Using Industry Best Practices to Design Better Visuals
Even though presentations have been created millions of times since PowerPoint’s initial release in 1990, the presentation industry is much younger. It took many years before some people developed better expertise in terms of what works for the audience and the presenter. Since research on the specific topic of presentations with the help of PowerPoint also had a slow start, we mostly had to use trial and error for a while.
Luckily, the presentation industry has matured, and we now have reliable experts helping us define best practices. Also, the Presentation Guild, an organization created by industry experts in 2015, has established professional presentation standards generally accepted by the industry. They guide presentation craftspeople in nine categories: audio-visual, branding, color, data visualization, functionality, images, layout, motion, and typography (see the Further reading section at the end of the chapter).
Of course, today’s best practices are also influenced by the requirements of making presentations more accessible to people with disabilities. When you are the person in charge of planning and creating all your presentations without any formal design training or a lot of knowledge of what makes content accessible, it can become challenging and stressful.
This is why I have included this chapter before diving into all the content creation and delivery features in the next chapters and sections. I want to help any business professional that wants to create better presentations. The goal of this chapter is not to help you become an expert presentation designer. It’s mostly designed to help regular businesspeople apply some basic best practices so they can create better visuals and more professional-looking presentations. Even if you don’t have a lot of time, you will be able to review your slides according to the topics shared in the five sections of this chapter:
- Choosing fonts
- Using the right font size
- Learning about contrast
- Decluttering your slide contents
- Standardizing the look and feel of your slides
Font choices have evolved very much throughout the years. For those who have been working in Microsoft Office for a long time, I’m sure you remember Arial and Times New Roman! Those fonts have been around for such a long time that users started using anything else that felt new, pretty, or funky just because they were bored. This was not always in the best interest of their audience, I must say. When creating your content, you need to make sure your fonts are readable by audience members wherever they are sitting in a venue, or regardless of whatever device they are using to watch your presentation.
Before diving into the basics, let’s clarify a few terms used by the professionals in the industry:
- Typography: How letters and text are arranged so it is visually appealing.
- Font: This usually refers to the various weights, widths, and styles found in a typeface. An example would be Bold or Italics.
- Typeface: This is a design style for a family of related fonts. As an example, Arial is a typeface constituted of many fonts such as Arial Black and Arial Narrow.
Since this book’s goal is to help regular business users without a formal design background, I will mostly be using the word font from now on. After all, most presentation creators will refer to fonts, not typefaces.
Which font category should you use?
If you have scrolled down the list of fonts available in PowerPoint, you have probably noticed there are many to choose from, especially if you are using PowerPoint in Microsoft 365. Here are four common categories you will find in that list, all of which you can see a representation of in Figure 2.1:
- Serif: This font category was first used for print; it is characterized by small lines that extend the letters (serifs). The width of the line for each letter usually varies.
- Sans Serif: As the name implies, there are no extended lines and usually the width of the line will be the same for all letters.
- Decorative: Again, the name describes this category. These fonts use embellished and stylized letters.
- Script: This is designed to look like cursive handwriting.
Figure 2.1 – Common font categories in PowerPoint
Font experts might say that there are other categories. Again, for the sake of keeping this book relevant for businesspeople, I have kept the previous list very simple so that it is easier to decide which fonts you should use for your next presentation.
Now that you have learned about four font categories, let’s discuss which ones should be used. When Serif fonts were introduced for print, they were considered easier to read because of their serifs. More research has been done on readability and it seems people suffering from different visual disabilities, such as dyslexia, might have more difficulty reading Serif fonts. This is one reason why Sans Serif fonts have become more popular, another being that this category of font also seems to be easier to read for content that is presented on screens.
When creating your presentations, try to use Sans Serif fonts most of the time. If you must use a corporate template that includes only Serif fonts, try to limit the text you are using and, as will be discussed in the next section, use a larger font size so your text is easily readable. If your corporate template uses a Serif and a Sans Serif font, try to use the Sans Serif for body text.
If you feel you must use a Decorative or Script font to convey a particular mood or emotion, try to use them only for a few keywords, not full sentences. This is the only way you will be able to assure your text is easily readable.
Font compatibility issues
Through the years, many users have encountered presentation formatting problems when delivering their presentations from other computers. Most of the time, those issues were caused by using fonts that were not present in all versions of PowerPoint. This led my friend and colleague Julie Terberg, from Terberg Design, to publish extensively about safe fonts (see the Further reading section for links). This term essentially means that if you want to make sure your presentations will look good on other computers using other PowerPoint versions or operating systems, you need to stick to a short list of fonts that can be embedded or are present in older versions. However, embedded fonts are not recognized in Office for Mac for versions 2008 and 2011.
