How we handle every presentation design project at our agency

Feature image - how we handle design projects at Slide Cow
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I was debating writing this post for a long, long time.

I had this stupid fear that if I were to go into the details of our process, I'd be giving away our agency's secrets for other competitors to model. 

Perhaps in some dramatic, weird kind of way, our competitors would copy our business model and steal our clients. All while leaving Slide Cow's presentation design services to rot.

But after (re)reading ReWork last week, there was a quote in that book that invalidated that fear in a heartbeat.

Rework Book Front Cover

"Pour yourself into your product and everything around your product too: how you sell it, how you support it, how you explain it, and how you deliver it. Competitors can never copy the you in your product."

Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson, ReWork: Change the Way You Work Forever (2010)

They're right.

Anyone can copy the model that we worked so hard to build. But no one can flawlessly execute it the way we do, because they're not us.

And on top of that, I'd be doing you, the person reading this post, a service. I'd be showing you just how seriously we take every single presentation design project at our agency, and perhaps guide you through all the layers of service that we render.

Hopefully, this post will explain why we price our presentation design services higher than freelancers on platforms like Fiverr, UpWork, and 99Designs.

So, let's get on with it.

In this post, I'll detail all the steps we take from the moment a prospect signs off a proposal. It doesn't matter if the client is after a beautifully designed pitch deck, a clear and concise narrative in a sales proposal, or a corporate PowerPoint template. The process is always the same.

Context: We're a virtual design agency

Although Slide Cow is a fully incorporated business in the State of Delaware, we're not a traditional brick-and-mortar agency.

We work remotely and use technology to communicate, collaborate, and produce valuable work. Tools like Basecamp, Loom, Zoom help us do this. I'll go into a little more detail on how we use these tools later.

Why we chose to go to virtual

I (the founder) made the call for Slide Cow to go virtual since the day it was incorporated.

Why?

I wanted to have access to the world's best talent.

Let's face it: Presentation design is a really deep niche. It's extremely difficult to find talented presentation designers and content creators. To be burdened with geographical constraints makes no business sense whatsoever.

I instead choose to work with the best people in the world, and our work shows that.

We have content creators from the US, Canada and Australia. Our presentation designers are based in Indonesia, Hong Kong, Germany, the UK, the US and El Salvador.

We bring a unique and global perspective to every single project we take on, and I'm extremely proud of that.

TL;DR: How we manage every design project at Slide Cow

Yes, this post is a long one. So, If you're only after a snapshot of how we do things, then go ahead and check out our flowchart.

A flowchart to describe Slide Cow's design management process.

If you're after a more detailed insight, then read on.

First thing's first, we set things up

The very first thing we do is set up a space for the project, and we conveniently call this a 'project space.'

Doing this allows us to have one, and only one, centralized area to do our work for a specific engagement. It's what we use to talk to clients, give them updates, access and share files, and maintain our to-do list. This approach helps us stay productive, organized, and consistent.

To set up a project space, we use Basecamp, a project management tool that we friggin' love.

The practice is straightforward: We create a space using Basecamp and invite the clients we interface with to it. It's fun, it's easy, and the interface is beautiful.

A screenshot of a project space using Basecamp

Once the project space is set up, the project lead will invite members of the Slide Cow team (i.e. the designers and content creators). We then move to get things going with a kickoff call.

Then, we kick things off

The project lead will schedule a kickoff call with the clients via web-conference. Our tool of choice here is Zoom.

I want to stress that we do not use traditional telephone calls to do this. We find them too limiting.

Zoom enables us to share our screens to refer to visuals, and record our sessions (with our client's consent, of course) so that we can go back to the conversation later if we ever need to.

Also, using tools like Zoom gives us the flexibility to be more human by showing our faces over webcam. A smile really can go a long way.

One step back, two steps forward

Our kickoff calls aren't what our clients are used to. In fact, the only reason why we deem them as 'kickoff calls' is because it's the widely accepted term in project management.

The truth is: These calls don't kick anything off. If anything, they force us to take a step back.

And yes, this is intentional.

Here's the thing: Slide Cow's approach to every presentation design project starts with us looking at a project from the outside-in. We do this to take the time and understand every motivation behind a project.

We don't look into stuff that 'seem' important just because they're more prevalent. We're after real value: the reasons why a client wants something done. I'm talking about their ambitions, values and motivations.

Case study: a kickoff call for a PowerPoint template design project

Here's a snippet from a recent kickoff call I had with a client to show you why we take a step back.

Me: So, before discussing what sort of slides you're looking for in your PowerPoint template, I wanted to take the time to ask about how you assess value.

Client: What do you mean?

Me: I'm talking about how you would determine that a PowerPoint template is valuable. What would make you say "This is the best template I've ever used?"

