PowerPoint Slide Design: Does Design Matter?

by Olivia Mitchell

I asked a number of number of experts on powerpoint slide design for their thoughts on whether design matters. There were definite opposing view points.

PowerPoint slide design doesn’t matter

Andrew Lightheart:

In terms of impact, slides have as much impact as the the fonts and the layout of a document.

Dave Paradi believes that the vast majority of people who deliver presentations “don’t have time for elaborate design”:

They look at the design folks and conclude correctly that a design-focused approach just won’t work in their world.

Joey Asher

[Powerpoint] is largely irrelevant to whether you accomplish your goals. That’s because PowerPoint and other visuals, now matter how graphically pleasing, don’t inspire audiences, sell ideas, or win business….slides don’t grow businesses. Connecting with audiences and colleagues and business partners and customers is what grows businesses.

PowerPoint slide design does matter

In the other camp are Ellen Finkelstein:

I’d like presenters in 2009 to know that design is important. Good design provides a professional, custom look that says that the presenter cared enough about the audience to do more than slap on a default background.

Julie Terberg (email contribution):

I’d like to see many more companies give presentations as much effort and consideration as they do their annual reports, corporate web sites, and other marketing materials.

Nancy Duarte (email contribution):

Corporations that flush bad PowerPoint and design their stories well will see their stock price increase.

My view is that we need to make a distinction between two different types of design and two different presentation situations.

Two different types of design

The first type is generally called instructional design. Instructional design follows the principles that have been proven to contribute to effective learning.

The second type is graphic design.

venn3Most of the time effective instructional design and pleasing graphic design will overlap – but not always. You can have ugly but effective slides. And you can have stunning slides with zero value for learning. I believe that instructional design matters all of the time. PowerPoint presentations will only be effective if they are designed according to learning principles. 

Jennifer Kammeyer says:

My recently completed thesis research showed that audiences learn more when presented with multimedia PowerPoint that follows Dr. Mayer’s multimedia learning principles.

Check out Jennifer’s post for an excellent summary of the learning research that can be applied to PowerPoint.

This is good news for those of us who are less aesthetically-gifted. You can produce effective PowerPoint slides by following the learning principles proven by research. I’ll expand on these principles in the third post in this series.

But I think the debate that I outlined above is about the importance of graphic design. I don’t think that Andrew Lightheart, Dave Paradi or Joey Asher would dispute that learning principles are important.

Two different presenting situations

In my view, the importance of graphic design depends on the presenting situation.

For internal presentations  – within your own team or your own organization -  graphic design is a luxury, not a necessity.

But for external presentations, I agree with the graphic design advocates. Look and feel matters when you’re presenting externally whether you’re pitching or speaking at a conference. People make it mean something about you and your organization. I agree with Joey Asher that the personal connection is what wins business. But if you’ve got two companies pitching – and they both meet all the criteria, both connect with the client, the one with the superior look and feel will prevail.

What are your thoughts? Continue the debate in the comments.

Note:

This post is part of a group writing project I ran in 2009. Here are all the contributions:

  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.

And here are the other posts:

  1. Simplicity versus detail in powerpoint slide design.
  2. The design and presentation issues that virtually everyone agreed on.
  3. The most promising slide technology for 2009.
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{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

Jan Schultink January 13, 2009 at 5:00 pm

Great initiative Olivia!

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Bert Decker January 13, 2009 at 5:12 pm

Wow, lot of work, for a good cause. You will be helping the PowerPoint revolution in 2009 Olivia. Although there are some differences, there is general agreement among the professionals. The challenge is bringing around those who use PowerPoints in the routine way. Maybe it WILL happen this year.
Great job on this.
Bert

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Andrew January 13, 2009 at 5:14 pm

Thanks for organizing this, Olivia.

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John Windsor January 13, 2009 at 6:26 pm

Wow. Impressive work, Olivia! Congrats, and thanks for doing this.

Regards,
John

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Simon Raybould January 13, 2009 at 8:08 pm

I’ve not had time to read everything everyone’s written yet (obviously) and I’m on the road for a few days so I won’t read anything much until the weekend… but since when has not knowing what I’m talking about ever stopped me contributing!?!?! :)

Maybe there’s common ground between the two ‘camps’ of design matters and design doesn’t matter and that it’s this….

Design matters until it gets to the point of the slide being “good enough” for the design to (at the very least) not get in the way of the learning the slide is aimed at. After that point, deminishing marginal returns set it and slides head towards the point of ‘un-necessarily pretty’ and then ultimately ‘pointlessly pretty’.

For example – a slide of bullet points (no design whatsover) won’t work. Once the ideas have been worked on and the slide’s concept has been captured visually it works better. It works well enough. Beyond that, of course one can design a slide which makes you a cup of tea, massages your head and phones your spouse but it doesn’t actually mean you learn anything more from it….

