Think Inside The Box For Your Next Presentation

December 5, 2013

When it comes to design, it's all about perspective: How do you look at something? How can you change the way someone looks at something?

If you want to create a deck that stand outs, much less moves a person to change their perspective, it helps to review the principles of perception. It's helpful to begin with Gestalt psychologist and philosopher Karl Duncker.

Duncker famously gave a group of students a candle, a box of thumbtacks and a book of matches. They were then asked to fix the candle to the wall with the materials they had in front of them. Despite many different, creative attempts, including trying to melt the candles’ own wax to fix the candle to the wall, only about 1 in 4 students succeeded. This experiment — called Duncker’s candle problem — was first carried out in the 1930s, and has been repeated under varying conditions many times since. It’s a test, quite literally, of out-of-the-box thinking.

The simple (but not obvious) answer to the problem: Tack the box to the wall, and put the candle in the box.

Most of us don’t get to that answer because of what Duncker termed ‘functional fixedness.’ In other words, we are set in the way we perceive things, and find it difficult to flip our thinking.

Duncker was a psychologist of the Gestalt school, and it’s unnerving how often Gestalt principles - the human drive to search for connections and see things in wholes - plays a role in our everyday lives, particularly in the way we convey information.

Gestalt is the reason many famous optical illusions continue to fool and amuse us. It’s also part of visual design, from logos to icons to camouflage to advertising. And if you’re putting a message together, particularly one with images, knowing some of the 'rules' of the Gestalt theory can help you drive your point home.

Most designers will be familiar with Gestalt principles. For any presenter or person building decks, the Gestalt rules will be useful regardless of how much design experience one has.


Figure/Ground is used in many optical illusions. Flipping figure and ground allow you to see trees, or a face in the trees. It allows you to see an old woman or young lady. It’s also the principle that makes your text stand out, or that makes particular areas of the slide draw in the viewer's eye. If you’re building slides, think about where you want the audience’s eyes to go, and use figure/ground to get it there.


Proximity refers to our natural inclination to group things together, and our instinct to draw meaning from such groupings. This group of letters, 'psychotherapist,' has a very different meaning from this group of words, 'psycho the rapist.'

In presentations, how we cluster lists, bullets and other blocks of text can imply meaning, which we can use to our advantage. Beware of grouping unrelated things together.


Closure is a particularly useful principle. It refers to our ability to fill in blanks. It’s why we read the name 'IBM' in the IBM logo rather than a series of lines, and why we see a panda in the WWF logo. It’s useful if you have a particularly dense slide, and you want to ‘box’ and group things together. You often can make the slide appear less dense, but still have the same boxing effect, by putting a very thin line as a separator.


Continuation, the idea that our eyes naturally follow edges, lines and forms, is another useful principle. You can see it used in charts and diagrams, but in slides it serves another purpose: To anchor the audience in the timeline of your presentation. If, for example, your presentation involves a list or sequence, putting in markers that show where you are in the sequence -- and that slide 23 is part of a natural sequence between slide 20 - 29 -- can ground both you and the audience.


Experience is one of the few principles that isn’t pre-attentive. That is, it’s something we learn over time, and has different cultural nuances, as opposed to some of the others which seem to be instinctual.  Experience allows us to interpret shapes and compare them to objects that we’ve seen before, thus giving them meaning. That’s why you know what the power switch looks like on your new tablet or how you can find the fast-forward button on your remote control. In a presentation, you can use experience to your advantage to clear out clutter. People can interpret icons and pictograms, usually without the aid of language.

As you put together your next presentation or pitch, remember the lesson from the candle problem. Most people spend their time thinking one way. While that can help, make use of the principles outlined to reinforce the messages and meaning you want your audience to take away.

Read More: 5 Typography Tips for Every Presenter

About the Author

 Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint. More at Google+, Facebook and Pinterest.