What makes presentation design different from other types of design comes down to a single word: slides.
Slides are the heart and soul of a presentation, and while they may seem straightforward, they actually are a unique format, with their own conventions, expectations, and techniques.
If you want to get better at building presentations, you need to start with the basics. So let’s dive into the world of slides, and learn what makes them so special, and some of the ways you can get more out of every slide in your presentation.
This is the first entry in our series covering Presentation Design 101, an exploration of the basic principles that make presentations unique and how you can use them to give better presentations.
What makes a slide effective
Let’s start with the most basic question you can ask about presentation design: what makes a slide “good”? Is it an eye-catching design? Sharp, insightful copy? Carefully chosen photography?
It can be those things, but the best measure of a slide’s effectiveness is how well it conveys your information. And the best way to ensure your slides are getting the point across is to have your content and design working together to tell your story.
A presentation is a tool for conveying information. That information, or your content, should be the first thing you consider, and will dictate what your slides look like and the approach you take to creating them.
Here are a few ways to think about creating clear, effective content for your presentations.
Start with an outline
Creating an outline will help you to organize your thoughts and start to structure the flow of your presentation. You can identify the key idea you want to cover on each slide, and then start to piece together the supporting material you’ll use.
One idea per slide
Creating an outline also illustrates a key principle of presentation design: one idea per slide. Each slide should have a clear focus and purpose, as opposed to trying to fit as much information onto the slide as the design will allow. From complex data visualizations to inspiring statements, the “one idea per slide” approach is a nearly universal principle of presentation design.
Keeping your slides to one idea helps the audience to understand your message, since they aren’t being overwhelmed by too much at once. But using this tip also helps you keep focused when creating your presentation. In our experience, presentations with overly complex slides can come across as unclear and overly broad.
Use headlines, not titles
The standard practice in PowerPoint is to rely on slide titles that describe what’s on the slide: Agenda, Results, Strategy, etc. While these aren’t exactly wrong, relying on basic descriptive titles does miss a big opportunity to tell a richer, more engaging story. There are two basic ways to tell a story in a headline.
First, all of the headlines across your slides can tell a continuous story.
With this approach, the presentation becomes a story as you lead your audience from start to finish across multiple slides.
Second, each slide can be self contained. In this approach, you’ll still use story-driven headlines, but they won’t need to connect directly to the other slides. This can be helpful when you have a lot of different types of content, for example if you were collecting materials from multiple presenters into one presentation.
Here are two examples of the difference between basic descriptive titles and story-driven headlines:
As you can see, it’s not a huge difference, but it communicates much more information and starts to tell a clearer story than the originals.
There are a handful of simple yet effective ways to structure your content, so if you’re not sure where to start or prefer to have a plan, you can try these as starting points for developing tight, clear content.
With the 5x5 rule, your goal is to keep slides to a maximum of 5 bullet points, with only 5 words per bullet.
For every slide, no more than 5 bullet points with no more than 5 words per bullet point.
Similar to the 5x5, the 7x7 rule limits you to 7 lines of text per slide, and 7 words per line.
For every slide, use no more than seven lines of text — or seven bullet points — and no more than seven words per line. Slide titles aren’t included in the count.
This rule covers your presentation as a whole, not just the individual slides. With this approach, you keep the entire presentation to just 10 slides, with a run time of 20 minutes and a minimum font size of 30 points.
This is an aggressive approach that will challenge you to think hard about what you really want to say, and how much time you really need to say it. You might not actually use this when presenting, but it’s a powerful exercise for forcing you to take a closer look at your content.
A presentation should only have 10 slides, last no more than 20 minutes, and contain no font smaller than 30 points.
Adjusting your content to the setting
While all of these rules are useful, they can’t be applied universally, at least not without a bit of extra consideration for the type of presentation you are giving. Depending on how you’re presenting, you should tailor the amount and type of content to suit that particular setting.
We define three main types of presentation: Keynote or large room, hybrid/virtual, and leave behind. These three categories represent the main ways people present, and each one needs a slightly different approach to content. Here are a few ways to think about editing your content for each type of presentation:
Good slides all have one thing in common: the visuals support the story.
Beautiful slides can be a great asset in a presentation, but if they’re not adding to your story, they’re actually getting in the way. Using your visuals to support and enhance your content is called visual storytelling, and it’s all about making every element on a slide work for you.
While you don’t need to be a professional designer to create aesthetically pleasing presentations, it does help to understand a few of the basic principles of design. These concepts will help you to understand how different elements work either alone or together on your slide, and serve as a strong basis for evaluating layouts.