Okay, I’ve not expressed that very well and there are lots of ifs, buts and maybes to be unpacked but you probably get the idea.

Simon

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Simon Raybould January 13, 2009 at 8:11 pm

PS: A hasty (and probably ill thought out) analogy…

Badly design (or un-designed) slides are pretty much like crawling or staggering. If you design them enough they become like walking or running – they get you where you need to go quickly and cleanly.

Then you can ‘hyper-design’ your slides and end up with ballet. It looks fantastic but doesn’t necessarily get you anywhere. :)

S

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Olivia Mitchell January 14, 2009 at 5:41 am

and I like your analogy too. Although that also depends on your views of ballet!

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Olivia Mitchell January 14, 2009 at 5:40 am

Hi Simon

I think you’ve expressed it well. And I guess the point at which the design becomes “good enough” also depends on your audience. If you audience is typically not very design conscious, say a group of accountants, then it probably comes sooner.

Olivia

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Scott Schwertly January 14, 2009 at 2:29 am

This is great stuff, Olivia! Thanks for putting this all together. I look forward to your future posts.

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Tony Ramos January 14, 2009 at 2:46 am

Terrific stuff here, one and all.

What’s true for iPod is true for PPT. Good design says, a) I have thought about your needs, and, b) I am meeting or exceeding them with ease and joy.

Good design is smart and kind. Let’s resolve to be both.

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Olivia Mitchell January 14, 2009 at 5:45 am

Welcome Tony

Good point. As the everyday objects around us become better designed, so will our expectations for design in PowerPoint. Thank you for contributing to the debate.

Olivia

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Milind Paranjape January 14, 2009 at 4:39 am

I think for internal presentations also one should think about design. It’s the design process which will raise certain questions and discussions around ideas, data you want to present. Even if it’s incomplete design due to whatever constraint, starting with that mindset is important for that good discussion, worth it.

Your blog is great, I did not know about it till now. Now I know thank you for sharing your work with all of us.

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Olivia Mitchell January 14, 2009 at 5:50 am

Welcome to the site Milind

It makes me realise that for those of us who are not naturally design-minded it only take a couple of hours reading a design book to start making a difference to the way our slides look. Sure, producing excellent design is a lifetime endeavour – but you can get some quick wins once you know some basic principles.

Olivia

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Trevor Black January 14, 2009 at 5:29 am

One of the problems with a focus on design is that it gives the impression that you are doing ‘Marketing’. Not that marketing is bad in the Seth Godin style, but there are a number of organisations who don’t want to give the impression of being slick and well designed BECAUSE that is more effective.

What I mean, is that there is a school of thought that if something looks like it has had a lot of thought going into being compelling, the audience think they are being manipulated. Whereas, if the slides are ‘ugly’ and badly presented, the audience is forgiving and thinks… well, at least they aren’t trying to hide anything.

I strongly disagree with this point of view but have been taken by it, or concerned that I am giving that impression in my own work. 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 and possible impression that something may be a gimmick.

Marketing is being reinvented by people such as Seth Godin, but there is still a distinct lack of trust in anything that appears to be manipulative.

Design in my opinion matters where it brings the message across in an honest way. Design matters when it adds to the message. But until marketers are trusted again, and seen as leaders rather than manipulaters… design can sometimes create mistrust.

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Olivia Mitchell January 14, 2009 at 5:54 am

Hi Trevor

Fascinating insight – thank you for sharing your experience – I can relate to it. As a presentation trainer, I coach people to be authentic in front of an audience. Not to be too slick and perfect – because as you say, people don’t trust slick. Thank you for your contribution.

Olivia

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Carolyn January 14, 2009 at 3:34 pm

I think your new work situation warrants a slightly different tool, like a well-designed document (vs. the slideument that I believe the PZ book mentions). Nothing bugs me more than having to squint to read text on those handouts with 2-3 slides/page; even with one slide per page, my thoughts then run along the lines of, “Well, why did this person waste so much paper? A document with a brief summary of the issues would have been adequate.”

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Jeff Bailey January 14, 2009 at 6:28 am

The problem that I have with the focus on slide design is that it masks the real problem: many folks just don’t know how to present. I think that is the real issue to work on in 2009. When people really learn how to present the slide situation may handle itself.

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Olivia Mitchell January 14, 2009 at 8:18 am

And here’s the link to Jeff’s post where he elaborates on this point.

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Wayne Botha January 14, 2009 at 10:55 am

I agree with Jeff. Most presentations include text-laden, insomnia curing slides because the presenters do not know how to present. Even when giving great slides, these presenters will still bore an audience and the slides only draw attention to lack of presentation skills.

However, if necessary, a dynamic speaker can drastically improve a set of poor slides by elaborating on the key points and skipping over the text-laden slides.

If we can increase the level of presentation skills, then we will have less focus on the slides and slides will take the appropriate servient role to the masterful present.

