5 Steps to Slide Design for Non-Designers by Ellen Finkelstein

May 21, 2008

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Ellen FinkelsteinEllen Finkelstein is the author of How to Do Everything with PowerPoint 2007 (and previous editions for 2002 and 2003), 101 Tips Every PowerPoint User Should Know (an e-book), and PowerPoint for Teachers: Dynamic Presentations and Interactive Classroom Projects. She has written numerous articles on PowerPoint as well. Her Web site offers a free PowerPoint Tips Newsletter and PowerPoint Tips Blog. To find out more, go to www.ellenfinkelstein.com.

Your presentations are important, especially if you are representing your organization to potential clients, the press, or the public. For a high-stakes presentation, a professional designer is usually worth the money. If you pay a professional to design your Web site and printed materials, why not do the same for a PowerPoint presentation?

Time and Money

However, many presentations are less critical. You may not have the money. Or you may need to get the presentation out tonight. For whatever the reason, you may find yourself designing your own presentation. Yet you want it to look good and communicate effectively. How does a non-designer accomplish this task?

I’ve been studying this topic for a while, because I’m not a designer. So I’ve looked, listened, and read a lot. I’ve come up with 5 steps that you can take to create a presentation that will work, even if you’re not a designer. Of course, you can’t reduce design to 5 steps, but if you use them, you’ll see a vast difference in your presentations. Why not try them yourself?

Before you start, keep in mind two overriding principles:

  • Keep it simple. The simpler your slides, the better they’ll look.
  • Design for your audience. Just as you craft your message for your audience, you should design for them. Think how different a presentation for 4th graders would be from a presentation for college students, accountants, or artists.

1. Create a custom color scheme

Start each presentation by doing something most people have never done - setting a color scheme. Why create a color scheme?

  • The default colors look old and tired. PowerPoint 2007 is a little better, but not much.
  • Your colors should support your other materials, such as your Web site and printed brochures.
  • Your colors should be consistent throughout your presentation and without a color scheme, you’ll often find yourself changing colors of individual objects on slide after slide after slide. That’s a waste of time.

Edit Color Scheme

Rather than tell you step-by-step how to create a color scheme (or theme colors in PowerPoint 2007), which you can look up in Help, I’ll explain some ways to find the colors you need. That’s the hard part for non-designers. You’ll need to decide on a main fill color and up to three accent colors.

The first place to go is to your Web site. It’s more likely to be professionally designed. One secret for us non-artistic types is to piggyback on the work of artists.

The second place is your print materials. You may have to ask your graphic designer. If that doesn’t work, you can scan the material, open the resulting file, and use the free Colourificator, one of several programs that lets you point to a color on your screen (with an “eyedropper”) and discover its RGB stats.

You can download detailed instructions for finding the colors on your Web site and print materials, and converting them to the red-green-blue (RGB) format that PowerPoint uses from my Web site, at www.ellenfinkelstein.com/events/colors.html.

Finally, if you’re starting from scratch, use an online tool that generates color schemes. One of those is Color Toy 2.0. Do some research on the psychology of color, that is, how certain colors evoke emotions. You can find a great deal by doing a Web search.

Professional designers often create a sampler slide that contains AutoShapes filled with the custom color scheme, special treatments, design elements (such as images or special curves and shapes), and so on. This is a great way to try out various colors and fills and see what you like and which colors go well together. An extra advantage is that you can simply copy objects from the sampler slide to your other slides. At the end of the authoring process, you can hide the sample slide so that it doesn’t display to your audience. Here’s a simple sample sampler. (Try saying that 5 times fast!)


2. Format the slide master

You use the slide master to format a background (if any), choose fonts, specify text placement, and add images or design elements that will appear on all slides. This step can make or break your presentation’s look.

Let’s start with text. Have you ever noticed how slide titles in some presentations jump from slide to slide, giving you a slight eye strain or headache? This can happen for 3 reasons – avoid them all:

  • Moving the title placeholder manually on individual slides. To fix this, display the slide and choose Format> Slide Layout. In the Slide Layout task pane, find the selected layout. Hover the cursor over it, click the down arrow, and choose Reapply Layout. (In PowerPoint 2007, right-click an empty area of the slide and choose Reset Slide.) This tip could save you hours spent adjusting individual placeholders!

