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Graham & Brown

Presenting Your Work Professionally: Construction
by Shaye Eller

There's nothing more likely to cause a string of sleep-deprived nights for a design student than the final presentation in a design studio. Design studios are meant to simulate working on a project from beginning to end--minus construction. Likely, you've been working on the final project for the entire term. Maybe you've got a fabulous design idea and equally fabulous drawings to back it up. All of that work, unfortunately, will not be as impressive as it should be if you march into your classroom and tape the drawings to the wall using Magic Tape on the day of the final. You've put so much effort into producing beautiful drawings, they deserve to be presented with style and creativity.

Plan to devote around seven or eight hours to putting together a top-notch presentation. When you've spent upwards of 60-80 hours on the project itself, this really isn't a significant percentage of time. It can, however, be made to seem that way, especially if, like most college students (including myself), those eight hours spent on presentation take place the night before it's due. This time allows for mounting of around eight drafted drawings (floor plan, reflected ceiling plan, various sections and elevations), several rendered perspectives, and ten to fifteen product images, as well as construction of your presentation boards, including a high-quality materials board.

Most of the pointers in the following paragraphs are lessons I have learned the hard way. The rest are errors I have seen people make. What I'm giving you is a prime opportunity to learn from my mistakes.

The First Rule of Presentation: Craft Counts

No matter how inspired your ideas are and no matter how technically accurate your drawings, shoddy craftsmanship can ruin your presentation. Even if your review board or professor is satisfied with your project, crooked edges, torn or wrinkled corners and angles that are not square will be a distraction. The best way to ensure that your boards and drawings are clean and straight is to use a cork-backed metal ruler and a sharp knife when cutting edges. Never use a dull blade to cut thick surfaces, and be aware of where your hands are. Even small Exact-o knives can make deep incisions when driven with enough force. (One of my professors used to say that anyone who had blood on their presentation boards would get an 'F'!) Most importantly, NEVER use scissors to cut your materials. Believe me, I tried it in an act of desperation after all my blades had broken one night, and my project (a sourcing project on decorative paint) was marked down for it. No matter how straight you think your cuts are, professionals can always tell.

Wise Use of Adhesives

The other mistake that often detracts greatly from a project is poor use of adhesive. Unless the paper you've used for your drawings is extremely thick, they can bubble no matter what kind of glue you use or how thinly and evenly you distribute it. To be on the safe side, try to avoid the use of thick white glues like Elmer's or clear craft glues unless you're attaching pieces which are tagboard weight or thicker (ie, bristol paper is okay, heavy drawing paper is not). If you find you must use one of these glues to attach something thinner, use pindots of glue and spread them toward the edges of the paper.

Another way to safely use glue is to invest in a high-quality spray mount. I say "high-quality" because I know exactly what will happen if you buy the cheap stuff: papers will fall off, you'll try applying more adhesive, the entire project will be sticky--but not quite sticky enough to say together--and the presentation board will stain from too much glue. (That, by the way, was a lesson learned from a precedent study of a Frank Lloyd Wright house.) If you do choose to use a spray mount, be aware that there is a weight limit to what the mount can hold. Also, be sure to use in a well-ventilated area, because another lesson I learned was that too much spray mount can not only give you a light head but also an inflated opinion of your project.

As strange as it may sound, I eventually ended up relying more on double-sided tape than anything else. I found that it solved the problem of bubbling paper from glue, and if you use double-sided foam tape, you can attach even heavy pieces of stone or tile to your board without worrying about it coming apart. One warning I have about double-sided tape, however, is to make sure that you don't overlap your pieces of tape. This will create bumps on the surface of your drawings and give away your "secret." Another danger is that you must have a steady hand to use double-sided tape, because unlike glue or spray mount, once you've put the drawing down, it's difficult to reposition. If you use good craft and care with double-sided tape, however, you will achieve higher quality than with glue, and you will save yourself time.

No matter what type of adhesive you choose, remember to apply it all the way to the edges of the drawing and, if the image is large, in the center. The less edge space that is not adhered directly to the binding surface, the better.

A Visually Compelling Presentation Board

After all the time and effort you've put into your project, you want it to stand out on presentation day. There are a variety of ways to go about making your presentation boards unique and eye-catching, but the most common and successful are through the use of color, composition, and dimensionality.


