How a self-taught slide designer stays ahead

Head of Comms

If you ask a typical kid what they want to be when they grow up, you’ll hear answers like astronaut, firefighter, doctor, and so on. If you ask a typical worker what they do on weeknights to unwind, they’ll tell you they watch TV. And if you ask a typical person how to make a beautiful set of slides, they’ll say you should probably go find yourself some professional design help.

Emiland de Cubber, one of the first creators to be featured on Pitch, is not most people. By day, he’s a marketing manager at Twitter, but on the side, he pursues a unique passion. It was sparked by pure chance, it blossomed out of necessity, and once, he even went viral for it.

Emiland is a self-trained slide designer.

Hailing from France, the 32-year-old traces the start of his serendipitous journey to his experiences as a boy in the ‘90s. Like many kids his age, Emiland found an interest in skateboarding. But just as his newfound passion was gaining speed, his family moved to the countryside. His new whereabouts: a small town with only around 500 inhabitants, with country roads worn down by tractors and caked with mud. Suddenly, skating was out of the question.

So with a friend he’d made who shared his dreams of well-kept asphalt, he decided to try to change things: “The town center already had a recreation park with a basketball court, so we thought we might convince the town’s employees to help us build a simple skatepark. I talked to my parents, and they said we ought to pitch the mayor on the idea.”

This was Emiland’s first encounter with presentations. 

“Both my parents worked for Bull, a European computer company that was big at the time, so my father borrowed an old slideshow projector from his office and brought it home on the weekend so we could rehearse,” he remembers.

“It was terrible...but super authentic. We even recorded the sound of our own skateboards and uploaded them as handmade sound transitions,” he says.

Slides in hand, along with pricing catalogs from skatepark suppliers and a Lego model of a potential design, Emiland and his friend took their idea to the town hall. Not used to being pitched on city planning by kids, the council members liked it, and invited them back to share their idea at a meeting of neighboring town administrators in a few weeks.

Sadly, that was more or less the end of the road — Emiland’s asphalt pipe dream ran into the brick wall of local politics, as the city council decided the skatepark would attract the wrong crowd. His passion shifted away from skateboard decks, but his journey with slide decks had just started.

As one of the first creators on Pitch, Emiland pays homage to his childhood’s influence on his deck design with a ’90s inspired template: 

Get this presentation and more. Check out all of Emiland's presentations on Pitch.

A step ahead

Emiland’s skatepark proposal had given him an edge that would prove handy over the next few years: He knew how to make slides just a little bit better than everyone else his age. In his university years, whenever working on team projects, he found a natural role as the leader on the presentations to be submitted to his professors. 

He also discovered his niche talent had the potential for big rewards.

“At the time, companies would organize pitch contests for students with a prize,” Emiland says. “It always came down to two projects that had been finished by students at midnight the night before, and the one with the best presentation design always won, so friends and I always entered. We won iPods, iPads — our projects were honestly not that much better than the others, but our presentations were better.”

"Our projects were honestly not that much better than the others, but our presentations were better."

Emiland reaches for an expression from French literature: “Ce que l'on concoit bien s'enonce clairement, et les mots pour le dire arrivent aisement.” (“Whatever we conceive well we express clearly, and words flow with ease.”)

“Think about how it applies to presentations,” he says. "Your project won’t look good if you can’t express it very clearly.”

Tweak what you know

With a university degree under his belt, Emiland got his start in the professional world, managing accounts at marketing agencies and building social apps and games for clients. Throughout his mid-20s, slide design was just a passion, with no plan or purse strings attached.

His big break came at a conference after seeing an engaging talk sabotaged by subpar visuals.

“I approached the man who presented and told him his talk was great, but would have been much better if his slides were consistent with what he said. I told him I could help. It was a pushy move but he agreed!”

With a few hundred euros in his pocket, Emiland now knew he had something more than an amateur passion — and he started to set about making a name for himself.

15 minutes of fame on a global stage

To expand his clientele, Emiland focused on newsjacking. Many know him as the guy who redesigned the infamous slide deck by the United State’s National Security Agency (NSA).

“Here was this awful scandal in terms of data and privacy, but all I could see was the ugliness of the slide. It was so cheap! I thought, ‘Is this really the spying program of the future?’”

So, Emiland took it upon himself to redesign the deck.

“I did it in just one night and published it at work on my lunch break. The developers told me I should publish it on Hacker News. I didn’t know the website, but I did, and soon enough there were comments everywhere. It sparked quite a conversation — some people were mad I was making fun of a serious matter, others found it fun and cool.”

Before long, the deck had gone viral, with features and mentions in TechCrunch, Fast Company, New York public radio, and more. 

“When the journalists got in touch with me, they were a bit disappointed. They thought I was some kind of activist, but I honestly had no political message, it was just for fun.”

Emiland received more than 300 emails from people asking him to design their decks, but didn’t take most of the proposals. 

“I picked a few projects that seemed right, and had to tell most people that I appreciated the attention, but couldn’t take on their presentation. I lost a lot of opportunities for work,” he remembers. “I knew the attention was something that would only last for a few days, so I chose not to let it change my life.”

Clean slides, clean mind

Today, Emiland still enjoys designing slides as much as he always has. Now, it’s a side hustle he does on nights and weekends. He sees it as a privilege to be able to pick the projects he likes.

“Creating decks is not always a designer’s favorite task. Marketing and sales people know the impact of presentations but don’t know how to master it. I try to reconcile both.”

So, what is Emiland’s top tip for finding joy in slide design? Start simple. Stay simple. 

“Every element should struggle for its presence,” he says. “If it doesn’t add to the understanding of the slide, it should be removed.”

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