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An Interview with Nancy Duarte

In this interview, Nancy talks about design, inspiration and rules.

Nancy Duarte has been a Principal of Duarte Design since 1990. Her firm is in the heart of the Silicon Valley and the client list is loaded with Fortune 500 companies. Her passion for business communications that are clear, meaningful and attractive has opened doors for her in a business world full of cluttered and complex visual communications. She speaks across the nation at conferences, authors training content and is a regular contributor to Presentations magazine.

Geetesh: Tell us more about yourself and Duarte Design. How did you get started - and what do you feel when you look back.

Nancy: We’re in a bit of a niche industry of delivering visual explanations. Even though we serve technology clients, we try to be very human in our creativity and our service. When you enjoy what you do, it shows. Our team is full of thinkers and artists who have a passion for making messages visually clear and compelling.

As we look back, our original intent of having a small freelance business was so we can be home with the kids. We didn't dream that it would grow to what it is today. It might have intimidated us if we had known what it would be come. There isn't much that we would change.

Similar to how humans get older and wiser, the organization has gone through some great experiences. This has created an optimistic, yet cautious organization.

Geetesh: What do you do when you are not working on design?

Nancy: Actually, I rarely design at all. As soon as we could afford it, we hired "real" artists to do the design. I enjoy running the business and staying on top of trends. I love to read. I read all the latest business and marketing books plus absorb as much current design trends as possible.

On a personal level, I enjoy cooking and hiking. We host family and friends in our home and I enjoy deep meaningful relationships and conversations.

Geetesh: How important is it to have a formal training in presentation design. If you had to choose from artistic flair and professional training, which ability would score more.

Nancy: We prefer someone who can "see" and create effective design regardless of the media. Then, we teach them the nuances of presentations as a communication medium. Some people know the presentation tools, but might not ever become skilled in design.

Geetesh: What counts as inspiration? And what part does inspiration play in everyday design work.

Nancy: Inspiration is very important but in our industry it needs to be coupled with thinking. A design can ONLY be inspired and be ineffectual. If it is inspired AND is effective (hierarchy, clarity, meaningful) then it is a truly an inspired business communications graphic.

Geetesh: Rules are meant to be broken - how often in the design sphere is that relevant?

Nancy: When you run a service organization, you always do what the client thinks they need. (Of course we try to talk them out of things that go against the grain of effective design). It's tough to be a design purist in a media that gets distributed to the masses and then the masses can mess up the great design. We try our best to stick to design fundamentals when building our files. There are many design fundamentals but in the design world there really are no "laws" per se or creatives would feel too bound. The rigidity of the "design rules" often times is dictated by the personality and brand guidelines of the organization--no matter what, we do NOT break those rules.

Geetesh: What about PowerPoint? Do you see it as an empty canvas, or do you look at it as a limiting framework that has been accused of killing ideas.

Nancy: PowerPoint doesn't kill ideas, people who don't know how to use it or present well are what kill ideas. It used to be that professional designers were the only ones that made slides way back when there were only 35mm slides. The quality, purpose, planning and expense of slides back then was much higher. Slides are supposed to be used as supporting visuals, not as a teleprompter and many people today use PowerPoint incorrectly. We lean on PowerPoint as a crutch to the point that the presenters aren't as engaging or as well rehearsed. That's what kills ideas.

Geetesh: Can you share some trivia about an unconventional design work you did - or just a tip?

Nancy: One of the best things you can do for yourself when building a presentation is to step away from the computer. Generate ideas with an old-fashioned pencil and paper. Go outside, get perspective and spend time thinking. If you have critical content in your presentation, take time to think and then go back to the tool.