When we say a slide is “scannable,” we mean that it’s easy for the audience to understand the content at a glance. That means a clear, story-driven headline, visuals that support the content, and a layout that’s clear and easy to follow.
A scannable slide illustrates the tight relationship between content and design, and shows why it’s so important for the two areas to work in harmony.
Contrast is the difference between various elements within a design that makes them stand out from each other.
Proportion refers to the size of elements in relation to one another. Larger elements tend to be seen as more important while smaller ones are less so.
Emphasis causes certain parts of a design to stand out compared to other elements. Conversely, it can also be used to minimize how much an element stands out (such as fine print). In this example, we’re using color to emphasize one element on the slide.
Hierarchy uses principle elements such as size, placement, color, or emphasis, to give visual cues about which elements are of primary importance, secondary, and so on.
With negative space, you are creating a design element out of unused space, rather than designing an object. This way, your element is created out of the background.
Negative space is similar to, but different from, white space. White space refers to the area of a design that is left unfilled by elements. In other words, it’s all the space you don’t use. White space is an important concept for creating balanced and scannable layouts
Movement is the way a person’s eyes travel across a design. The most important element should lead to the next most important and so on. Much like hierarchy, this can be done via positioning, emphasis and other design principles.
Consistency and layouts
A good slide is built on a foundation of consistency. By taking the time to ensure things like consistent margins, placement of headers and logos, and use of typefaces and colors, you can make sure that the audience stays focused on your content, instead of getting caught up in noticing inconsistencies and other issues on your slides.
Here are some examples of good (and bad) layouts, focused on consistency:
No matter how well edited or laid-out your content is, the audience won’t connect if they aren’t engaged. Our next rule is to use visual pacing to vary the look of your slides.
The reason is that if all of your slides look the same, your audience will quickly lose interest in them. By using different background colors, typography and photography to set visual pacing, you create small changes that stimulate the eye and maintain engagement, as opposed to a series of identical slides that all bleed together.
This is a delicate balance between visual interest and overdesign. Your goal isn’t to make every slide totally unique. Instead, you should create a few slide types, and vary those according to your content.
Here’s an example of how visual pacing would look across a presentation. Note how the color scheme and slide layouts are consistent, and how certain types are repeated. This creates enough variety to keep the audience interested, but doesn’t reinvent the wheel each and every time.
We’ve given you a quick education on the basics of presentation design, but it’s not all theory and ideas. There are also some best practices that our presentation designers use to improve slides.
Adding in a photo can help illustrate a point or add visual interest. Adding a photo with people in it can humanize a presentation.
But pictures don’t always improve a slide. If they are low quality (pixelated, poorly composed, etc), don’t match the content, or there are just too many of them on a slide, the result is often worse than a slide with no images.
Our best practice is to pick 1 good image per slide.
Keep animation simple
Animation can add excitement and even help reinforce learning, but it can also be distracting. Our best practice is to stick to simple fades (or no animation at all) whenever possible.
Using fade transitions
Much like with animation, transitions work best when they are simple. Our best practice is to use a simple fade transition between slides. It’s one of the easiest ways to add polish to a presentation.
A simple fade transition between slides is one of the easiest ways to add polish to a presentation
Don’t use too many colors
Color is a powerful tool in presentation design, but overusing it is a quick way to turn your presentation into a circus. Your brand likely has an established color palette you should follow, but even then, our best practice is to stick to 2 (or 3 max) colors, with any others used sparingly as accents.
Even if you have an expanded palette to work with, try and pick two (three max) main colors and use the other colors sparingly as accents
Don’t overuse fonts/typefaces
Some presentation creators make the mistake of thinking that using multiple fonts will add visual variety to a slide. Instead, it just makes slides feel cluttered and inconsistent. Our best practice is to stick to a single typeface, ideally a system font, to maintain clarity and readability of your presentation.
One type face (Arial in this example) often creates a more professional look
Unpredictable font substitution. Arial, calibri, georgia…System fonts ensure compatibility when sharing with others
Learning the basics of presentation design and slide layouts doesn’t have to be complicated. With these key ideas, you can see immediate changes to the overall clarity and design of your presentations.
One idea per slide
Tell a story with headlines
Follow design principles
Keep audiences engaged with visual pacing
Pick 1 good image per slide
Use animation sparingly
Add Fade transitions between slides
Don’t overuse colors or fonts
Despite the ubiquity of PowerPoint in business, the basics of slide and presentation design are often misunderstood (or never taught at all). But it doesn’t take a lot of time or education to learn skills that will make your slides clearer, your stories stronger, and your presentations more effective.
Learn more about the basics of presentations in our Presentation 101 series.
Looking for more information about presentation design and beyond? Check out our resources for expert advice and tested strategies.