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How to create a winning presentation slide deck pt. 2

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Dom graham

Published on 8th October 2019

Welcome to part two of our how-to guide for creating great presentation content. This week we’re looking at how a little graphic design knowledge can help you create better-looking presentations.

Graphic design secrets: the design principles

“It doesn’t matter how it looks, just make sure it includes everything"

It’s not uncommon for presenters to feel squeezing all of their content into a presentation is more important than how it looks. The truth is, it’s equally important to get the content and the visuals right. 

  • Incongruent content is confusing and will make your message hard to understand
  • Messy layout and poor color usage is distracting and will make your presentation difficult to look at
  • To many words and too few visuals makes a presentation look dull and uninteresting

You don’t need to be a professional Graphic Designer to start creating better presentation content. A little design thinking and an extra 20 minutes looking at your slides will go a long way. 

Graphic designers never design anything without putting thought into what is placed on the page. Design, layout and content quality are symbiotic. There are universal design principles that every graphic designer learns, these are: 

  • Alignment
  • Balance
  • Contrast
  • Hierarchy
  • Proximity
  • Repetition
  • Space

In short, each is a guide to how elements of a design work together for the highest impact. 

Alignment – Alignment is about making things look neat and tidy. In my opinion, tidying up the alignment in your presentation is the quickest way to make an impact on presentation visuals. Think of it like this – it’s the difference between planting flowers in a flower bed, or planting them in totally random spots around your garden; what looks better? All presentation applications have alignment tools that will do the work for you, making it a really simple win.

Balance – Does your slide feel lopsided or uncomfortable? Balance is about stability and elements looking comfortably placed in a design. That can mean either symmetrical or asymmetrical. 

Contrast – contrast is a means of organizing elements, drawing attention and adding emphasis by playing one element against another through juxtaposition. This can be done by using size, shape, color, style, weight, etc.

Hierarchy – not everything is important – some things require greater attention than others. Introducing a distinct hierarchy lets the audience know what’s most important in your message. This can be done with heavier type weights, size, position on the page, etc.

Proximity – proximity means organizing content in a way that creates a relationship between items with a common theme. 

Repetition – with repetition comes consistency, and consistency helps you to build familiarity. Examples of repetition include repeated graphics, referring back to a single idea, ensuring all images are of a similar style, or placing elements in the same spot on every slide.

Space – as discussed in part one of this series, space gives content room to breathe and helps your audience to focus on a single topic, idea or point.

OK, so these design principles can seem like a lot to take in; graphic designers spend years learning how to best use the principles in their work. But by taking just one or two of these concepts and applying them to your content can really make a difference. For example:

Let’s say you have a picture, 3 graphics and a short text heading you want to include on a slide. A neat and simple way to present the content could be:

  • Place assets symmetrically on the page (balance)
  • Align edges and space assets evenly (alignment)
  • Center on the slide to provide focus (space)

In just a few clicks you’ve effortlessly applied 3 design principles.  

Graphic design secrets: grids

If you’ve ever played the board game ‘Battleships’, you’ll be familiar with what a grid does: it allows you to plot a number of fixed shapes (the ships) within a set area. As well as being a vital component of Battleships, grids are a vital tool for graphic designers. 

Grids make it easier to apply the design principles we discussed earlier. A grid allows you to take the content you have and fit it to the space you have, a bit like a jigsaw puzzle.  

Artists have been using grids for hundreds of years, but in the 20th Century, something called the Swiss-style rose to prominence. The Swiss style uses mathematical grids to aid design layout.

Almost every piece of graphic design will have some sort of a grid behind it; a presentation slide is a piece of design. Using a grid enables you to arrange objects neatly on a slide, in a way that appreciates the space you have. It enables you to apply design principles to your presentation

Grids: PowerPoint

If you’re using PowerPoint, it comes with a preset grid that you can just switch on; go to the ‘View’ menu and check the ‘Gridlines’ checkbox. 

You can adjust the grid settings in the fly out menu. For absolute accuracy, you can switch on ‘Snap objects to grid’ which will lock items in tightly to a gridline.

If you are feeling that the preset grid isn’t quite to your taste, you can use ‘Guides’ from the same menu and create a custom grid. To create more guides, grab a guideline while holding the Option key on Mac, or the Alt key on Windows.