Client: Oh. I've never really thought about that. Well, I guess the first thing is that the template needs to be easy-to-use.

Me: Interesting. Why do you say that?

Client: Well, my team has a hard time creating PowerPoint slides that are visually appealing. We've tried different PowerPoint templates that look professional in the past, but they were extremely difficult to use.

Me: Can you go into what you mean by "extremely difficult to use?"

Client: Well, I guess the slides in those templates were overwhelming. If we needed a slide with a chart for example, there were over 20 slides to choose from. And the team had a hard time choosing the 'best' slide for a specific scenario and just ended up making a chart themselves.

Me: I see. So, if I understand you correctly, you're looking for a template that's practical; one that's so straightforward and easy-to-use that you wouldn't even need a manual to use it? Something that takes out the guesswork when creating a slide?

Client: Precisely.

It's briefing time!

Once the kickoff call comes to a close, the project lead will create and share an internal brief to the involved Slide Cow team.

The goal of a brief is to establish a crystal-clear approach on how to complete the project. Oh, and I'm not talking about the obvious stuff like "design three directions and share them with the client by Thursday afternoon."

I'm instead talking about the parameters that the Slide Cow team need to abide to when progressing the engagement. Here's a snippet of a brief that I sent out to the design team for Jessica McCabe's HowToADHD presentation design project:

"The project's design direction is pretty clear to me. We have to (and I mean have to) design around three key things:

First, the HowToADHD persona: Please go to her YouTube channel, website and Twitter page to have a feel of how she illustrates the brand. More importantly, assess her tone of voice and how she communicates to her community. We'll need this assessment to guide us with the design.

Second, a funny, quirky, personality: Do not go the typical and formal design route with this project. Let's think out of the box and give a creative look and feel to the design process

And third, a slide-by-slide experience: To me, every slide has a different story to tell, and we have to redesign them to tell that story better. Try and keep the consistency to a minimum and go for something unique throughout."

(You can read the full brief here.)

From there, the project lead encourages the team to ask any questions in order to clarify what needs to be done. Those questions are discussed, answered, and we move to get things going.

Project briefs: Writing vs. recording

Previously, all project briefs were done by writing ridiculously long emails to the designers and content creators on the project team.

This approach was 'okay' at best.

Don't get me wrong. Writing things up still did the job. But over time, we realized that there could be a better way to do things.

Let's face it. Nobody wants to wake up to an email that is paragraph-after-paragraph of detailed, meticulous direction. And to be honest, I hated writing up these briefs because I would spend an average of 60 minutes just to flesh one out.

So, we came up with a better approach. We now use Loom, a communication tool that enables us to share messages through instantly shareable video.

Loom has been a game-changer for Slide Cow. No more 60-minute write-ups. No more walls of text to read. All we do is click a button, talk into a microphone, point to things on our screen, and share a link. The best part? We do it in record time.

More importantly, Loom has solved a problem that Slide Cow has been facing for a long time: We now have a more human-like experience in our project management process.

I know it sounds pretentious, but it's true.

Doing things like smiling while explaining a project, or emphasizing on key design components with a slight change of tone, can really bring the whole 'understand what needs to be done' thing to new heights.

Okay, I'm digressing. The point is, we found that recording our briefs as opposed to writing them up did wonders for us. You might want to consider doing the same thing in your line of work.

Rolling up the sleeves: Our secret sauce to managing our design projects

Once the team understands what needs to be done, we get to work.

We use a four-stage process to fulfill client engagements. And we use this same process for every project we take on. It doesn't matter if we're designing a sales deck, creating a narrative for an investor pitch, or making a corporate PowerPoint template from scratch. This process is our bread-and-butter.

Stage 1: Research and assessment

Slide Cow Project Management - Stage 1

Before even firing up PowerPoint, we take the time to thoroughly understand the parameters of the project. We look for loads of things, but the common trend is to understand:

  • Our client's business model, motivations, branding, tone of voice and values
  • What the other members in our client's space are doing
  • Inspirations and practices that we could use to influence the project's overall design and narrative
  • Specific project-related components (e.g. the messaging the client uses on each slide, why client's do things in a certain way, etc.)

We compile all our research into a document that we share across team members, and then proceed to add our own analysis and ideas to it. The document is only accessed by members of the Slide Cow team.

Case study: leveraging a brand's value in a sales deck

Here's a snippet of a document we compiled in order to understand how we can correlate a brand's persona to their sales process:

"There seems to be a very strong focus on winning. [Client]'s collateral all ties back to one thing - an excellent experience, and that is only achieved when their people (and I emphasize on the word "people," not "customers") win.

The direction we need to take is to focus on the professional representation, but not be afraid to add a few creative components that reflect [client's] personality, and we should do this in a way that is consistent with [client's] endgame which is to make and celebrate winners."