Luckily for users, the introduction of cloud fonts in Microsoft 365 (M365) made everyone’s life easier. Yes, this does mean that only users with an M365 subscription will be able to choose and insert cloud fonts, which are represented by a small cloud icon with an arrow in the font drop-down list (see Figure 2.2):
Figure 2.2 – Cloud fonts are identified with a cloud icon
But since cloud fonts can be embedded, your presentation can be viewed in the newer standalone versions of PowerPoint (versions 2019 and 2021) without any problem. There are many more details you should be aware of if you often create presentations that use various styles of fonts. Since this book’s goal is not to discuss fonts extensively, I encourage you to visit Julie Terberg’s post about cloud fonts mentioned in the Further reading section. There is also a frequently updated PDF guide in the article listing cloud fonts with their visual representation and discussing whether they are a good choice for body fonts.
Checklist to help you review font choices
I know that discussing font styles and compatibility might not be helpful enough to feel comfortable choosing fonts for your next presentation. Therefore, I’ll share with you a short checklist you can use to review your font choices:
- Avoid stylized and hard-to-read fonts for your titles and content text.
- Use a maximum of two font styles in your presentation. It will make your content more consistent. For example, use one style for titles and another for content.
- Check for potential font compatibility issues, especially if you are creating a presentation for someone else, or if the presentation will be shown from various computers.
- Avoid using title casing in your titles. You should use sentence casing instead.
- Using uppercase everywhere will be more difficult to read. Keep uppercase lettering for when you have fewer words to read.
- Use bold for emphasis only.
- Use italics moderately; my personal choice is to avoid it altogether. Italicized letters don’t show as well in presentations and make your content harder to read.
Now that you know more about font styles and how to choose more appropriately, we can proceed with how font size needs to be considered to make your presentations easier to read and make them more impactful.
Using the right font size
When PowerPoint presentations became more common in board rooms and events, we often heard people complaining about having trouble reading text because it was too small. That also highlighted another problem: having too much text on slides! That problem arises because many presenters fear forgetting what they have to say. That is why we have Chapter 12, Using Presenter View, and Chapter 13, Using PowerPoint Live in Microsoft Teams. You won’t have an excuse for putting all your text on your slides ever again.
But back to our font size topic. When you present, your main goal should be that your audience can grasp quickly what is on screen so they can focus their attention back on you quickly. Human beings relate to other human beings, not words written on slides. That is why font size matters. Asking an audience to read your slides in a large venue does not require the same font size as when you are presenting in a boardroom or online.
Selecting the right font size has created many debates through the years. But in the end, the goal should always be to make it as easy as possible for everyone attending your presentation to read whatever text you have on your slides. My personal rule of thumb, whether I’m creating slides for someone else or myself, is as follows:
- Titles: Between 32 and 44 points
- Content: Between 28 and 32 points
I find these ranges adapt well to most presentation needs, even if I usually adapt sizes during my delivery practice in a venue or a virtual test run. If you present mostly in large venues and meeting rooms, I suggest you have a look at my friend Dave Paradi’s post on font size listed in the Further reading section at the end of the chapter. He put together tables that reduce the guesswork, making it easy to select your font size according to the size of the room and the screen.
If you are doubting my size rule of thumb, have a look at what various sizes look like when compared to one another in Figure 2.3. Of course, the image has been downsized for the book. But it does a pretty good job at showing how difficult it can become to read Arial 18 points when looking at a presentation on a small screen. It also shows you that using a different font style can also change how its size is perceived.
Figure 2.3 – Font sizes comparison
Take some time to test font sizes before your presentation. Take even more time if you are presenting in a hybrid mode, such as having some participants in the venue and others watching from various screen sizes remotely. Now that we have discussed font styles and sizes, the next section on contrast will help us conclude important best practices that relate to fonts.
Learning about contrast
Contrast is what allows us to see different elements easily, such as text on a colored background, or various shapes close to one another. We all have some favorite colors that we would like to use or corporate colors we must respect but, in the end, it always comes down to making sure our audience will be able to see and understand our content.
