, show them the curtesy of being on time. Secondly, dress up a tad, but not so much that you feel uncomfortable.

2) Be confident and fresh. Clients will always pick up on any lack of confidence in your idea, even if they don't realise it. Don't sit up until 4am the night before 'polishing'.

3) Smile and always say yes to the drink. This is somewhat of a no brainer, but always smile and say yes to a drink. The smile shows that you want to be here and the drink ensures that you don’t have to worry about an awkward cough or getting cotton mouth during your presentation.

Laying out your presentation

The end goal with your presentation is to structure it so that you’re showing them value. Never just show them all of your ideas on a single page. Doing this is essentially throwing them your ideas and saying pick one. What you want to do is guide them to a solution.


All of my branding presentations are printed. I’ve tried a number of times to present my branding presentations on my iPad and it simply does not work. As a bonus it also works as a flexible medium to leave behind with the team to review in more detail if they need to.

Everyone should get a copy and don’t staple the presentation. Use clips instead. This creates the feeling that you value everyones opinions and we are going to go through a presentation and keep it causal and flexible.

The cover

Your presentation should have a simple cover. Let them know what they are getting ready to look at. Round 1 design concepts set the expectations from the very beginning. It’s also a good idea to include a date and your company logo.

Contact page

The next page in the presentation should be the contact page. This is how the client should get in contact with you if they have any questions. This doesn't have to be very complex at all.

Concept overview pages

If you’re presenting various ideas, you want to be sure they view them separately. Never provide more than three clear concepts. Too many and they won’t be able to make clear decisions. Each concept should have a concept overview page. This page is designed to explain to them what the concept is. It should be a story that sets up the idea. These are probably the most important pages of your brand presentation.

Design tenets

Immediately following the concept overview page, you’ll show them design tenets for that concept. These are textures, colors, fonts, ideas, images and quotes that you’ve gathered that have helped you come up with the solution you are going to present. Done right, they will already be feeling the excitement and eagerness to what is about to come next.

The design

This page is where you show them the design, and just the design; you don’t need to show them any embellishments at this point. Don’t show them how it looks on a variety of screens. This presentation is to sell them on the idea. If you can’t get them sold on the design in its simplest form, then everything else doesn't really matter and is a waste of time.

The exception to this rule is responsive design layouts. If you're pitching a design that works in different forms, then show a sample here.

Additional mocks

This page is not always required, but if you need to show what the design may look like in further contexts, feel free to do so. Depending on the complexity of the brand vision, this may or may not be needed. You can determine that based on the client and your solution.

It’s about quality not quantity

I like to sandwich my best idea in between my other two concepts. I never present a concept that I don’t feel I’d be happy with them choosing. You want to be sure you are only showing them the best solutions possible. In some cases, maybe you only show them one concept.

Whether it be a client or a small team, this is the presentation format that I’ve used for years. It is flexible and can adapt to a variety of projects. I didn’t develop this presentation format, I learned it from the chief creative director of a global retail design firm. It’s the same format that we used for all of our projects.

The goal

The goal for your presentation isn't to get a quick “I choose this one and there are no changes! I love it!” type of response. If that does happen, you should dig deeper. Your goal for this presentation is to create conversation around one concept. You want them to get excited, but you also want them to fully understand what you are creating them. If they are too quick to answer, you may run the risk down the road of them not fully understanding your concept and being the process of “killing your design”.

Be present and protect your solutions

One of the worst things you can do when it comes to presenting your design solutions is not give yourself the opportunity to talk to your client about your solution. Never just send your presentation off to your client or account manger to review and then have them just provide you with their immediate feedback in return.

You have a commitment to your client as well as yourself to explain your ideas and defend any objections.

Set the agenda

When I start any presentation, I let them know what to expect from a flow standpoint and that I will go through each concept and then I’ll open the floor up for questions and feedback after the presentation. I do this because many times, I may answer a question during my presentation, and also because I want to pay attention to their reactions. If I can tell things are not hitting the mark or they are excited about a certain concept or solution, I’ll downplay and amplify where needed.

It’s not show and tell

When you present your ideas don’t explain to them what they can already see. Things like fonts, colors etc. all become distractions and start to create subjective conversations. You want to be sure that you’re presenting your design choices based on facts and not subjectivity.

You’re not asking permission, you’re giving them no other alternative

Presenting your work is not about presenting what they can already see. Make sure you’re steering them towards the best solution. Remember, it’s not just about a logo or a website, it’s about how that idea will change the company.

To go back to my analogy with Apple. Why was the iPhone Keynote such an important moment for Apple? Sure, they were announcing a new product, but most importantly they were changing the future. They didn’t ask each and every consumer for permission to get rid of their Blackberry’s and switch to an iPhone, they made us believe that we had no option and that the future was now.

Whenever you present your ideas, your goal is to make them believe that today’s the day that will change their company forever.

Overcoming objections

Objections are always going to happen. It’s okay. A big part of being a designer, is knowing how to recognize them and overcome them. Through time, you’ll recognize them, but take some time before your meeting to think through some objections that your client may have with your ideas. Whatever those objections are, be sure that you rehearse them. If you are finding it hard to come up with questions, ask someone else to do it for you. Have some answers in your pocket so that you’re not caught off guard if your client has some concerns.

The more confident you are at handling these objections, the more trust they will have in your solution. Your goal is to collaborate and create compromises that still achieves their ultimate goal.

A good designer tries to keep an eye on the big picture. I never like to force my clients to make a final decision on a solution right away. I always go into a meeting assuming they’ll be able to take the weekend or a few days to review the presentation and let my words sink in. I want to make them believers. If they have questions or objections, I’ll answer them with confidence and let things sink in.

A negative reaction

What happens if they don’t like any of your ideas? From time to time this can happen. If you’re doing your job and creating solutions that are full of value, most often then not, there will be something in your ideas that they will like.

If you’re getting the sense that your solutions didn’t hit the mark, recognize it early and start asking questions. You want to ensure that you’re asking questions that get them talking about the big picture. Ask them to go deeper in explaining their goals and point out anything they may like about your ideas.

Take the blame for perhaps not understanding the goals clearly the first time and missing the mark. Whatever you do, do not lose faith and control over your abilities and solutions. Keep an open mind and try to define a new direction and then go back to your office or desk and build off of what you’ve created. You’ll then set up another meeting repeating all of the above but this time, you’ll knock their socks off!

The end of the meeting

Once you’re done presenting your solutions, and the meeting is over, thank them for their time and let them know they can reach out to you at any point if they have any additional questions. You will also want to let them know when you will be following up with them for a final answer and any next steps regarding the project. Doing this simply allows you to keep control over the project rather than just leaving and letting them decide how to proceed forward.

It’s not easy to present your ideas and often times depending on the size of the room it can be really nerve racking. However, if you follow this process, believe in yourself, and create an environment that is focused on getting them involved early on, you’ll walk out of the room having really enjoyed yourself.

Dennis Field

Dennis Field is a web designer, author and the co-founder of the web consulting studio called Greenline Creative. His passion is helping other designers reach their goals. He’s currently working on his first book called The Designer’s Handbook. You can also find him on Twitter @dennis_field.

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