At some point during your education, you will take a color theory course. This course will prove invaluable to you, not only as far as good design goes, but also when it comes to your interior illustrations and your presentation boards. Another lesson I learned from the previously-mentioned Frank Lloyd Wright project is that deintensified, analogous colors do not a compelling presentation make. Choose an appropriate but eye-catching background color for your presentation boards, and use the same color and texture throughout the project. This will aide in tying your presentation together. I have a personal affinity for black, but I've seen other colors used just as effectively--taupe, navy, white, even red. After you've chosen an appropriate background color based on the colors of your finishes, you'll want to select a few accent colors. You'll use these in framing your drawings, for your labels, and in other applications. Also, be sure that the accents are appropriate to the project, but do not be shy about taking risks. The colors you choose don't necessarily have to "match;" often contrasting colors work better. The important thing to keep in mind is that the colors you use add to the expression of your design as you see it.


Sloppy composition of your boards can ruin a presentation just as easily as bad craftsmanship. Composition, or the arrangement of your drawings and images on your boards, should always be at right angles, and while many people can eyeball their measurements, it is usually best to take ruled measurements for precision's sake.

When composing your boards, try to keep in mind your basic principles of design. Unity, variety and balance are key. Try to unite your boards through color and style and then add variety by differing the size of your drawings. For example, on one board you might place one large drawing and three smaller ones. In this way, you avoid a static composition caused by same-size items arranged on a board in a regular, symmetrical grid. Usually, an asymmetrically balanced composition will be more visually interesting than a symmetrically balanced one.


One element that will make a presentation board stand out like no other is 3-dimensionality. Flat boards can give the impression of a flat and uninspired design. A simple 3-D affect can be achieved by first mounting your drawings or images on a piece of foam core. (Found at art stores, this is the material that has a layer of styrofoam between two layers of thick card paper. It is sometimes called Sturdy Board, Foam Board, Fome-Cor and various other trade names.) After you've mounted the drawings, cut both the image and foam board to the desired size at the same time. Do not attempt to cut the image first, then cut a piece of foam core to match, because the size will never be exactly the same. After you've mounted your drawing on a small piece of foam core, you then apply it to the presentation board the same as you would a loose drawing.

Another way to achieve dimensionality is to use a mat cutter (used to cut picture mats, this is a small mounted blade that can be used to cut clean, mitered edges) and cut holes in your presentation board, then mount the drawings behind. You must have sufficient space on the edges of the drawings for this method to work.

More dramatic methods of achieving dimensionality will give the effect of floating planes superimposed on one another. Mount the drawing on foam core as before, then use anywhere from one to six or seven smaller pieces of board to stack the drawing away from the presentation board. In this way, some of your drawings can be three or four inches away from the board. This method works best when used with a very progressive and creative design scheme. If you choose to "float" your drawings, think about which images are farthest away from the surface of the presentation board. There should be a reason for those drawings to be given special emphasis; they are the upper stories in a project, the images that communicate the most about the project, etc.

Reproducing Your Drawings

You probably don't want to mount your original drawings on your presentation board, since the reality of slipping knives and wrong measurements becomes much more critical when you don't have another copy. I also find that design students normally use vellum or tracing paper for their drawings, and these types of paper should hardly ever be mounted on final presentation boards. It's impossible to glue them without warping the paper, and tape will show through its translucent surface. You will want to make high-quality reproductions of your drawings. For this, Kinko's is your friend. If there isn't a Kinko's in your area, find a local copy shop, preferably one that's open 24 hours. (Trust me, you'll need it. I sometimes wonder if the night staff at the local Kinko's gets lonely because I don't come in there anymore.) I only recommend Kinko's because, though fairly expensive, I always found the staff to be helpful and accommodating, especially when I came in feeling my most harried.

Another type of establishment to seek out is a print shop. This is the place you'll go when you have a drafting class to have your blueprints made. However, blueprints tend not to be a very attractive means of reproducing your drawings, unless you desire the raw aesthetic particular to the medium. However, most print shops also make brownlines, which are extremely beautiful, if very expensive. (I spent around $60 on ten 24x36 pages.) Brownlines are reproductions of your drawings made in sepia ink on heavy cream/brown speckled stock, and look fabulous if your project needs something other than the standard black-and-white copies to express your design intentions. Treat your brownlines carefully, because you won't want to trot out and have them redone if you ruin them.

