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Design presentations for a Zoomed-in world

Words:
Justin Nicholls

Justin Nicholls of Fathom Architects looks at the pitfalls of communicating designs digitally – does it make us lazy with its removal of constraints such as space and file size?

Digital presentations to communicate design have moved from printed reports to PDFs, from A1 boards to TV screens, and from pin-up crits to Zooms. Is this working and how do we improve?

I saw my first digital only crits last year at the Bartlett and AA schools. Covid-19 has accelerated the use of digital presentation. At Fathom the past few months have seen a virtual Design Review Panel presentation, six planning pre-apps and over 100 client meetings online. I’ve done crits at the Bartlett and three days of external examining for the University of Greenwich without meeting a soul. All these presentations have been linear – a ‘slide’ format usually as a PDF or PowerPoint. The outcomes were varied and I’ve noticed some typical pitfalls. 

First, we’re no longer limited by pin-up space, printing time or file size – it’s pdf and go. This often makes us lazy in the edit, delivering information which is unfocused and lengthy. At Fathom we try to pull back and start afresh with each presentation, identifying key messages and establishing a strong narrative.

We build a storyboard of titles and bullet points using Word, PowerPoint’s Outline View, Dropbox’s Paper App or OneNote. This stops us getting lost in graphics (we love doing that). For an expert’s guide, check books by Al Gore’s speechwriter Nancy Duarte.

The second pitfall comes in creating and delivering the presentation. From the other side of the fence here are some key annoyances. I’ve had to read thousands of words of portrait formatted documents in widescreen, lines of text running the full width of the screen, waited as people scroll through thumbnails to find a drawing and read presentations surrounded by myriad menus and thumbnails – argh my eyes!

We used to get excited about beautiful paper textures and creative bindings. It’s time to put that love into digital, and use all the screen real estate. Create embedded links and smart contents pages. Use speaker notes. Get savvy with PowerPoint navigation tools. Don’t forget that all-important final slide – it’s up for a long time. 

Thirdly, once the basic information has been communicated, the design needs to be understood. To communicate the spatial aspects we’ve used GIFs as a low-cost animation, but we feel that more innovation is needed using simple, reliable technology. At The Bartlett we’ve used the digital whiteboard Miro, which presents a ‘wall’ of drawings that you can all point at and zoom into – great for cross referencing drawn information. Also effective for experiencing a space is the low-cost app iPano, if you can persuade the viewer to download the app. In lieu of the physical 3D model there are also 3D viewers within Adobe Acrobat or SketchUp Viewer – clunky but something to play with. 

So online presentations can and do work, but it comes down to how you communicate the story. Rebuild your work, don’t just edit it. Keep it simple and don’t get lost in graphics. For virtual presentations think about what your audience has to hand – generally Teams or Zoom, a laptop screen and some headphones. That’s why the ‘slide show’ is staple and remains the place we focus our effort. The rest is nice to have. Bring back real-life presentations!  


Justin Nicholls is a partner, Fathom Architects 

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