Slide Tips: Empty space and slide design (by Garr Reynolds)

March 12, 2008

We are starting a series of blog posts called Slide Tips - exclusive articles by the world's leading presentation and communication experts. This post by Garr Reynolds is the first in that series.
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Garr Reynolds

Garr Reynolds is an internationally acclaimed communications expert, and the creator of the most popular Web site on presentation design and delivery on the net: presentationzen.com. He is the author of the book: Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery.

Here he talks about the importance of using empty space to create slides that complement your live talk.

There are no panaceas leading to effective presentation visuals, and there are no quick fixes. But when it comes to creating more effective slides that complement the spoken words of a presenter, there is one graphic design principle that can make a huge difference if applied properly: the principle of empty space.

Emptiness or empty space (also called negative space or white space) is a key component of effective graphic design in general. Yet, as Alex White points out in The Elements of Graphic Design (Allworth Press), "the single most overlooked element in visual design is emptiness." And this lack of attention to emptiness is one of the key causes of slides that are either ugly, ineffective, or both. Most people think of empty space—if they think of it at all—only as background, the canvas behind the text and graphic elements on a slide, the trapped space in between "the content." Emptiness on a slide is not really something to concern ourselves with most people think. But empty space is not nothing, it is a powerful something. Empty space in your visuals can breath air into your key visual elements leading to greater clarity, understanding, and augmentation of your spoken word. When you start to view empty space as a positive element you are better able to avoid clutter by eliminating the non-essential.

Learning from the world around you

Graphic Design is all around youYou can learn a lot about the idea of using fewer elements in a visual and using empty space to amplify your graphic by observing the visual design in the world around you. It's everywhere. You can begin to improve your design mindfulness by reading books on graphic design as well as by the careful examination of the professional graphics around you right where you live. Graphic design is ubiquitous, especially in urban settings such as New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Sydney, Tokyo, etc. but you can also find examples all around you in smaller towns too. As you commute to work or during your evening walk, begin to pay attention to the designs you observe—store fronts, advertising, posters, signs of all types, print media, and on and on. Designs that make good use of empty space will have messages—with or without text—that are easy to understand. Your eye does not wander or get confused. We notice differences. Designs that make use of emptiness often have good contrast and a clear design priority. We are not usually aware of "the design" of it, but we get the message. And the message is what it's all about.

The land of Zen simplicity and visual clutter

Some of the best graphic design treatments in the world are done right here in Japan. And some of the most chaotic and mad examples of graphic design and communication are also right here. If you have been to Japan you know exactly what I am talking about. In Japan we have a 2000 year-old culture steeped in aesthetic appreciation and tradition juxtaposed with modern, fast-paced city centers which give one the feeling of living inside a giant pinball machine. Yet the lessons are everywhere. Below is an example from inside two department stores in my home of Osaka, Japan. Product displays in a retail space may seem to have nothing to do with presentation design, however, the importance of emptiness and removal of the non-essential can reveal itself in unusual places.

Above: This was snapped while shopping in an electronics store. We were shopping for an energy-efficient stainless steel refrigerator that would fit harmoniously with our kitchen appliances. However, while the price was easy to find, it was often hard to locate even the most basic information such as the exact size or energy consumption, etc. And it was difficult to imagine how this would actually look in our kitchen with the sea of clutter pasted over the very product we wanted to see.

Above: Here is a dining table in a furniture store just down the street from the electronics store. They get it. We need to imagine how the piece will look (and feel) in our home. The specs and details are there in a small sign, easy to find without searching.

Above: Advertising posters on trains offer good lessons as well. This poster (about 70cm wide) is encouraging passengers to take a trip to Gold Coast, Australia. Some of the type is no bigger than 10 point; I had to stick my nose to the glass to even read all that detail. Yet most people who see the poster will never be close enough to read all that detail. Good poster design should (1) be noticed, (2) be understood, and (3) be remembered (and hopefully get the viewer to take action). Posters and presentation visuals are different, but slides too must be noticed (have an impact), be understood, and help audiences understand and remember your point (or story, etc.).

In defense of the designer, this poster is a classic example of design-by-committee; the actual designer probably became no more than a computer operator with the client saying "Add this!" "Don't forget that!" "Where's the &^*#@! koala bear?!" and so on. Sadly, this poster resembles some design-by-committee PowerPoint slides which I have seen all too often in Japan. Often the default is: When in doubt, add more. "Slide-by-committee" is responsible for a lot of really bad PowerPoint slides everywhere in the world.

Above left: A classic poster that is painfully similar to a lot of PowerPoint slides. The designers of the poster on the right showed restraint, leaving most of the space empty.

Above: A lot of billboards which feature rich full-bleed images and a bit of text remind me of some good presentation slides. The entire "canvas" is covered by the image but the use of space, lack of clutter, and a clear focal point makes the visual easy to notice and understand in an instant. This huge billboard is across the street from the Apple Store.

Above: Here in a SlideShare deck are several examples and before/after slides that use empty space. All the slides were used to complement the spoken word in live talks.

Slide Tips is a weekly series of articles by leading presentation and communication experts.
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