PowerPoint hasn’t historically enjoyed the best reputation as a design tool, as we’ve previously noted. Not so anymore. PowerPoint has picked itself up by the bootstraps and is standing tall, seen in a much more favorable light by designers.
However, like it or loathe it, PowerPoint has always been capable of objectively good graphic design. In this series, we’re going to take a whistle-stop tour of some graphic design basics, for you to keep in mind next time you’re putting together a slide.
Design Is Just Making Things Look Nice, Right?
Graphic design is still seen as something of a dark art by the general public. Over the past two decades it’s become the chosen career path for millennials who need to “express their unique, creative self in a world gone mad” but also need to “make money to buy food.”
But for the most part, if you ask the average passerby how they define graphic design, they might say something along the lines of, “oh, you know, posters, logos, making things look nice.”
It’s understandable, I suppose. The design community itself (we meet every other Tuesday in that pay-what-you-want café downtown) will never agree on a set-in-stone definition of a discipline that is part precision tool, part creative art form.
There are, however, fundamentals that can objectively be called ‘good design’.
Learning how to employ these building blocks is the start of understanding design. Once you’re aware of them, you’ll begin noticing them everywhere.
That includes PowerPoint presentations.
PowerPoint? Come on, My Audience Won’t Care!
“If you remember the shape of your spoon at lunch, it has to be the wrong shape. The spoon and the letter are tools; one to take food from the bowl, the other to take information off the page. When it is a good design, the reader has to feel comfortable because the letter is both banal and beautiful.”
Adrian Frutiger, typeface designer
Okay, so Frutiger might have been a bit verbose here, but he nails the point: If you do it right they won’t care, they won’t even notice. Do it wrong, and they’ll switch off before you’ve finished saying “we’re kind of a big deal…”
Ever since our ancestors started recording their histories on cave walls, the purpose of graphic design has been to convey information to others. It exists to impart stories, knowledge, ideas and arguments in an effective way…
…not a million miles away from your presentation’s aim of imparting stories, knowledge, ideas and arguments in an effective way.
Good PowerPoint design is good design, so let’s dive in with the basics
Number One: Balance
Balance comes in a few different flavors, but they’re all essentially about making sure the elements on your slide are distributed with equal weight. This can be a straightforward symmetrical balance or a more asymmetrical distribution.
Speaking in terms of weight is common when talking about balance. It may help to think of the slide as being laid out on your desk, with a pin acting as central pivot point. Ideally, the slide should be able to balance on the pin on all plains, and easily spin. This is only a rough guideline, and doesn’t account for titles or logos, but should help you avoid overloading any one area of the slide.
Number Two: Proximity
Using proximity in your design takes advantage of the brain’s natural tendency to see groups. As those of you who have attended Chainsaw’s training courses already know, the brain has evolved to analyse the world through groups or ‘chunks’. Because of this, your brain infers an association between anything that looks like it might be in a group.
When you saw the above image, your brain probably assumed that each of the groups (6, 6 and 9) is likely to be made up of related objects. This tendency can be extremely useful when showing movement between groups, or when you need to break down a large group into its component parts.
Number Three: Movement
The foundations of this principle are based on adding a dynamic feel and flow to your print design, leading the reader’s eye around the piece as you intended. This is often done with ribbons, scale and typography.
With PowerPoint we can interpret this more directly, and use engaging animations to shepherd our audience around the slide. A simple series of animations can help the presenter direct their audience’s attention, and control the rate at which their content is displayed .
Number Four: Alignment
Alignment is probably the area of design you’re most familiar with, even if you don’t realize it. For the most part, you can tell when things that are meant to be aligned are a bit off .
However, alignment can also be used to connect objects across a slide, as the brain naturally makes a connection between objects that are aligned on the screen. This is especially useful when having to connect elements in separate groups.
As with any set of rules, this one can be broken. You can intentionally place things out of alignment, but it must serve a functional purpose in the context of your design, for example making something stand out as different. Otherwise, it will just look like a mistake.
This article is the first in a three-part series on graphic design in PowerPoint. Subscribe here so you don’t miss an installment.