The best place to improve presentation skills for a modest budget is at your local Toastmasters International Club.

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Olivia Mitchell January 16, 2009 at 8:58 am

Another option is not to show the bullet-heavy slides at all. Simply have them on your laptop in front of you to cue you – after all that’s what they were designed for.

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Carolyn January 14, 2009 at 3:40 pm

I remember reading in Jerry Weissman’s book “Presenting to Win” the concept of getting your story down pat first. Once you’re comfortable with the content, a lot of the delivery issues fade since they were mostly due to nervousness and unfamiliarity with the topic. I tried this with my classes and noticed a huge difference in delivery between a first and second rehearsal. So, instead of trying to point out weakness in presentation skills on a first pass, I focused more on refining content — and voila. Like that old saying goes, “Know Your Subject.”

I took a slide:ology seminar last year and we never touched the computer all day. It all boils down to the basics: analyze your audience, determine your main point, build your story. Then head over to the computer and start slide development.

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Olivia Mitchell January 16, 2009 at 8:54 am

Garr Reynolds (PresentationZen), Nancy Duarte (Slideology) and many of the other contributors also emphasis “Content first”. I’ll explore that more in the third post in this series. Olivia

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Lisa Braithwaite January 14, 2009 at 7:04 am

Olivia, I’m blown away by the effort and analysis you put into this project. Can’t wait to read through it all!

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Wayne Botha January 14, 2009 at 10:59 am

Olivia,

Outstanding job on initiating, coordinating and correllating this study. YOu have created a fabulous collection of the greatest minds of our time on the use of PowerPoint.

I am very impressed at the effort you put into this. I can’t wait to read all the information.

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Robert Lane January 14, 2009 at 6:25 pm

Thanks Olivia

Mayer’s multimedia principles, although certainly important and worthy of consideration among presentation professionals, are yet utterly unproven in a live presentation context, with exception of a small, recent (2008) study that touched on a tiny aspect of slide design. The effects of PowerPoint presentation on audiences, aside from a handful of isolated studies over the past 20 years, are pretty much unknown. Amazingly, this is a gaping hole in cognitive psychology research. We who claim to be presentation professionals have our opinions on the effects of design…and essentially they are little more than that. Greetings to fellow colleagues out there…

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Olivia Mitchell January 16, 2009 at 8:48 am

Hi Robert, yes the paucity of research directly on PowerPoint is amazing given the prevalence of PowerPoint presentations in the business world. Olivia

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Alessandra January 14, 2009 at 11:30 pm

the majority of presentations out there are still dense bullet lists and the majority of presenters don’t know that it does not have to be that way, it just has been that way for a long time. Change is hard, but good presentations are a relief!

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Olivia Mitchell January 16, 2009 at 8:46 am

Hi Alessandra – yes there’s still a long way to go. But we can change the presentation world – one presentation at a time! Olivia

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Travis Dahle January 15, 2009 at 3:36 am

Love the work Olivia, quite an undertaking.

While I do think that design does matter, I’m afraid that people are putting too big of an emphasis on it instead of focusing on their message. Like Trevor Black said, people start to feel manipulated. But I’m not even worried about that. If people are so focused on wowing people with the design, they can lose what their message is. Commercials are a great example of this. I will sometimes see a great commercial…but have no idea what they were trying to sell. If too much focus goes onto what is on the slides instead of the message, it can lead to disaster for that presenter.

Again, great work!

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Olivia Mitchell January 16, 2009 at 8:45 am

Great point Travis. A number of the contributors to this project also emphasise the importance of the message. Your analogy to commercials is particularly apt. Olivia

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George Torok January 15, 2009 at 4:47 am

Olivia,

Congrats on your work in pulling this project together.

Asking the question, “Does design matter?” is like asking the question, “Does what you wear matter?”

The answer is of course. The more important question, “How do you best match the design to your purpose?” And the clairifing question is, “What do people believe that “design” means?”

Outside of the world of art – the best design always follows function.

Or, what job are you trying to accomplish, which tool(s) will help you do that and what level of resource investement will get you the best return?

George Torok

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Olivia Mitchell January 16, 2009 at 8:43 am

George, thank you for your thought-provoking questions. Your statement “the best design always follows function” is interesting. Bullet-point slides are an example of that – the function they are fulfilling is speaker notes – and they’re good for that. The problem is that people who create bullet-point slides have forgotten that the function should be to provide a visual channel to the audience. If they realised that was the function, their slides would improve. Olivia

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Ranelle Maltas February 20, 2009 at 3:21 am

Thanks for the summary. I like to see the short version without sorting thru all the talk. My favorite bit of advice I ever got when creating a presentation was to look at each slide as a blank canvas and design each one to fit the point of that particular slide and not the presentation as a whole. Great way to avoid the overall design template.

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