Slide and slide show design have a major impact on your ability to get your message across to your audience. Numerous books address various design fundamentals and slide design, but there isn’t always consensus on what is “best.” What research has shown, though, is that people have trouble grasping information when it comes at them simultaneously. “They will either listen to you or read your slides; they cannot do both” (Reynolds, 2008). This leaves you, the presenter, with a lot of power to direct or scatter your audience’s attention. This section will serve as an overview of basic design considerations that even novices can use to improve their slides.
First and foremost, design with your audience in mind. Your slide show is not your outline. The slide show is also not your handout. As discussed earlier, you can make a significantly more meaningful, content-rich handout that complements your presentation if you do not try to save time by making a slide show that serves as both. Keep your slides short, create a separate handout if needed, and write as many notes for yourself as you need.
All decisions, from the images you use to their placement, should be done with a focus on your message, your medium, and your audience. Each slide should reinforce or enhance your message, so make conscious decisions about each element and concept you include and edit mercilessly.
Providing the right amount of information, neither too much nor too little, is one of the key aspects in effective communication (Kosslyn, 2007). The foundation of this idea is that if the viewers have too little information, they must struggle to put the pieces of the presentation together. Most people, however, include too much information (e.g., slides full of text, meaningless images, overly complicated charts), which taxes the audience’s ability to process the message. “There is simply a limit to a person’s ability to process new information efficiently and effectively” Reynolds, 2008). As a presenter, reducing the amount of information directed at your audience (words, images, sounds, etc.) will help them to better remember your message (Mayer, 2001). In this case, less is actually more.
The first strategy to keeping it simple is to include only one concept or idea per slide. If you need more than one slide, use it, but don’t cram more than one idea on a slide. While many have tried to limit the number of slides you need based on the length of your talk, there is no formula that works for every presentation. Use only the number of slides necessary to communicate your message, and make sure the number of slides corresponds to the amount of time allotted for your speech. Practice with more and fewer slides and more and less content on each slide to find a balance between too much information and too little.
It is easy to simply open up your slideware and start typing in the bullet points that outline your talk. If you do this, you will likely fall into the traps for which PowerPoint is infamous.
Presentation design experts Reynolds (2008) and Duarte (2010) both recommend starting with paper and pen. This will help you break away from the text-based, bullet-filled slide shows we all dread. Instead, consider how you can turn your words and concepts into images. Don’t let the software lead you into making a mediocre slide show.
Regarding slide design, focus on simplicity. Don’t overcrowd your slide with text and images. Cluttered slides are hard to understand. Leaving empty space, also known as white space, gives breathing room to your design. The white space actually draws attention to your focus point and makes your slide appear more elegant and professional. Using repetition of color, font, images, and layout throughout your presentation will help tie all of your slides together. This is especially important if a group is putting visuals together collaboratively.
A common layout design is called the rule of thirds. If you divide the screen using two imaginary lines horizontally and two vertically, you end up with nine sections. The most visually interesting and pleasing portions of the screen will be at the point where the lines intersect. Feel free to experiment with the right and left aligned content for contrast and interest.
Backgrounds and Effects
PowerPoint and other slideware has a variety of templates containing backgrounds that are easy to implement for a consistent slide show. Most of them, however, contain distracting graphics that are counter to the simplicity you are aiming for in order to produce a clear message. It is best to use solid colors, if you even need a background at all. For some slide shows, you can make the slides with full-screen images, thus eliminating the need for a background color.
Graphic design is the paradise of individuality, eccentricity, heresy, abnormality, hobbies and humors.
~ George Santayana
Should you choose to use a background color, make sure you are consistent throughout your presentation. Different colors portray different meanings, but much of this is cultural and contextual, so there are few hard and fast rules about the meaning of colors. One universal recommendation is to avoid the color red because it has been shown to reduce your ability to think clearly. Bright colors, such as yellow, pink, and orange, should also be avoided as background colors, as they are too distracting.
When designing your presentation, it is tempting to show off your tech skills with glitzy transitions, wipes, fades, moving text, sounds, and a variety of other actions. These are distracting to your audience and should be avoided. They draw attention away from you and your message, instead focusing the audience’s attention on the screen. Since people naturally look at what is moving and expect it to mean something, meaningless effects, no matter how subtle, distract your audience, and affect their ability to grasp the content. Make sure that all your changes are meaningful and reinforce your message.