Stage 2: Brain dumping and doodling

Slide Cow Project Management - Stage 2

In this stage, the Slide Cow team goes wild with creative ideas. They fire up PowerPoint and play around with different layouts. They take out their notebooks and sketch their designs. They plaster sticky notes all over their desks and map out their narratives.

The point of this process is to extract the bubbling creativity from the members in the engagement, and more importantly, expand on them.

Once the team has everything out in the open, they choose the things that work, and throw away the things that don't. To separate the good from the bad, we rely on three key things. These are:

  1. Alignment: which ideas align best with the research and analysis in the first stage?
  2. Collaboration: what do other members of Slide Cow team think of the creator's ideas?
  3. Intuition: What's the creator's gut feeling behind the ideas? 

Stage 3: Creating The Final Product Experience

This is the part where we choose a particular style (or set of styles) to focus on and get to work in creating the client's ultimate experience.

I want to stress on a term I used in the sentence above: Experience. I didn't say a set of slides. I didn't say PowerPoint deck. I didn't say PowerPoint template.

I said experience, and I say it oozing with passion. And the reason why I make it a point to say that term is because it's the jewel to our crown.

Our presentation design services solve problems. And these problems are often solved by creating something that make our clients (and their clients) feel a certain way when receiving the final product.

It's the only way to know we've done an excellent job.

Examples of a successful final experience

We've had a client literally scream with joy when we went through her redesigned sales deck's narrative.

Another client said that his new investor pitch deck looked "better than the new Avengers movie."

One time, I heard a client's trainee say that a PowerPoint template we designed was so amazing and easy to use, "a friggin' monkey can make a killer presentation using it."

And the only way we got those clients to do those things is because we focused on how they felt.

Case study: Focusing on a client's experience through the HEROES program

Expressing the whole 'experience' thing is a little hard to do with words. So let's see if I can better explain the concept with a trimmed down case study.

One of our clients, Brain Education, needed a presentation to promote their HEROES program. In a nutshell, HEROES is a character development and sustainable living education program aimed at young adults.

This is one of the messages in the HEROES deck:

HEROES Program - Presentation Design - Example Slide - Before

There are several ways we could have designed this slide.

The most obvious approach is to bring in a stock photo of a superhero, or perhaps a child wearing a cape and mask to symbolize one.

But we didn't do that because it didn't contribute to the final experience.

Our research helped us understand that 'a sense of belonging' is what drives the HEROES program. It's about becoming somebody by being around those who want to do better for the world.

So, we asked the client to share photos that captured picture-perfect moments of participants doing something uniquely attributed to HEROES. We went through each photo until we found the image to illustrate the message best.

Here's the redesigned slide:

HEROES Program - Presentation Design - Example Slide - After

One picture is all it takes to bring this slide to new heights.

Just look at the visual message. You can almost feel you're a part of the group. Every person is unified under one brand, out in the open, committed to becoming the best possible version of themselves they can be.

And that's what we mean by experience. This slide forces you to feel like you're a part of something. It doesn't just look great. It feels great.

Stage 4: Committing to quality

Slide Cow Project Management - Stage 4

Once everything's finished, the files are sent to the project lead for review.

Reviews are meant to ensure that the design process abides to the clients' instructions, the project brief, and the team's research and analysis.

If the project lead feels that everything's in line, then the files get delivered to the client.

In contrast, if the project lead feels that things could be changed to ensure an excellent final experience, he or she will propose those amendments to the rest of the squad with clear instructions on what to do.

From there, the amendments are made, and sent back to the project lead for another review round.

Nothing is delivered to the client without getting a thumbs up from the project lead. No exceptions.

Let's talk about delivery

Our delivery process is straightforward. We package everything up into our project space and send over the final deliverables to the client.

We find it worthwhile to explain the process behind creating the final deliverables, too. Our clients love this. It gives them insight behind our design approach, and educates them on how to use what we made.

Once clients get what they paid for, we ask them to take a good amount of time reviewing it.

Choosing how things go

Once clients review their deliverables, we ask them to either let us know if they consider them complete, or to detail the revisions we need to make.

If it's the former, we either advance to the next stage of the project (if any) or close the project off and celebrate.

When it's the latter, we follow a revision process that's convenient for the client.

A snippet of how we ask the client to move forward

How we handle revision requests

If the revisions are few and easy to understand (e.g. "move this picture to the left", "change slide 4's colors from green to yellow", etc.) then we recommend writing them up and send them over to us.

If there are loads of revisions to go through, or they warrant a discussion because they're easier to talk about than write about, then we encourage clients to set up a session over web-conference (Yes, we're still using Zoom).

In that session, we'll go through the revisions and either take note of what we need to do, or, if they're easy enough, make the changes live.

Once all the revisions are handled, we send the amended deliverables to the client for their review.