Materials Boards

The highest quality materials boards consist of neatly-prepared finishes and materials which are attached to a sturdy board, such as foam core or mat board which has been backed with corrugated cardboard. One effective way of displaying textile upholstery is to cut a small piece of foam core, attach some polyester batting to one side and then 'upholster' the piece with the fabric you've chosen. In this way, you communicate how your choice would actually look in an interior application. This, of course, only works if you are allowed to cut your sample, and it is large enough to wrap around the corners.

Again, I emphasize that good craftsmanship is essential. Paint chips should always be cut just as you would a drawing or image, and carpet and flooring samples should be clean and as rectilinear as you can find. Many students attach stone samples to their boards, and ideally these should have clean edges as well. If they do not, it is important to measure the border between adjacent samples from the point on the sample that protrudes the most.

Usually, one materials board is sufficient for a project. More finish samples will only cloud your ideas. Sometimes, however, a series of smaller materials boards representing different rooms or schemes might be preferable. Remember; use your judgment. The materials are only one part of the design process and should not dominate the project presentation.

Labeling your Presentation Boards

After all of this effort and care, there is still one pitfall which can easily ensnare you. Most likely, you'll be required to label all of your drawings, images, materials and the like. If this last detail is overlooked or done poorly, the quality of your boards suffers.

There are three main ways to label your boards. The first, which works best if your background color is light, is to go to a copy shop and have your labels printed on clear vinyl with a sticker back. Carefully and neatly cut the labels from the sheet and apply directly to the board. (Use your blade to cut this too, because even a clear label that is sloppily cut will be obvious.) The second way is to print the labels on a computer, then mount each label on foam core, as you would a drawing. This preserves the dimensionality of your boards and can make them easier to read. The third method of labeling is to do so by hand. Now, in the very first design studio I had, the professor warned us never to label our boards by hand. In most cases, this is a wise suggestion. However, there were a few times when I decided that hand-labeling would be more appropriate, and found success. If you choose to label by hand, work slowly, use a straight edge, and use your architectural lettering. If you haven't had drafting yet, or your lettering skills are shaky, I'd recommend that you use a different method of labeling.

A Few Helpful Products--

Foam Core: I mentioned its use earlier as a means to add a 3-D affect to your boards, but foam core has many other applications. It can be used for architectural models, as a pincushion or an impromtu cutting board, and it makes for a wacky voodoo-type surface when the project gets too frustrating. (Use a scrap piece for this--the stuff isn't cheap.) I also used foam core for the presentation board itself, though I sometimes mounted mat board on top of it. The foam core, I found, nicely supported the weight of various materials as well as mounted drawings. It also stood up better when transported from home to classroom.

Poster Tape: This is my favorite kind of double-stick tape. It's made by 3M under the Scotch brand, and has more weight than regular double-stick tape, but isn't as thick or expensive as the foam tape. Plus, if you mount something incorrectly, you can usually pull this tape up without damaging anything as long as you haven't pressed too hard.

Krazy Glue or something similar: This is your emergency fix-all. You will have emergencies at the eleventh hour, and Krazy Glue is sometimes the only adhesive that will work in a pinch for a quick fix. It will fix almost anything temporarily and tends not to warp paper so badly, since you need very little of it. In addition, Krazy Glue is the only glue I've found that really works on textile samples.

Prismacolor Watercolor Pens: These are double-ended pens, one with a broad tip and one with a narrow tip. They flow nicely and blend well, plus they have a colorless pen you can use for erasing. Heaven sent. I used the black color religiously for drawings and labels.

Caffeine: Enough said.

There's one last detail that I should add. Some rules are made to be broken. There are times when the most powerful presentations are the result of successful rule-breaking. However, be aware that when you take risks, your project has the potential to be either a startling success or a huge fiasco. Play it safe unless you are fully committed to your idea. That way, whether your project sinks or swims, you will walk away knowing that you were true to your vision, and you have learned a valuable lesson. That is, after all, the purpose of receiving an education.

Once the presentation boards are constructed, you still have to think about preparing a concise but thorough speech.

Shaye Eller

More Go To School Articles: So You Want To Go To Design School But How Do You Choose One?
Frank Lloyd Wrong: How to Be an Opinionated Student and Get Away With It | Caveat Designer: A Few Words to the Wise
Giving The Final Presentation | Presenting Your Work Professionally: Construction

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