In the first installment of this series, we highlighted how being aware of the principles of good design can help you build better presentations. Good design doesn’t begin with a few hundred dollars in software—and great design doesn’t end there.

The foundations of great design are far older than Adobe or Microsoft and planted firmly in our need for effective communication. Because of this, you can use some of the basic principles of design to produce objectively better slides.

We previously discussed how making conscious decisions about the balance, proximity, alignment and movement of elements on a slide can help you better communicate your message. In this post, we continue to demonstrate a few more points that might be helpful to keep in mind, next time you’re next staring at a blank slide at 1am. (N.B. this should never have to happen – get in touch with us first!)

Number Five: Repetition

Using repetition in your design is a natural thing to do, largely because we like things to look tidy. On a basic level, repetition can be safely interpreted as being consistent, from branding on a company level to making sure you use the same shapes, colors, fonts and animation throughout your presentation.

A consistent style prevents you from distracting the audience by asking them to re-learn what things look like on every slide. For example, Figure A: Recognising the style of titles, body text and the purple circle that we used to demonstrate the principles in our previous article helped to build a standard, through repetition.


Figure A

Repetition is also important in the way that you use it to represent connections between elements. Similar to proximity (discussed in part 1 of the series), the brain will attach associations to elements with matching visual ingredients – colour, shape, line weight, and so forth. For example, in figure B (below) the brain will reach the assumption that the three purple circles are related to each other, as are the three red circles. It will also infer that the two groups are somehow different from one another.


Figure B

Making intentional decisions on which elements of your design to repeat helps to tie your design together, and shows the level of thought you’re putting into making your message understood.

Number Six: Contrast & Unity

Contrast and unity are two key factors in adding visual appeal and direction to a slide. Together, they aid in legibility and help differentiate between ideas and groups.

Contrast creates a tension between elements and adds a dynamic quality to the slide. The human eye likes contrast; it gets bored and wanders unless it is constantly entertained.

In Figure C, below, (aside from the legibility issues you might run into) the elements on the left, which are low in contrast against the background, would be overshadowed by the high-contrast elements on the right.

This can be great if you want to direct the audience’s focus from left to the elements on the right. But, if you unintentionally design this way, it could end up being counterproductive and confusing for the audience.

Figure C

Contrast can come in a variety of guises (Figure D), all useful in helping you differentiate between points.


Figure D

The flipside of this is unity, which is the intentional grouping of objects by a number of methods, such as the principles of proximity, repetition and alignment. These imply an association between elements.

Number Seven: Space

Space, the final principle (Lame? Probably. Sorry? Not even slightly).

Space as a design principle comes for consideration in two flavors:

Positive space
: The space taken up by an element.
Negative or white space: the space not taken up by an element.

Why are we bothered about where something isn’t? The area between elements is vital for easy comprehension, and is extremely important when designing slides. If you leave too little negative space, the slide becomes overwhelming, and the audience gets confused and switches off.

In figure E, below, we’re only a few circles away from having a completely purple slide. Are we even showing circles here? Or are these white stars on a purple background?

Figure E

While negative space is undeniably important in helping the brain identify shapes, in practical terms it is most important on a slide simply because you don’t want to overload the audience. You want to leave space for the elements to “breath,” to move.

It’s tempting to try to fit every last character of information on the slide you’re designing. Your audience needs to know it all, right? So there has to be a box on the slide for absolutely everything.

Tempting, yes—but avoid this at all costs. It’s the kiss of death for your presentation.

As we teach in our (really rather fun) training sessions, the brain simply can’t handle that much information at once. After a while it disengages completely. This is true even with a relatively simple subject. If the visual is overwhelming, the cognitive doormen of your audience’s attention span will simply look at your shoes and replace the red velvet rope.

Instead, be mindful about what you’re really trying to say with the slide. Use the space intelligently to support your message. (See also proximity and alignment.)

Also remember that, although a presentation is a two-dimensional medium, you can always use a couple of advanced tricks to dive into the third. This can be extremely effective in adding a spark to your slide deck while also supporting your message. Which is, after all, the core of good design.