Grids: Google Slides

Google Slides does not have a preset grid option, so you will need to create one for yourself. This can be done by selecting ‘Show Guides’ under ‘Guides’ in the ‘View’ menu. As with PowerPoint, to create more guides, grab a guideline while holding the Option key on Mac, or the Alt key on Windows. Helpfully, Google Slides will measure out the distance between guides for you, allowing you to space guides evenly.

Shapes and Graphics

Using graphic items such as shapes is an easy way to spice up a presentation and provide emphasis for points or ideas. But unless you’re an experienced designer, you’re best keeping it simple. 

My best advice for PowerPoint users is to steer clear of the PowerPoint preset shapes; they’re overused and don’t look great in 95% of situations. Stick to subtle shape styles:

  • Flat colour or very subtle gradients. 
  • If you’re going to use drop shadows, keep them very subtle and use sparingly.
  • Avoid the bevel, 3D rotation and reflection preset effects. They rarely look good, and in most situations look amateurish.
  • If you’re using multiple shapes, stick to one or two colours. Using multiple colours will be distracting and unpleasant to look at.

Using Color

In most presentation situations, it’s best to stick to your company’s brand colors when you need to use color. Your company’s brand colors have been professionally chosen to work well together. This takes the guesswork out of choosing colors and ensures your presentation looks ‘on brand’. 

If you’re not using a company brand color palette, restrict yourself to two colors (plus black). Decide on a color you want to use, and utilizing a tool such as Adobe Color, find a second color that works harmoniously with the color you selected. 

Using Fonts

When it comes to fonts, my advice is that it’s safest to work with a single font for your presentation. 

If you understand a little about how to mix typefaces, you can introduce two complementary typefaces. You can then use point size and weight (i.e. light, regular, bold, heavy etc.) to create emphasis and hierarchy  

You can find open source typefaces to use in your presentation over at Google Fonts, however, if this is a corporate presentation, stick to your company’s brand typeface. 

If you’re keen on the idea of matching typefaces, CreativeBloq have a good article here. If you spot something on Google Fonts you like, this site has many suggestions for matching typefaces.

There are many styles and sub-styles of typeface, but broadly these fall into: 

  • Serif
  • Sans Serif
  • Display/Decorative
  • Slab Serif
  • Script
  • Blackletter
  • Monospace
  • Handwriting

The main thing in a presentation situation is readability at a distance, so it’s safest to stick to serif and sans serif typefaces. Do not use decorative type for body text – it will be unreadable in most situations.

The next piece of advice is extremely important: do not use coloured type. While some coloured text might look good on your monitor it might be unreadable when projected. Yellow is particularly guilty of this. 

Images

As the old saying goes “a picture paints a thousand words”; in a presentation, an image is a powerful substitute for words. 

How you place images on to a slide can either enhance your message or make your slides look like a jumble of old photos in a shoebox. Some things to consider when placing images into your presentation:

  • When placing images on to a slide, think alignment – does it look neat and tidy in relation to other elements on the slide, or does it look out of place? 
  • Never be tempted to try to squeeze an image onto a slide “to fill a space”; it’s likely to look out of place or scruffy. 
  • Never distort an image to make it fit into a space; respect the image’s aspect ratio.
  • If you’re expanding an image to fill a whole slide, you will need a larger image or a high resolution image. For example, expanding a low resolution image with sized at 600 x 400, to 1200 x 800 with pixelate the image. When presented on a large screen or via a projector, the image will display very poorly. 

Image placement ideas:

A great feature in OpenAsset is the ability to drag images directly from OpenAsset in your browser window, into your presentation without having to store the images on your PC.

Charts

Keep charts simple – no 3D effects, no dropshadows and you should absolutely avoid using dozens of colours. You should look to avoid placing multiple charts on one slide; keep one chart per slide. The exception to this rule is where charts are related and it would help the audience to understand the data better. 

 

So if you’ve made it this far, you’ve actually had a crash course in graphic design. This all may seem like a lot to take in, but spending a little extra time on your presentation really can help you to create something to wow your clients or conference with. OpenAsset is full of features that make creating this sort of content easier; find out how with a demo of OpenAsset