BOOK REVIEW: slide:ology Deconstructs The Presentation

slide-ology

Of all the marketing communication vehicles out there, presentations cause the most grief. It’s ironic how presentations are integral to companies’ communications, and yet they are almost always mind-numbing, visually weak and rarely make the sale. The worst part is that businesspeople everywhere assume this is the way things are supposed to be and immediately think “PowerPoint” when they have to communicate to a group.

But there are some people out there who have broken the assumptions. Nancy Duarte is one, who has made a name for herself as a presentation maven—her design firm specializes in presentations and the client list includes all kinds of Fortune 500 companies like Adobe and Hewlett-Packard. The cool thing is that her book slide:ology is written by a presentation designer, not a marketing person like Seth Godin who knows what makes great presentations but isn’t necessarily building them for a living. Nancy does, which is why I was excited to get a copy of this book to review.

A sketchbook with notes

The overall design and content is very nicely done—designers will respond well to the layout. There’s a little bit of humor which I think is important, and most importantly they have lots of diagrams, illustrations, photos and examples. The diagrams alone are worth the price of admission because they are generic images that can be used in all kinds of ways.

There’s also several “case studies” that will appeal to more analytical designers and marketing types who wonder what goes on in the heads of Al Gore and Rick Justice (EVP at Cisco) when they are presenting. Sometimes these case studies demonstrated concrete tactics or made me think (Mozilla’s Mitchell Baker, Bill McDonough, Healthy Waters) but others (Adobe, Al Gore) seemed to be there primarily to promote the person/company and Duarte Design. About Al Gore: “He passionately knows his content, his slides add value to his story, and he is comfortable in his delivery. He’s impacting our world, one slide at a time.” This sounds like marketingspeak, and I’m not sure how this will help readers improve their presentations.

Design is not just inspiration

Back when I was writing poetry, a visiting poet told me that inspiration is important in poetry but just as important is something she called craftsmanship. Like poetry, design is also a profession that requires the right kind of craftsmanship, and Nancy knows this very well—how many design books have you read that refer to the Chicago Manual of Style as a resource for designers? Throughout the book Nancy reveals various laws, rules and guidelines for using bullets, color palettes, branding, white space, grids and all the other various elements of design and composition. “Practice Design, Not Decoration” is one of her five major edicts in slide:ology, and it’s about avoiding “pretty talking points” and striving to “display information in a way that makes complex information clear.” Thank you, Nancy—I think this is the pitfall non-designers fall into now that design software is readily available and presentation design is put on their shoulders.

The book is not just about rules and guidelines, though: inspiration is included to. Another edict: “Spread Ideas and Move People.” Compared to the pages devoted to design elements, the art of moving people and treating them as king gets relatively few pages. That might or might not be a bad thing, because the book still runs around 250 pages and there are plenty of books out there about leading and inspiring others. Moreover, I personally feel it all resolves itself if you simply treat others as you wish to be treated—who wants to watch a presentation with so much animation it makes you motion-sick?

A book for non-designers

slide:ology is a wonderful book about presentation. I noticed something peculiar about it though—what it teaches about design is relatively simple stuff. Color wheels, hierarchy, basic typography, reading direction and general animation tricks are all covered. These are things that experienced designers usually know, having been immersed in it for years, so this book strikes me as a book for non-designers. Nancy’s introduction to slide:ology suggests as much—she mentions the “CEO, senior manager, or educator” but I can’t find a mention of the “designer.” There’s nothing wrong with this, but designers who purchase the book may be a little disappointed to see basic subjects throughout the book—although I also think Nancy does a good job of looking at these subjects as they apply to presentation design.

Conclusion

slide:ology is an excellent book, one of the better-designed books out there and written by someone who knows her stuff. I was excited to read it, so much so that I set a couple other books aside in order to read it straight through. There are a few things I wish had been improved, but slide:ology is a very strong read nonetheless and recommended for anyone who designs presentations—especially those without graphic design training. For those people, the book is a bound to be a classic.

slide:ology
Nancy Duarte
$34.99 ($23.09 at Amazon.com)
Published by O’Reilly
Rating: 9/10