PowerPoint: Graphic Design’s Weird Uncle

When Chainsaw Communications adopted PowerPoint as one of our primary design tools, it’s safe to say that we didn’t see it as glamorous. You never read about the ground-breaking design work being done by the big studios in London or New York using PowerPoint. No starry-eyed design graduate, degree in hand, proudly declared a heartfelt, slide-based ambition. No one ever tried to save the world with a presentation*.

*Well, yes, obviously him, but aside from him.

Graduate excited to use PowerPoint“So, Timmy, you’ve earned your degree and made the world safe for high-tops and quirky waistcoats, what are you going to do now?”
“I’m going to make cool sh*t in PowerPoint.”

Did. Not. Happen.

Things have changed, however. Quietly. PowerPoint is still far from glamorous, but it’s almost unrecognizable compared to the program it once was.

Graphic design, at its core, is intended to inform or educate. Without achieving either of these, all you have is a pretty picture. Though PowerPoint is much maligned as a design tool, we can (and do) argue that, far from a necessary evil, it is entirely suitable for the discipline. When it is used correctly.

Bad Presentations After So Many Random Bars

Microsoft didn’t really know what they had when they acquired PowerPoint in 1987. It was an answer to, and a product of, the digital revolution of the 1980s. When everything was better on a computer.

What this meant was that the program ended up computerizing (and cannibalizing) techniques that had worked for paper reports and presentations since the invention of writing. Resulting in the same endless list of bullet points, but this time on a screen.

At the same time, other digital design tools were still proving themselves—Photoshop, the Gold Standard in digital design, is only three months older than PowerPoint.  Microsoft’s new program had cracks in its foundations that dated from these inauspicious beginnings, and wasn’t really capable of impressing anybody.

The 1990s were dark days for PowerPoint. Many design agencies that were asked to create a company’s sales deck using the program would only begrudgingly take on the job. Eventually, they would hand the client a selection of flat layouts that had been designed outside of PowerPoint and couldn’t be easily edited.

This understandably frustrated clients, a backlash that somehow landed at the feet of PowerPoint. And so the cursed program became the remit of Jack from marketing, who wasn’t a designer, but could ‘do computers.’  Jack, buoyed by a new-found level of respect from every department head, really went all out. He discovered the untapped wonders of tools Microsoft had included, and used them to make every presentation a sure-fire winner: Animations! Crude clipart! Riotous applause!

Man who can't handle PowerPoint and random bars transitionThe man who invented the Random Bars animation coming to terms with the evil he has unleashed on the world.

Giving a PowerPoint presentation became code for, “I’m going to subject my colleagues to hours of corporate exec-babble supported with an endless combination of bullet points, clip art drawn by my pet marmot, and disturbing, seizure-inducing animation, before inspiring them to greatness with a round of M-People’s ‘Search for the Hero.’ It’s on the ground floor today, so any inevitable injuries from self-defenestration will be minor.”

…or, you know, something like that.

For a tool that had the power to decide countless millions of dollars’ worth of deals, it was being pretty badly mistreated!

Fade to a Black Turtleneck

Around the turn of the millennium, however, something remarkable happened. People started caring about how their presentations worked. No one is sure why this change started to take place, but it was likely due to Steve Jobs’ annual masterclass in keynote delivery.

Once presenters started to care about how their presentations worked, they started to care about how they were designed.

As a result, during PowerPoint’s awkward teenage years—between 2003 and 2010—it managed to leave behind much of the stigma with which the design community had viewed it since its 1987 debut.

The 2003 release saw a huge advance in the drawing and animation tools available, allowing designers and presenters greater control over the way their information was delivered. Another advantage was the ability to import EMF files and retain their editability. This allowed designers to use their vector program of choice to create complex and accurate shapes and layouts, export the vector file, drop it into a PowerPoint presentation and manipulate it to suit.

It still couldn’t go toe-to-toe with well-established, industry-standard digital tools like Adobe Illustrator, but it was making cautious steps in the right direction. The look, feel and functionality of presentations was at last being taken into consideration by the development team at Microsoft.

The 2007 and 2010 releases heralded about the biggest redesign of the user interface, bringing design tools to the fore and making it a more intuitive program all around. These were also the first 3D-capable releases; users could give their 2D shapes depth and rotation to help illustrate their point.

In the years since 2010, Microsoft has further focused on the importance of capable design tools in PowerPoint. The improved rendering necessitated by a shift away from projectors, toward high definition displays did a lot to move the program into the realm of serious design tools. Typography, a keystone of design that felt like an afterthought in past versions, is now displayed clearly and crisply, allowing for ease of use. The color system is more robust than it’s ever been, and the software now includes an impressive selection of video editing capabilities.

 What’s Next?

The most recent release, PowerPoint 2016, shows Microsoft’s awareness of the value people place on well-designed content in all areas of their communications.

At their best, presentations are a mentally engaging, emotionally appealing and, at long last, a visually pleasing tool. Microsoft now understands that the impact of a presentation is massively increased when the right story is told in the right way, with the right delivery and the right visuals. PowerPoint is making this easier than ever before.

While I suspect that PowerPoint will never be part of your everyday designer’s toolbox, it is beginning to win over life-long critics. Brand developers are beginning to pay more attention to how they can give presentation design the place it deserves in their overall strategy.

Who knows. One day, PowerPoint may even get invited to those cool parties all the Adobe products go to!

2016-10-21T11:03:07-05:00 By |Categories: Design, Presentations, Technology|Tags: , , |