Some online tools can help you calculate the contrast ratio between the background color and text color, especially now that many countries have put together rules that organizations should follow to make their content more accessible. You can simply do an online search with
contrast checker as keywords, and you will get a list of various sites that offer the tool. But you can also just apply this basic rule:
- If you’re using a light background, use text as dark as possible
- If you’re using a dark background, use text as light as possible
To test contrast in presentations, I usually start my slideshow and move away from my computer screen to assess the readability of the text. I also try different lighting conditions to see whether it changes how the text shows. Even though the contrast example in Figure 2.4 is in grayscale, we can easily see that the best contrast is with the first line of text, whether the background is light or dark:
Figure 2.4 – Contrast examples with light and dark backgrounds
When choosing background and text colors, always make sure to use the darkest and lightest shades possible between the background and the text. If you use this rule of thumb, you will be able to quickly choose contrasting colors by simply testing their readability at different reading distances. If you want less contrasting colors, I would suggest you take some time to use a contrast checker tool.
Another element you need to consider when assessing contrast is the use of background graphics or textures. As shown in Figure 2.5, using texture behind the text decreases readability even though the color is the same for both backgrounds:
Figure 2.5 – A textured background reduces the readability of text
If the background of your slides must have a graphic of some sort because of a corporate template, make sure it is very subtle. The important element on your slide is your content, not a background texture or graphic.
Choosing colors wisely
Human beings react to colors. It can even influence how your audience will react to your content. Through the years, I have referred many times to the Colormatters.com and Colorcom.com websites for guidance (see the Further reading section) because of the valuable information we can find on their respective sites. In fact, that is where I found research-based information mentioning that color is so important in our lives that our subconscious mind judges many things based on color alone. This is the main reason why you should choose colors wisely for your presentations.
To help you, here is a sample of what meanings or emotions colors can convey (see Figure 2.6). It should guide you when choosing what colors should be used for your presentations. As an example, businesses that want to be perceived as trustworthy often use blue, and nature-oriented businesses might want to use green and brown.
Figure 2.6 – A sample list of some of the color meanings
Digging a little deeper into color meaning would be worth it if you need to present in various countries. Indeed, the symbolism of color might have a totally different meaning from one culture to another.
- Red and green: They are hard to read and are problematic for people suffering from color blindness.
- Red and blue: They lack contrast and don’t project well together.
Red, blue, and green are not the only problematic colors. It would take many more pages of color research information to discuss them all, which is not the main goal of this book. But with the information you have now, you can create presentations that avoid using the most problematic colors together and use the ones that are the most meaningful for your content.
Let’s now move on to the next topic, covering how to remove unnecessary content on your slides for your audience to understand your message quickly and remember more.
Decluttering your slide contents
Unfortunately, most people have seen their share of content-heavy and cluttered slides in their life. Even though we all hate this situation, we keep seeing it very often. I sometimes have the feeling that presenters are afraid the PowerPoint application will explode if they use too many slides. However, I have had some clients tell me they were restricted to a certain number of slides! This is just a shame because we then end up having to read slides full of content and text.
Let me share a secret with you: the more content on your slides, the less readable they get, making the content very difficult to remember. Usually, slides full of content also lead to the use of very small font sizes. You’ve probably heard, at least once in your life: “I don’t know if you can read the figures in this table, but....”. If you have a hard time reading the content yourself, why even bother showing it to your audience?
So, what do I mean by cluttered slides? The easiest way to show you is by simply doing a quick Google search with the keywords
awful PowerPoint presentations. The results will be very similar to what you can see in Figure 2.7. This is an example I use in my training sessions of a slide that contains too much content and some hard-to-read text. It goes against almost all of the best practices discussed so far.
Figure 2.7 – An example of an awful PowerPoint slide
Any time your slides cannot pass the glance test, meaning that if people can’t grasp the main idea you are discussing within 3 seconds, your visuals will have failed. Your main goal should be to limit your slide content to one idea at a time. Dividing what you need to discuss over multiple slides will be much more efficient for your audience.
When clients call me for help with their presentation design, most of the time their initial 25-slide file can end up with 60 or 70 slides. Yes, many of them almost fainted when I told them how many slides their presentation might have! Let’s do a bit of math to show you why it does not impact the length of your presentation in a negative way (see Figure 2.8):
Figure 2.8 – Comparison using 10 slides versus 50 slides in a presentation
If your presentation has 10 slides and you are spending 5 minutes per slide, you have content for a 50-minute talk. The problem is that when you spend more than 1 or 2 minutes per slide, the audience can quickly lose interest. When you divide each point of your content so it is shown on its own slide and add a relevant visual element to it, you will spend much less time per slide, creating a more interesting pace. Back to my example in Figure 2.8, if we were to divide the content into 50 slides that we spend about 1 minute on, we would still have 50 minutes of content but the rhythm at which we create a visual change would be much more interesting. Start thinking about your slides as if you were creating a movie. Less time spent on each slide creates a more visually appealing and more memorable presentation.
