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All Hands on Deck: Insight into how to design your next winning pitch

Words:

Lucy Bourton

Illustrations:

Mariano Pascual

This Winter It’s Nice That is partnering with Adobe Stock on a series of articles that celebrate their collection of millions of high-quality images, graphics, video motion graphics, templates, and branding materials. This also includes a large collection of imagery designers can use to visualise ideas while pitching for projects.

Following years of pitching to clients and collaborators, designer Fraser Muggeridge has come to the conclusion that: “Pitches are like throwing a dart – sometimes you get the bullseye and sometimes you don’t even hit the board.” While a game of darts between client and creative can often feel like one of pure luck, there is one particular part of the process the creative in question can use as their secret weapon: the building of the deck.

A consistent part of any creative process, the designing of a PDF encompassing your winning personality and concepts is a task we’ve all completed with varying degrees of success. Despite it being such an integral part of the machine that keeps the design industry churning, how to design a winning pitch is an area rarely discussed. In putting together this article, and asking people in our own studio if they had ever been taught or advised on how to make a deck, the answer was a resounding no.

After noticing the large amount of reference material that can be pulled from Adobe Stock to get creative ideas across, below we offer a small helping hand to designers around the world floundering at the sight of a blank InDesign file. To gain insight, we sat down with studios varying in size and type of work to get to the bottom of what actually makes a winning deck. Below, Lost Art, Anyways, Studio Yukiko, Fraser Muggeridge and DIA reveal their personal secret weapons in the hope it will guide your future pitches in the right direction.

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Pin up

Don’t make it about you

As New York-based brand, design and typographic kinesis studio DIA point out, building a deck is pretty much “a chemistry test for clients to figure out what partners will be best for a collaboration”. In most cases it will be the client who has made the first move, but from that point it’s up to you to show your worth. In this sense, DIA’s Mitch Paone reasons that decks “are very valuable, especially with brand new clients,” and in turn “a great deck shows a client you actually care, both about what they want and what you do!”

This means it’s basically up to you to do your homework, with Mitch pointing out the necessary importance of having “a clear understanding of what the client is looking for and what the project is”. It sounds simple, but DIA knows that this first step is one easy to trip up on and as a result, “before any deck or proposal we ask our clients to fill out a questionnaire that gives us insight on them,” says Mitch. “This way we have some tangible foundation to work with crafting the content of a deck.” Chris Hopkins of Melbourne-based creative agency Lost Art sides with Mitch too, explaining how at the very beginning he and his colleagues “mostly just think about who the idea is for”.

London-based creative agency Anyways (It’s Nice That’s sister agency) even has its own particular way of ensuring the client realises they’re the apple of the agency’s eye. “Where possible we’ll put in their colour scheme,” explain creatives Ellen Turnill and Charlie Sheppard. “You can’t underestimate how people aren’t prepared to make the leap in thinking about how you could work together. It’s best to bring it into their world.”

Fraser Muggeridge also likens this process to that of a relationship, from the initial flirting of the possibility of getting together through to making it work down the line. This is the point where your studio can begin to think about itself, as Fraser reasons: “It’s important for us to work closely with our clients, it’s all about relationships and working together.”

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Inject energy and mood with visual imagery of all disciplines

With the client’s needs and brief in mind, the next problem to solve is visually communicating the idea that’s sitting in your head, an area where Adobe Stock’s reference imagery library could come into play.

For Berlin-based graphic designers Studio Yukiko, “a deck isn’t necessarily about highlighting all those tiny little details,” and instead the thought process should be more about “wooing your audience with big ideas so you can crack on,” says Michelle Phillips from the studio. “Therefore, impact is of most importance and in this case, pictures speak a thousand words.”

Anyways agree with leading with images in presentations, but more because it’s part of the creative agency’s DNA and it’s important they present that side. “We are quite a visual company in general,” says Charlie. “Even if it’s not images, our decks are colourful and vibrant, there’s an energy and a mood to them.” Estelle, a project manager on Anyways, also suggests using images as signposts in the deck too, saying: “It’s important to identify a structure of how that idea has been created. The first slide could be the introduction, the second is the why, the next one is the creative idea, so that there’s consistency throughout the deck and it’s easy to digest.” This process for Anyways should also be factored into the designing, so “make sure you have time to actually design the deck too”.

However, the way in which you present an image can be designed in all shapes and sizes. “In the best-case scenario, a catchy idea illustrated with a very good sketch coupled with an extremely tight moodboard would do it… Less mood images and more mood,” Studio Yukiko suggests. Fraser also agrees with paying attention to impactful images, suggesting that “a presentation is clear and concise – not too long,” he says. To make your presentation as significant as possible the designer advises starting “with a really good first image to set the scene, so they think: ‘Wow, that’s not what I was expecting but I like it.’” For Fraser the goodbye is of equal importance so “don’t stick with the predictable ‘Thank you’ slide – end with something that can act as a talking point.”