Much of what we perceive in terms of a color is based on what color is next to it. Be sure to use colors that contrast so they can be easily distinguished from each other (think yellow and dark blue for high contrast, not dark blue and purple).High contrast improves visibility, particularly at a distance. Tints (pure color mixed with white, think pink) stand out against a darker background. Shades (pure color mixed with black, think maroon) recede into a light background. If you want something to stand out, these color combination rules can act as a guide.
Avoid using red and green closely together. Red-green color blindness is the predominate form of color blindness, meaning that the person cannot distinguish between those two colors (Vorick, 2011). There are other forms of color blindness, and you can easily check to see if your visuals will be understandable to everyone using an online tool such as the Coblis Color Blindness Simulator to preview images as a color-blindperson would see it. Certain red-blue pairings can be difficult to look at for the non- color blind. These colors appear to vibrate when adjacent to each other and are distracting and sometimes unpleasant to view (Kosslyn, 2007).
I’m a visual thinker, not a language-based thinker. My brain is like Google Images.
~ Temple Grandin
There are thousands of fonts available today. One might even say there has been a renaissance in font design with the onset of the digital age. Despite many beautiful options, it is best to stick to standard fonts that are considered screen-friendly. These include the serif fonts Times New Roman, Georgia, and Palatino, and the sans serif fonts Ariel, Helvetica, Tahoma, and Veranda (Kadavy, 2011). These fonts work well with the limitations of computer screens and are legible from a distance if sized appropriately. Other non-standard fonts, while attractive and eye-catching, may not display properly on all computers. If the font isn’t installed on the computer you are presenting from, the default font will be used which alters the text and design of the slide.
Readability is a top concern with font use, particularly for those at the back of your audience, furthest from the screen. After you have selected a font, make sure that the font size is large enough for everyone to read clearly. If you have the opportunity to use the presentation room before the event, view your slides from the back of the room. They should be clearly visible. This is not always possible and should not be done immediately preceding your talk, as you won’t have time to effectively edit your entire presentation.
Create your own visual style… let it be unique for yourself and yet identifiable for others.
~ Orson Welles
Nothing is more hotly debated in slide design than the amount of text that should be on a slide. Godin (2007) says “no more than six words on a slide. EVER.” Other common approaches include the 5×5 rule—5 lines of text, 5 words per line—and similar 6×6 and 7×7 rules (Weaver, 1999). Even with these recommendations, it is still painfully common to see slides with so much text on them that they can’t be read by the audience.
Once you understand that the words on the screen are competing for your audience’s attention, it will be easier to edit your slide text down to a minimum. The next time you are watching a presentation and the slide changes, notice how you aren’t really grasping what the speaker is saying, and you also aren’t really understanding what you are reading. Studies have proved this split-attention affects our ability to retain information (Duare, 2008); so when presenting, you need to give your audience silent reading time when you display a new slide. That is: talk, advance to your next slide, wait for them to read the slide, and resume talking. If you consider how much time your audience is reading rather than listening, hopefully you will decide to reduce the text on your slide and return the focus back to you, the speaker, and your message.
There are several ways to reduce the number of words on your page, but don’t do it haphazardly. Tufte (2003) warns against abbreviating your message just to make it fit. He says this dumbs down your message, which does a disservice to your purpose and insults your audience’s intelligence. Instead, Duarte (2008) and Reynolds (2003) recommend turning as many concepts as possible into images. Studies have shown that people retain more information when they see images that relate to the words they are hearing (Mayer, 2001). And when people are presented information for a very short time, they remember images better than words (Reynolds, 2008).
The ubiquitous use of bulleted lists is also hotly debated. PowerPoint is practically designed around the bulleted-list format, even though it is regularly blamed for dull, tedious presentations with either overly dense or overly superficial content (Tufte, 2003). Reserve bulleted lists for or explaining the order of processes. In all other cases, look for ways to use images, a short phrase, or even no visual at all. Quotes, on the other hand, are not as offensive to design when they are short, legible, and infrequently used. If you do use a quote in your slide show, immediately stop and read it out loud or allow time for it to be read silently. If the quote is important enough for you to include it in the talk, the quote deserves the audience’s time to read and think about it. Alternately, use a photo of the speaker or of the subject with a phrase from the quote you will be reading them, making the slide enhance the point of the quote.
