Slide Design 101: The Rule of Thirds

I am often asked how one can make slides look more engaging and visually appealing. Today, I want to offer up one simple technique that does not require a background in design, or expertise at programs like Photoshop or Illustrator: the Rule of Thirds.

What is it?

Imagine splitting up your slide into 3 equal parts, both horizontally and vertically. You can then use this grid to place and align your subject matter, optimizing the visual experience. You can apply this approach both to how you view your slides moving forward as well as how you take pictures. It’s a simple technique that separates the professionals from the amateurs.

Here’s how you can use it.

The Horizontal Rule of Thirds

When viewing your slides or camera viewfinder with this “thirds” lens (no pun intended), make sure you always place the eyes of your subject in the upper third. Whether it be a stock photo of a model or an image of your cat, aim to place the eyes in the top row. It makes a remarkable difference. If your subject doesn’t have eyes, you should still aim to place the object in the left, right, top or bottom.

The Vertical Rule of Thirds

When using the rule of thirds vertically, always set objects off to the left or right – never the middle. This will allow you to utilize what designers refer to as whitespace , which is a design element that provides a look of simplicity and a clutter-free environment for the object that is being displayed.

You’ll see the value right away as you can see below.

Example 1:

Example 2:

These rules are also applicable to text since whitespace and the rule of thirds works with everything.

Give this simple rule a try. You may just look like a professional presentation designer after all.

READ MORE: Top Design Resources for Non-Designers

About the Author

Scott Schwertly is the author of How to Be a Presentation God and CEO of Ethos3, a Nashville, TN-based presentation boutique providing professional presentation design and training for national and international clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to branded individuals like Guy Kawasaki.

If Scott is not working with his team building presentations, you will find him in the pool, on the bike, or on a long run. Scott lives in Nashville, TN with his wife and three dogs. He has a B.A. and M.B.A. from Harding University.

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The Rule of Thirds by Jeffrey Scism is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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13 Responses to “Slide Design 101: The Rule of Thirds”

  1. Drew Laughlin

    I understand the Rule of Thirds so this was a nice reminder. Thanks for that. But this post lacks any real substance. It would be great if there were more – many more – examples of both what to do and what not to do.

  2. DeepBreath

    This is an old adage from the fundamentals of photography that is being applied to the art & science of screen design for presentations. It is one of the things that photo critics look for when judging photos in contests. The Rule came to be as an understanding of what kind of design layout and object placement makes for a pleasing viewing experience versus one that confuses the eye and the viewer. The Rule of Thirds may certainly be occasionally broken, for dramatic effect or when the subject matter doesn’t cooperate but, by and large, it helps to make both photos and presentations more pleasing to view and easier for the eye to navigate. I also agree that some additional examples would help.

  3. Wiseman28

    Beautiful! Right out of photography, the rule of thirds is essential to understand powerhouse, visually memorable slide content (or photo) layout. Taught this at Vanderbilt and ODU for years, and watched my Vandy MBA students blow the roof off as they won more than 20 national case competitions with amazing advocacy, engagement, and magnificent PowerPoint. Scott, you continue to be the best of the best!

  4. jhante

    Not confusing, I get the point, but more examples would be appreciated as the two we are given are fairly simple.

  5. Fakeer Namee

    Well that WAS true, about 50 years ago when I first started in the business, but today, it’s a different rule. Don’t think the 14 year olds out there would necessarily agree with your ‘rules’ because THIS 66 year old does NOT (and I know I’m making more money than your entire staff which is how I judge who’s right or wrong).

  6. Fakeer Namee

    I totally disagree, it’s a new world and those ‘rules’ including white, gray, black space no longer apply, not for the youngest generation and it will be THEIR world soon.

  7. SherryReson

    I gather from the comments that this is helpful a helpful reminder … if you already understand it. If you don’t, well, not so much. Now I know to look into ‘rule of thirds’ for some interesting ideas about composition. I rather wish Faker Namee would post.

  8. Immanuel Nwachukwu

    I’d call that a marketing ploy… it presents a glimpse of Ethos’ design knowledge, and reminds the (targeted) readers’ their lack of it.