PowerPoint slide design – the basics

by Olivia Mitchell

I am not a designer. I was awakened to the possibility of improving the design of my PowerPoint slides by the Presentation Zen blog. Since then I have observed and analyzed examples of good design, even read some design books – and of course read the Presentation Zen book.

These design tips are not for bullet-point slides. I’m assuming you’re beyond that (if not start reading Presentation Zen).

These design tips are for the Assertion-Evidence format – this is gaining ground as the brain-friendly yet easy to put together alternative to bullets. The assertion-evidence slide format was developed by Professor Michael Alley. At the top of the slide is the assertion – a simple sentence which expresses the message of the slide. The rest of the slide is the evidence to support that assertion – expressed in a visual way. Ellen Finkelstein calls it the Tell ‘n’ Show slide format. Dave Paradi is using the format for his excellent slide make-overs.

This post will cover the basics – in the next post I’ll explore how to add some elegance.

1. Use a neutral background – either dark or white. You can add interest to the background by adding a gentle gradient or other subtle effect. Gentle and subtle are the key words here. Most PowerPoint templates are too busy to work well with graphics.

2. For any text, use a sans serif font such as arial or verdana. Choose a contrasting colour to the background.


3. Make photos fill the whole of the slide.

small-photo full-photo

4. Use good quality photos without clutter. I use istockphoto as my first port-of-call when I’m looking for photos as I can be sure that they will look good and it’s fast. If you search for “sparkler” on istockphoto, the first page brings up many good quality photos. The same search on the flickr creative commons page only turned up one photo that I might use – and it’s not quite as good as the one above. John Windsor has an excellent post on ensuring your images are relevant. See also this post from Presentation Revolution. Research on e-learning by Richard Mayer has shown that images which are there simply to provide some light relief actually harm learning.

In the next post, I’ll look at how you can add some elegance.

Other resources

Ellen Finkelstein’s post on 5 steps to slide design for non-designers

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Michele May 19, 2009 at 9:56 pm

Love your insight! I’m struggling with my powerpoint background design printing. There is always a white border around the pages when I print (my designs bleed to the edge). I want to bleed to print. Any suggestions?


Olivia Mitchell May 20, 2009 at 9:29 am

Hi Michele
I’m not at all an expert in this area – but I know that my printer is not physically capable of printing to the edges. Maybe that’s the problem. Olivia


Carmen Nge March 24, 2011 at 12:57 pm

Hi Olivia,

I stumbled upon your website while doing searches on Malcolm Gladwell, who is my hero! But as a lecturer in a university in Malaysia, who struggles with trying to design the best slides for class lectures, I must say you are now my new hero!

Your insights are so helpful, so clear and so applicable to what I do. Thank you so much for all the amazing information and I am definitely sharing your site with all my colleagues too. I am sure it will improving our teaching.

Have a wonderful day and thank you so much.


Olivia Mitchell March 25, 2011 at 9:57 am

Hi Carmen
Thank you so much for your lovely comments and go well with your teaching.


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