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effective powerpoint design

The Ten Commandments of Elegant and Effective PowerPoint Design

 1. Thou shalt know thy audience and context

Good design is good communication. PowerPoint is used in a variety of contexts and despite the rigid and inherently presumptuous title of this blog post, the specifics of how to follow these rules might change based on the purpose of the presentation. A keynote (TEDtalk-style) presentation should look different than a data report-type presentation, which look different than a powerpoint that serves as the basis for an eLearning module. "To what degree does this presentation need to stand on its own." That key question impacts many of my design decisions. In other words...will this PowerPoint file be emailed to anyone after the face-to-face presentation? If it is a one-time presentation than I would certainly make visual choices that follow the, "Less is More" value.

I've found most advice for improving PowerPoint presentation skill speaks to the inspiration/keynote-type of presentation. There's a lot of talk about trading your tables and bullets for more stories and visual narrative. I can hear you say..."That's well and good, but for some PowerPoint presentations, tables and text content are going to be a reality." We might not win any creativity awards for the Data Report-type presentations, but following the rules below should help even a non-designer begin to asses every type of presentation with the eye of a designer.

2. Thou shalt use animation in moderation.

Visual Design

Subtle transitions between slides are nice. A medium or slow fade between slides is classier than just an abrupt slide transition. But more animation is not proportional to a better design. Use animation in moderation. There are a ton of animation options on PowerPoint. To keep it safe and classy, just stick with fade-in and fade-out.

3. Thou shalt be font aware

Font choice can be a big limitation when trying to give a presentation a unique look and feel. This goes back to the context/situation. I have a ton of fonts on my computer. I asked for and received fonts for my birthday, (thanks family!)....that's who I am. But chances are, if I'm designing for a client or someone else on my team--I can't count on them having the same font. There is no embedding fonts on PowerPoint for Mac, so I often just sigh and stick with Calibri, Arial, or other standards and try to make the best of it.

(And, it should go without saying -- don't under any circumstance, use comic sans or papyrus).

Elegant PowerPoint


4. Thou shalt divide thy sections

Creating unique, full page section dividers provides an opportunity to take a visual break from content heavy slides and allows for more dynamic images and graphics. This is not only an opportunity to create visual interest, but also very helpful for the viewer/learner to stop and make a mental category for the upcoming content.

Annoying Powerpoint Design

5. Thou shalt honor unity above creativity

Being creative and original is fine, but if you try to approach each slide as an individual canvas - you're doing it wrong. Unity trumps creativity. Unity strengthens a deck design beyond the sum of it's parts. Simple graphics become more compelling if they fit into clean, consistent unified whole.

unity in powerpoint design

6. Thou shalt not steal images

Professional presentations don't have grainy images snagged from a 20-second Google search. If you create PowerPoint presentations frequently; start to build a library of sharp, re-usable, high-quality stock images. If you have a tiny budget for image resources check out dollarphotoclub.com. It's a better value then all of the big stock photo sites. (I promise this is not a sponsored post - my only incentive is your happiness). If you have no budget for image resources, check out this post on free graphic resources.

effective powerpoint


7. Thou shalt be consistent with thy images

A common wince-inducer for me is when a photograph is combined with a clip art icon on the same slide. This is rarely a good choice.

If you struggle with this transgression, no need for confession--just head over to thenounproject.com. Their library is huge. It's only $2 per file. Or free...if you pinky swear to credit the designer.

Here is an example of how a simple set of similar-looking icons can be elegant and effective in PowerPoint design:
Beautiful PowerPoint design

Imagine if one of these was a photograph, one was a color clip art and one was a flat, minimal black icon. It would still be communicating the same thing -- just without the elegance of unity.


8. Thou shalt pay attention to color details

Pick one or two very specific colors to work from. Usually this an easy choice based on brand guidelines. Be bold with the use of that one main color and use your secondary colors to create visual and conceptual contrast. This again relates to creating an overall sense of visual identity and unity.
Original Powerpoint Design


9. Thou shalt make a good first impression

Title slides are a chance to set the tone. First impressions are important. You don't want the viewer's first thought be: "...(yawn)...Another boring, ugly PowerPoint." A unique and creative first slide can grab the audiences attention and it also helps to establish the unifying visual style of the deck. 

Classy PowerPoint Design


10. Thou shalt keep it simple

We've all seen those presentations, the ones where the presenter tried to fit as many words on a slide as possible. They turn the slides into note-cards to speak from instead of using PowerPoint as a visual tool to communicate ideas. There are a couple rules I try to follow when it comes to text. If you are going to use a slide entirely for text, try never to include more than 39 words on a slide and no more than 7 lines per slide.

Use the text on the slides for those ideas or benefits you really want to emphasis and for the audience to remember.

Visual Design That Works

eLearning PowerPoint Design

Try to keep content at a minimum on each slide. White space is your friend -- let the text and images breathe on the slides.

Don't use gimmicky effects like reflection or faded edges on images. White background images allow you to push an image all the way off the edge that can create interesting, though simple, layouts. (see above)

Always err on the side of simple.


We hope you take some or even better yet, take all these commandments for designing and setting up your next PowerPoint. Just utilizing a couple of these design principles can boost your presentations and your audience will be pleased.

elearning style guide checklist