  • By default, titles are usually centered on a slide; and because the titles are different lengths, their left edge constantly changes. Instead, left-justify the titles and they’ll stay in the same place.
  • Some titles are 1 line and others are 2 lines. You’ll see the titles jump down when you display a 2-line title after a 1-line title. Instead, specify a bottom vertical justification and that bottom-left corner will stay steady. On the Text box tab of the Format Placeholder dialog box, set the Text Anchor Point to Bottom. (In 2007, use the Text Box category of the Format Shape dialog box and set the Vertical alignment to Bottom.)

Choose a very readable font. Research has shown that sans-serif fonts like Arial, Verdana, and Tahoma are easier to read on-screen, so they’re good options. When you pick a font, stick to it throughout the presentation. Use black or dark blue text against light backgrounds and yellow or white text against dark backgrounds.

Please don’t put your company’s logo on every slide, which is what happens when you put it on the slide master. This will either be annoying, or the audience will soon tune out and ignore it. You wouldn’t put a logo on every page of a printed report, but only on the title page; similarly, leave the logo for the title slide and maybe the last slide.

3. Choose a background

To background or not to background? That is the question. Top designers today are creating slides with plain white (or black) backgrounds rather than the colorful, full-fashioned ones we’re used to. White can be both business-like and artsy; black is definitely artsy.

White is definitely the new blue in presentation backgrounds, for several reasons:

  • Brighter LCD projectors mean that you don’t have to turn off the lights in most rooms. With the lights on, white isn’t as glaring as it used to be.
  • Web sites usually use a white background and presentation design has followed this trend.
  • A plain background enhances the effect of images, which may be overwhelmed by a fancy background.

Don’t use one of those old backgrounds that come with PowerPoint that everyone has seen a million times. And don’t try to create an elaborate background from scratch; we non-artists aren’t very successful with that. Instead, if you feel that you need a background, try a subtle background gradient (Slide 1), simple top and bottom rectangles (Slide 2), or a full-slide photo.

Full-slide photos may not play nicely with text. Remember that your text needs to be very clear against the photo. What to do?

  • Reduce the contrast and brightness of the photo, to create a washout (Slide 3)
  • Colorize the photo so that it becomes shades of one color. Change the photo to grayscale and cover it with a semi-transparent rectangle of the color you want. (Slide 4)
  • Make the text placeholders semi-transparent (Slide 5)
  • Use the full photo only on the title slide and then crop it to a sidebar on the left for the rest of the presentation (Slides 6 and 7)

Feel free to override your background whenever you need to use a full-slide photo.

Experiment with plain white and black backgrounds. Once you try these out, you’ll feel liberated from backgrounds! (Slides 8 and 9.)

4. Tell ‘n’ show

Tell and Show

Tell ‘n’ show is my term for a concept of slide design in which you use text to clearly tell the audience the point you’re making on the slide, and then use a graphic to show what you’re saying. Cliff Atkinson uses this concept in his well-known book Beyond Bullet Points. Michael Alley does the same for the academic world. (See his article, "Rethinking the Design of Presentation Slides.") Whenever you’re trying to get across a point and help your audience both understand and remember what you’re saying, tell ‘n’ show will help.

To makeover a boring slide into a tell ‘n’ show slide, do the following:

  • Rewrite the title so that it actually says something. For example, change "HR Salaries by Division" to "HR salaries up 26-34%."
  • Add a graphic that shows what you’re saying. In this example, it would probably be a graph/chart (Slides 10 and 11)

Examples of graphics are photographs, tables, charts, and diagrams. If necessary, divide a slide with several bullets into several individual slides. Take a presentation that is mostly bulleted text, do a tell ‘n’ show makeover, and you’ll be amazed at the difference.

With rare exception, you should use photos, not clip art (line art). Clip art usually appears humorous, and rarely adds to a slide. A nice technique is to find a photo with a solid (usually white) background and make the background transparent. Use the Set Transparent Color button on the Picture toolbar and click the background. (In PowerPoint 2007, choose the Picture Tools Format tab> Adjust group> Recolor drop-down list> Set Transparent Color.) (Slides 12, 13, and 14)

5. Use simple layouts

Non-designers have a great deal of trouble laying out a slide in an appealing manner. Designers use a grid to help them. However, if you don’t want to work with a grid, I have some other suggestions:

  • Look at magazine ads, billboards, and brochures for layout ideas, find a couple that you like, and use them.
  • Again, keep it simple. An easy layout is a half-slide vertical photo. Crop the photo as necessary and vertically center the text next to it. It always looks good. (Slide 15)

Do a Makeover

All of these techniques are feasible for non-artists. Take your text-heavy, bullet-heavy slides and do a makeover using the principles in this article. You’ll see a definite improvement!