Here is a list of quick steps you can use to help you remove content from your slides:
- Start by dividing your content into more slides and make sure you keep one main point or idea per slide.
- Remove any information present in more than one place on a slide. For example, if the title of your slide is the same as the title of your chart, remove the one for the chart. When you have repetitive words, try to change how you present the content, so you have only one instance of the same word.
- If possible, remove slide numbers, the date, and the name of the presenter from your content slide. Put that information on the title slide and bring it back on the last slide. This will free up some space to let your content stand out.
- With regard to the company logo and legal information being on each slide, I know that is a big request in many corporations, but you should also try to avoid them. If the reason is that the slides will be printed, then you will have a solution to offer after reading Chapter 3, Leveraging PowerPoint’s Slide Master for Design, and Chapter 4, Using PowerPoint’s Document Masters for Accessible Handouts and Notes, where I will show you how to be aligned with your marketing and legal departments and still be able to reduce the amount of clutter on slides.
If I had to summarize this section on decluttering in one simple sentence it would be: less is more. If you take the time to have less content on your slides but make sure it has a lot of value, you will get better results. You will have less chance of losing your audience to boredom and their favorite app on their smartphone, and you will increase your chances of success.
Removing unnecessary elements from your slides should now be easier to do. It’s now time to discuss how the look and feel of your presentation can be made more consistent and look more professional.
Making the look and feel of your slides consistent
The human eye has the superpower of seeing even the smallest of details and that can derail our concentration. This means if your titles seem to be jumping around from one slide to the next, your audience will notice it. There is the same problem if you have been using different font sizes for titles or content across your presentation, or if you have used various alignment styles throughout your presentation.
- Using a maximum of two font styles for titles and content
- Placing titles and content placeholders in the same position for identical layouts
- Using a specific color scheme that is applied consistently throughout your presentation
- Formatting titles and content elements with the same font size and font type and the same alignment
- Keeping enough whitespace or blank areas on your slides helps the audience to understand your content
I am also sharing a screenshot of a short presentation I did a few years ago to show you an example of how slides can be made consistent (see Figure 2.9). As you can see, titles are placed in the same position on all similar slide layouts, using the same font style and size. A thin rectangle is used at the bottom of each slide to recall my corporate colors without using my logo on all the slides.
Figure 2.9 – Example of how slides can have a consistent look
Making your slides consistent also means creating layouts that can be reused for similar types of content. You can plan to have slides with a short list of bullet points, some with one image and text, others with full-slide images with a banner over them, and so on. The possibilities are endless if you give your creativity a chance. Of course, you might be starting to think you will never have enough time to create consistent slides if you must create each slide one by one. No worries, that is why Chapter 3, Leveraging PowerPoint’s Slide Master for Design, is next. You will get familiar with what I call the best design automation feature in PowerPoint.
In this chapter, we covered how to choose font styles and sizes to help you make your content readable, and how to make sure your background versus text contrast is good. We also discussed how to remove unnecessary content on slides and how to make them look more consistent.
I have not discussed every design best practice in this chapter. But you have learned about the most important elements that can be quickly used to greatly improve your content. As I mentioned in the previous chapter on planning and structuring your content, the most important thing is not to let fear get in the way. Making better presentations is an ongoing process. For existing presentations, start by changing one or two design elements every time you are reviewing your content before an event or meeting. For new presentations, plan more time so you can use what you have learned when you are creating the content; you might as well do it better the first time!
In the next chapter, we are getting hands-on with PowerPoint. You will be learning about layouts, placeholders, theme fonts and colors, and configuring your layouts. By getting to know the Slide Master, you will be able to automate most of the design parts of your slides.
- The presentation industry standards of the Presentation Guild: https://presentationguild.org/certifications/presentation-industry-design-standards/
- If you are using PowerPoint versions older than Microsoft 365 or Office 2019, Julie Terberg’s following post will be helpful: https://designtopresent.com/2018/06/14/an-update-on-safe-fonts-for-powerpoint/
- Julie Terberg’s article on cloud fonts, and access to her PDF guide: https://designtopresent.com/2019/03/31/a-guide-to-cloud-fonts-in-microsoft-office-365/
- Dave Paradi’s tables on choosing font sizes according to venue and screen sizes: https://www.thinkoutsidetheslide.com/selecting-the-correct-font-size/
- To learn more about color symbolism, or even its importance in design or marketing, have a look at the Color Matters website here: https://colormatters.com/
- If you are interested in why color matters in your presentations, visit the Colorcom website for interesting statistics on marketing: https://www.colorcom.com/research/why-color-matters