We document our amendments with a change log for good measure, too. If you're interested, then here's a snippet of a change log for a PowerPoint template project we completed:

From there, clients review the deliverables one more time. The same two options of proceeding or requesting another round apply.

How many revisions?

In most cases, we offer two rounds of revisions at no cost. Anything beyond this quota gets billed at an hourly rate. This is clearly specified in every proposal clients agree to.

And if you're wondering: Yes, two rounds of revisions are more than enough. We rarely, if ever, exceed the quota.

And finally, we wrap things up!

When the client's happy, the project ends.

We'll send over the invoice, thank the client for choosing us, and encourage them to come back to us if they ever need any help with anything.

We also do our best to make sure the client is taken care of when using what we delivered. For example, if the client's delivering a keynote on stage, we usually provide a helpful list of things consider (e.g. making sure the venue has the latest version of PowerPoint, syncing the clicker with the projector, etc.)

Internally, we make a commitment to share what went right and what could go better. We don't hold a meeting to do this. We simply share an internal list of bullet points for everyone to read.

How a project in Slide Cow went

After some time, we'll check in with the client to see how they're doing with their deliverables. If they delivered a keynote on stage, we'll ask how it went. If they're using a sales deck we designed, we'll ask how useful it was in converting prospects. Knowing these things is invaluable to us, because it allows us to do better in the long run.

And finally, we'll ask the client for a short, review of our services. Nothing major -- just two or three lines about the whole experience will do.

Slide Cow's project management principles

Phew, that was a load of things to go over.

But we're not done quite yet.

Let's go over a few project management principles that we abide by whenever we take on a client.

Co-creation is fun!

We don't work for clients. We work with them.

Our best experiences are co-created. The value is in the merge of opinion between the Slide Cow team and the clients we work with. It's truly about finding the best way to contribute to each other's skillsets and ideas to truly deliver excellence in the final result.

We encourage discussions, challenge opinions, and openly discuss the best way to move forward. 

And we love doing it.

Communication is key

Going dark sucks. It makes the client anxious, and it makes us feel invalidated. And that's why we enforce a constant client communication policy at Slide Cow.

We check in with clients regularly (usually once a week) and inform them how we're getting on with the project.

If there are any challenges, we let them know in advance so that we can find a way to solve them. Sometimes, we even provide 'sneak peaks' on what we're doing to get an early set of opinions.

Convenience is paramount

You know what truly sets us apart?

We value client convenience.

We don't call for meetings for the sake of doing so. Nor do we ask a client to follow a strict, rigorous path that disrupts their workday to move the project along.

Anything that needs to explaining beyond the scope of email is usually done using Loom. This avoids forcing the client to take time out of their day to hold a meeting with us.

Whenever a meeting is warranted, we use Calendly. This allows them to choose a time slot that's convenient for them and avoids the back-and-forth email chain to confirm a meeting.

These small things are worth millions of brownie points. Clients love our degrees of flexibility, and hey, we love them too.

The tools we use

If you're interested in knowing all the tools we use to start, process, facilitate, coordinate and complete all of our design projects, you can find them below.

For project management

Basecamp - the all-in-one project management tool

For communication and collaboration

Basecamp (like I said, it's an all-in-one solution)

G Suite - we use Gmail, Docs and Sheets depending on the task.

Loom - a video recording platfrom that allows you to instantly share ideas, messages, recommendations and instructions through instantly shareable video.

Zoom - a video communications solution that we use for all of our web-conferences.

Calendly - software that enables us to schedule sessions with team members and clients

For ideation and design

Mural - a virtual whiteboard designed for teams to collaborate and share ideas. We use Mural for our story-focused projects.

PowerPoint - our presentation design software of choice. To note, we do use other tools like Google Slides or Keynote if the client requests we use them).

Affinity's product line up - professional creative software to create or enhance images and illustrations. Depending on the project's circumstances, we also use Adobe's Creative Cloud solutions, too.

Shutterstock, Freepik, RawPixel, Vecteezy, Round Icons, and Streamline - these are the design resources we use for our projects. We have premium plans with all of them. Note: we sometimes go beyond these resources, too!

We have absolutely no financial incentive to promote anything we've listed. We just think they're fantastic tools that fit exceptionally well into our line of work.

And that's how we do things around here

I hope this post has given you some sense of what we do behind the scenes.

If you feel like there's something that we can do better, then please, do let us know! We're always looking to improve.

And hey, if you feel like we can help you out with a design project you have in mind, then don't hesitate to reach out either.

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About the Author

  • Yoyo. Thank you for sharing your detailed process. I too am of the mindset that competitors can’t replicate what you do by simply knowing your process. I appreciated learning about your creative process and learning about the tools you use to maximize collaboration. Thank you again.

  • Tired of making PowerPoint presentations that don’t get results? We can help.

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