Setting up for a presentation in the Ziba auditorium
This is the final post in a 6-part series from Ziba's Industrial Design Director, Paul Backett, on rethinking design education. Read the Introduction to the series, Teach Less, Integrate More here
Design school is not a theoretical exercise. It's a professional program; a set of courses that prepares students for a complex creative job upon graduation. Much of this complexity comes from the fact that designers don't just define and develop solutions, we must also present them. Good designers are able to tell three different types of stories, and if students want to hit the ground running, they need to know all three intimately.
1) The process review - telling the story so far to an internal team. 2) The final presentation - telling the big picture story to a client or professor. 3) The portfolio - telling a capability story to a prospective employer or client.
We hear a lot about the value of storytelling in design, and with good reason: the objects and experiences we design have to fit into the user's story if they're to succeed. Moreover, telling the right stories to collaborators often makes the difference between a skeptic and an advocate. Here's a brief overview of the three, and how students could be better prepared to tell them.
The Process Review
The process review is the least formal of the three stories, but in many ways it's the most important. Think of it like a trailer for your movie: it draws the viewer instantly into the story, summarizes the plot up to a point but doesn't give away the ending just yet. Unlike the other two stories, the process review is just as much about receiving information as giving it, so it's up to the presenter to get the audience up to speed quickly, so they can respond in a helpful way.
In school and in professional practice, it's important to start at the beginning: who is the user, what are the problems being addressed, why is it relevant. But the students I've observed overwhelmingly jump straight into their ideas without laying these foundations. Those character boards and 360 models from the research portion of the project serve an essential role here, and I require my students to begin any mid-phase presentation by using them to establish context.
In any project, by the time that designers are giving a process review, they should know their users intimately and be able to talk about the project from their perspective. They should also have a clear goal for the review and use this to channel discussion toward getting the input and feedback they need. It's a presentation best given face to face, with boards and sketches posted on the wall and treated like a working session rather than a formal presentation.
Setting up for a mid-phase process review at Ziba.
The Final Presentation
If a design project were a film, this would be the final scene. It's not the whole movie or even necessarily the most important part, but it is the most integrative, drawing on everything that came before and communicating the big picture. The final presentation is as important in the real world as it is for a student. Only the audience is different.
The final presentation is the point where the product and user are brought to life. It's important to show how the design solution connects with the user and how it answers her functional and emotional needs. A final model is essential, and works even better when shown in the user's hands, as an in-use image or short movie. Anything that draws the audience into the experience will make the story more powerful.
When I was in school I remember students dressing up to play the part of a user and handing out candies the same color of the mobile phone that they had designed (the theme was Bubblegum Pop)—it worked beautifully. Video can make a presentation more immediate, but it's important to not let it get in the way of the person presenting. The more practice a student gets at talking about their work in school, the better off they'll be in industry.
A finished model, photographed in context, makes for a powerful final presentation.
If the final presentation is the film's climax, the portfolio is the 'directors commentary,' giving an intimate look behind the scenes. A great portfolio, like a great movie, varies its pace. Far too many portfolios I've reviewed use exactly the same format for every project: "Here is my research, here are some sketches, here is the final product." After seeing hundreds or even thousands of projects presented this way, a powerful sense of carelessness sets in, as if the student simply put the elements there to prove that the parts of the project were checked off. A portfolio is a personal document. It should feel connected, and showcase who you are as a designer. It should reveal how you think and make.
With this aim in mind, I give my students several pieces of advice on portfolio design, drawn very heavily from what I look for when hiring.
- First, each project within a portfolio should showcase a specific skill. One project may dive deep into the student's research process, while another showcases sketch exploration skills.
- It also helps to vary the length. Some projects may only need a couple of spreads while others may warrant a whole process book.
- We look for passion when hiring, so be passionate. Sell yourself, your ideas and your process. Show what excites you about design and what makes you unique.
- And last, remember that it's not just your final idea that matters but how you got there. Sometimes the challenges you overcame can be as compelling as the solution.
Two pages from the student portfolio of Sam Amis. The first depicts the research and user empathy portion of a snowboarding equipment project, the second demonstrates craft and detail in a wineglass design. Each shows passion, but in very different ways. We liked Sam's portfolio so much we hired him.
All three of these story types are essential to design practice, and each must be mastered while at school. As with any other skill set, the only real way to get better is practice, practice, practice. Schools must demand rigorous presentations and push their students through these exercises over and over again.
All of these skills are directly transferable to the real world. At Ziba, we use reviews to draw clients into our process and make them a part of our team, ultimately sharing responsibility for the design solution. When we make final presentations we inspire the core team within the client organization, helping them believe in the product we've created and equipping them with the tools they need to sell it internally.
Building a strong portfolio is something professional designers do too. Consultancies in particular are constantly presenting themselves in pitches and the clients want to know almost exactly the same things employers do: what are your beliefs, how do you work, what are your success stories, what makes you who you are? Great designers, like great students, have the ability to inspire with great stories.
Rethinking Design Education Series
Download a full .pdf of this series from Ziba's Perspetives page here.
» Introduction: Teach Less, Integrate More
» Research: Learning Extreme Empathy
» Sketching: Approaching the Paper with Purpose
» Prototyping: Learning to Think and Make with Your Hands
» Collaboration: No Rockstars Please
» Presentation: The Three Stories Every Designer Must Tell
» Designing the Ideal Industrial Design Program
About Paul Backett
Paul leads industrial design teams at Ziba on a variety of strategic and tactical design programs ranging from medical devices to consumer electronics, apparel and footwear. He is responsible for the design intent for all industrial design products, and a mentor to the Ziba ID team. His diverse experience, coupled with the desire to immerse himself fully in the target consumers' world, has helped Paul deliver innovative brand building solutions for clients such as Nike, P&G, Respironics and Dell. Paul enjoys uncovering solutions to problems of all sizes and particularly finds the prototyping process to be an inherently rewarding part of the design process.
Prior to joining Ziba, Paul was a designer at Seymour Powell in London, where he was involved in programs for Nokia, Unilever, and Mission Speakers. Paul is a native of Edinburgh, Scotland; and holds a First Class Honors degree in Product Design from the Glasgow School of Art.