Images can be powerful and efficient ways to tap into your audience’s emotions. Use photographs to introduce an abstract idea, to evoke emotion, to present evidence, or to direct the audience attention, just make sure it is compatible with your message (Kosslyn, 2007). Photos aren’t the only images available. You might consider using simplified images like silhouettes, line art, diagrams, enlargements, or exploded views, but these should be high quality and relevant. Simple images also translate better than words to a multicultural audience. In all cases, choose only images that enhance your spoken words and are professional-quality. Select high-quality images and don’t be afraid to use your entire slide to display the image. Boldness with images often adds impact.
When using images, do not enlarge them to the point that the image becomes blurry, also known as pixelation. Pixelation, is caused when the resolution of your image is too low for your output device (e.g. printer, monitor, projector). When selecting images, look for clear ones that can be placed in your presentation without enlarging them. A good rule of thumb is to use images over 1,000 pixels wide for filling an entire slide. If your images begin to pixelate, either reduce the size of the image or select a different image.
Never use an image that has a watermark on it. A watermark is text or a logo that is placed in a digital image to prevent people from re-using it. It is common for companies that sell images to have a preview available that has a watermark on it. This allows you, the potential customer, to see the image, but prevents you from using the image until you have paid for it. Using a watermarked image in your presentation is unprofessional. Select another image without a watermark, take a similar photo yourself, or pay to get the watermark-free version.
You can create images yourself, use free images, or pay for images from companies like iStockphoto for your presentations. Purchasing images can get expensive quickly, and searching for free images is time consuming. Be sure to only use images that you have permission or rights to use and give proper credit for their use. If you are looking for free images, try searching the Creative Commons database for images from places like Flickr, Google, and others. The creators of images with a Creative Commons License allow others to use their work, but with specific restrictions. What is and isn’t allowed is described in the license for each image.
One final consideration with using images: having the same image on every page, be it part of the slide background or your company logo, can be distracting and should be removed or minimized. As mentioned earlier, the more you can simplify your slide, the easier it will be for your message to be understood.
Graphs and Charts
If you have numerical data that you want to present, consider using a graph or chart. You are trying to make a specific point with the data on the slide, so make sure that the point—the conclusion you want your audience to draw—is clear. This may mean that you reduce the amount of data you present, even though it is tempting to include all of your data on your slide.
It is best to minimize the amount of information and focus instead on the simple and clear conclusion (Duarte, 2008). Particularly when it comes to numerical data, identify the meaning in the numbers and exclude the rest. “Audiences are screaming ‘make it clear,’ not ‘cram more in.’
Different charts have different purposes, and it is important to select the one that puts your data in the appropriate context to be clearly understood (Tufte, 2003). When designing charts, one should use easily distinguishable colors with clear labels. Be consistent with your colors and data groupings. For clarity, avoid using 3-D graphs and charts, and remove as much of the background noise (lines, shading, etc.) as possible. All components of your graph, once the clutter is removed, should be distinct from any background color. Finally, don’t get too complex in any one graph, make sure your message is as clear as possible, and make sure to visually highlight the conclusion you want the audience to draw.
If you have chosen to use visual aids in your presentation, it is important to give credit where credit is due. Make sure to mention the source of your props if you borrowed them from a person or organization. You should cite the source of all data and images used in your presentation. Citing your sources provides credibility to your content and shows you are a professional.
Once you have decided on which visual aids to use and have prepared them for your presentation, you should practice with them repeatedly. Through practice you will be able to seamlessly incorporate them into your presentation, which will reduce distractions, increase your credibility, and keep the audience’s attention focused on your message. Practice will also help determine the time required for your presentation so you can edit before you speak if necessary. No audience benefits from the speaker looking at the time, admitting how off schedule they are, or rushing through their remaining slides.
No matter which visual aid(s) you have chosen, they should be displayed only when you are ready to talk about them. Otherwise, the audience will spend time reading any text or guessing the meaning of the visual instead of focusing on the presenter’s words. Once used, visuals should also be removed from sight so as not to continue to distract the audience (Palmer, 2011).
A picture is the expression of an impression. If the beautiful were not in us, how would we ever recognize it?
~ Ernst Haas
Visual Aid Tips
- Select only visual aids that enhance or clarify your message.
- Speak to your audience not to your visual aid or the screen.
- Reveal your visuals only when they are relevant to your current point, and take them away when they are no longer being talked about.
- Practice with your visual aids and make sure all demonstrations work smoothly.
- Design visuals so they can be understood within three seconds.
- Keep your visuals as simple as possible while still conveying your message.
- When presenting text to your audience, give them time to read before you begin speaking again.
- Be prepared to move on with your presentation should any of the visual aids falter or fail. No matter how great your visuals are, you need to be prepared to speak without them.