One ultimate no-go from each of the studios we spoke to was including the work of other studios in your pitch. “The imagery should never, never, be pulled from other studio’s portfolios,” says Mitch from DIA, who opts for more “conceptual, mood imagery”: “Photography, artwork, images of historical ephemera. Generally things that capture a feeling of what your treatment is illustrating.” This could also be an opportunity to show your previous work, with both Mitch and Anyways using their own case studies in pitching decks to “help illustrate your studio’s proficiency both in skill and execution as well as instilling trust if the case study is from a similar client or work sector,” adds Mitch.

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Fleshing out the deck

Be communicative with language

Once the images that illustrate your idea are selected, it’s then important to pair it with thoughtful writing. Valerio Oliveri, a creative at Anyways, actually begins with this process. “I tend to start by writing down notes and ideas. Building the final deck is a matter of joining the dots to form a clear and concise narrative.”

For Fraser, on the other hand, the way your studio could use language is a very important sell for the project. “We try to create a story, we try to evoke the imagination of the client. We try to instill confidence so they feel we can be trusted for the job, and that the project is a journey we can go on together,” he says. The designer’s studio also injects its own sense of humour at this stage to provide a point of difference, “but be prepared that someone might not find it funny. It’s a fine line between keeping things open and also showing that you’ve begun to generate ideas and direction,” he says. But most of all in this part of the process, “be yourself, don’t attempt to be something you are not.” It only causes problems down the line if you’re adopting someone else’s tone of voice.

Studio Yukiko also suggest taking the client on a narrative-building journey with the written element of the pitch. “If your proposal is the big happy ending, how are you going to tell the story?” asks Michelle. “What’s your bigger idea? How can you build curiosity and suspense?” These are the questions Yukiko propose designers ask themselves. “I mean, that’s if your going to go all out on a deck – if not we would just call it a bog-standard presentation.”

But for Ellen Turnill of Anyways, there’s one very simple factor you need to always keep a close eye on when writing in your deck. “Spelling, spelling, spelling! Check it, double check it, check it on a different format because your brain sometimes doesn’t catch things when it’s on a laptop, get someone else to check it. It’s the easy thing for people to take down if you’re presenting to a room and there’s a typo. They’ll hone in on that because it’s something they can easily critique, but it’s harder to critique conceptual ideas.”

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The actual pitch

Now your deck is ready in terms of design and narrative, it’s time to make sure it’s perfect for the pitch. In an ideal situation you’ll be presenting to the client in person, but as Ellen from Anyways points out, it’s becoming more common you’ll be sending it over email. “Presenting a deck over email in comparison to delivering in-room is completely different,” she says. “If you’re going to deliver in the room you could just have a word and an image on screen and then elaborate in person, you just need them to focus on you and the ideas.”

Whereas over email your deck will need to be far more explanatory and digestible, and it might be worth designing an extra deck in this style even if you’re presenting physically too. “You might want to give them a second deck to go home with, because you don’t know who it’s going to be sent to,” she says, suggesting extra little details to ensure continuity such as having your company name on every page.

Michelle from Yukiko also suggests bringing back the client’s frame of mind is important at this stage: “Because there is so much visual material available to us, creatives can quickly and effectively illustrate an idea via a good deck.” But, due to this readily available side to the design industry, “clients expect to see almost instantly the final ‘look and feel’ of the proposal, which makes effectively describing highly original ideas extremely difficult, because of course it doesn’t already exist.” At this stage, get creative in your presentation with “how you unfold the idea”, says Michelle. That way, “you can still manage to be convincing.” Fraser agrees with injecting real oomph at this stage, too, saying his studio aims “to be open, creative and original and take a few risks.”

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Now that the pitch is over, the waiting begins. This is a stage where the designer has handed over the reins of control, but there is one way every studio can improve this process if you don’t win – be brave enough to ask for feedback.

While discussing the process of building decks with Fraser Muggeridge, an interesting point was made by on how clients should feel they can be more direct in feedback to better the design community as a whole. From the younger designers pitching on their first job to the old hands, losing a pitch is just something that is inevitably going to happen. However, Fraser finds he rarely gets any feedback as to why. “The common response is simply: ‘We really wanted to work with you, but on this occasion, we are working with someone else…’ which doesn’t really explain anything, it’s just a nice way of saying you didn’t get the job.”

As a result, and in the designer’s experience of working more in the architectural sector, he even suggests that moving forward, “the system used by architectural tenders, where each proposal is marked using different categories alongside written feedback, could be worth implementing in the design industry. It’s brutal,” he says, “but honest.”

The tips and tricks supplied by these studios display how attention to detail at this very first stage of pitching for work is as important as working on the final design. And in turn, the feedback and measures of success on a deck should maybe be supplied by the client as they would on the actual job they’re looking for a studio to complete.

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