PowerPoint Design in 2009: Develop visual thinking skills

This is the second post in the series guiding you through the 40 contributions to “PowerPoint Design in 2009″.  In the first post I explored the issue  “Does Design Matter?”.

And here are the links to the PowerPoint Design in 2009 resources:

  1. A list of all the blogposts  with a one or two sentence summary of each post.
  2. A list of all the blogposts with quotes from each post.
  3. The e-mail contributions that I received quoted in full. These are from Cliff Atkinson, Guy Kawasaki, Julie Terberg, Michael Alley, Nancy Duarte, Richard Mayer and Seth Godin.

There’ll be two more posts after this one:

  1. The design and presentation issues that virtually everyone agreed on.
  2. The most promising slide technology for 2009

In this post I’m going to explore the debate sparked by Laura Bergells when she questioned whether the shift to simple visual slides had gone too far. She asked whether there might be a middle ground between simple visual slides and bullet-point slides.

A number of people agreed that there are times when a simple sentence headline partnered with a “pretty picture” doesn’t quite seem up to the job.

Andrew Abela advocates that presenters should:

Use different presentation styles strategically, recognizing that different presentation situations call for different presentation styles.

Nancy Duarte recognises that technical presenters need something more:

Large photos and sparse text are getting quickly adopted which is great. But they only work for keynotes and marketing. So what about the physicians, scientists and engineers?

Dave Paradi is quite forceful:

And many of the new trends in presenting simply won’t cut it in most corporate settings.

And lastly, there was an insightful comment from Trevor Black on my last post:

I am more used to doing presentations in front of audiences of 10 plus, and have become a disciple of sorts of the Presentation Zen style. However, in my new work, I do more presentations around a board room table with the slides printed out rather than projected. On one slide I had what was a beautiful, serene photo of Japan. When I got to that page of the presentation, and being in a more ‘aggressive’ audience, I suddenly felt awkward. I didn’t like the feel that I was trying to wow them, I wanted to downplay the possible impression that something may be a gimmick.

Back to bullets?

So there’s definitely a view that some alternatives are needed. But what does this alternative look like? Is it back to bullets?

Brent Dykes:

Just because bullet points may be perceived as the duct tape of PowerPoint design (inelegant and ugly), it doesn’t mean bullet points aren’t effective in certain situations.

Christophe Harrer:

Not all slides have to be one sentence slides. There are tactical presentations where you can even use bulletpoints (but very few and only carefully).

I find it difficult to think of a presenting situation where bullets are the best solution (apart from when time is a constraint). Neither do I think that one or two bullet-point slides are fatal. It’s when you pile them up that they become, at first ineffective, and then positively harmful.

Visual thinking

Jan Schultink said:

Data visualization is still relatively virgin territory.

I agree. What we need is to develop our visual thinking skills.

What is visual thinking?

Imagine you’re having an informal discussion with someone. You’re explaining a concept and can’t seem to quite get it across – you grab a piece of paper (or the back of the napkin) and say “let me show you want I mean”. And you sketch out a pyramid to show a heirarchy, or a flowchart to show a process, or a venn diagram to show an overlap.

Visual thinking is a growing discipline which presenters need to become more aware of. Here are some resources to get you started if you’ve never heard of it before.

Data Visualization post from Smashing Magazine. Lots of different ideas here about how to visualize data. Many of them are too complex to put into a presentation, but it might spark an idea for you.

The Periodic Table of Visualization Methods This is an amazing piece of work. The author has arranged many, many different types of visualization and arranged them in the form of a periodic table. A must-visit site if you’re looking for ideas.

VizThink The home of the visual thinking online community. Many resources to explore here.

Dan Roam’s book The Back of the Napkin

Dave Gray’s blog Communication Nation

Just as the PresentationZen style has transformed slides for keynotes, visual thinking can transform slides for technical presentations and internal meetings.

Here are some ways you can easily incorporate visual thinking into your presentations.


The most common way of expressing visual thinking in PowerPoint is through diagrams. Here is an example from Michael Alley, Professor of Engineering Education, of how a diagram (in this case a flowchart) can replace bullets. Not only does it make for a more interesting slide, but the diagram also conveys relationships – information which was missing from the bullet-point slide.


Nancy Duarte and her team at Duarte Design create beautiful diagrams for technical talks. I showcased their work in my post The Top 7 PowerPoint Slide Designs.

seesaw-diagram1But you don’t have to be an expert designer to create diagrams. PowerPoint 2007 allows non-designers to create smart and effective diagrams using SmartArt. Andrew Abela says:

What I also wish for 2009 is that presenters will make more use of PowerPoint 2007′s SmartArt feature, which is I think the greatest contribution to presentation technology in years.


Andrew Abela also advocates the use of layouts. This means laying out your information on a slide in such a way that you get an immediate feel for the meaning of the slide. He calls this the “squint test”. Here are just two examples of such layouts:

andrew-abela-layout andrew-abela-layout2

There are great resources at Andrew’s blog The Extreme Presentation Method on layouts. I’ve also used a site called PowerFrameworks where you can buy layouts and diagrams at a relatively low cost, much like you can buy stock photos.

What do you think? Is visual thinking the next frontier for PowerPoint Design in 2009? Should presenters use more diagrams and layouts? Are there some things you can only do with bullets?

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  1. Hi Olivia

    A very timely post – which I missed when you first posted it – busy week!

    The comment that stood out for me was Nancy Duarte’s comment that the Presentation Zen style (photo/bit of text) of presentation is fine for marketing or keynote presentations, but that there is a need for guidelines for the slides for technical presentations.

    I’ve been thinking about this for the past 10 days or so.

    I’ve been thinking about what you’re discussing here – visual thinking – especially around what I’ve been calling (in my head and in conversation) as data visualisation. Not surprised that someone’s done some of this thinking already!

    Thanks for the list of resources for visual thinking and thanks for starting this whole debate off.

    I think you might have started a trend towards something actually useful.

    Good work! You’ve actually got the No PowerPoint guy to think about PowerPoint…

    • Hi Andrew, glad you got something from the post. I see myself as cross-fertilizing. There’s a huge visual thinking community out there that many professional presenters are not aware of. We need to start bringing some of those ideas across. Olivia


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