Throughout my career as a Presentation Specialist (and into my years as a creative director in the same field), I routinely see one thing in a lot of presentations (both professionally designed and not). That is a lack of structure. I’m not talking storyline structure, sentence structure or grammatical mishaps – although I see a fair share of those! I’m talking design structure. Let me elaborate, with a brief digression into historical design principles and let me be candid when I say, this isn’t a how-to article. This is a why-do article. If you want techniques in execution of this, there are many, resources around the internet that can help.
Throughout the history of graphic design, there has emerged a well-substantiated theory behind the use of text and how they eye processes information. The general theme is that the brain seeks out systems of structure in order to define a hierarchical order to what can be perceived as chaos. The refinement of this theory developed into the practice of ordering information into real or perceived columns across longer bodies of text. This is specifically to reduce eye fatigue (ever wonder why newspapers don’t write their text from the left of the page across to the right in every article?) Columns of information in this way were then designed into an aesthetic that conforms to the golden ratio. I won’t go too deep into further rationale, but effectively, there is a mathematical structure behind EVERY produced piece of design. Magazines, corporate brochures, newspapers, film & TV, billboards, even this webpage. Everything piece of design has a structure behind it. Look for it. Right now – if you’re on a desktop or laptop, look at how this page is structured. Why isn’t this article the full width of your screen? If you can answer this, you’re on the right path. Still not sure? Is there a relative gap on the left and right of this column? Is there a column of similar articles to the left – is it exactly half the size of this column of content? What does that tell you about what should be read first and what is secondary information? What about the title you’re about to read? Is it in it’s own column to grab your attention and show you it’s important?
This design principle
There is no foundation structure given to the average PowerPoint user to conform to. There are no skills taught in this area. When you open up a PowerPoint (or even most templates) and start typing, you are given a left-to-right box spanning most of the slide. The more you fill up this box with text, the more eye fatigue you inflict on your audience and the stronger the sense of disorder the audience will feel and the more your content will lose credibility.
PowerPoint has built-in Guidelines that you can turn on and adjust to your document to create a series of columns and gutters (the gaps between columns) that help define the structure of your document. An example is below:
An example of a blank slide that has a grid structure. Sections for titles and content are very clear and easily distinguished.
An example of how this columns structure applies in a very basic format. Content is split across 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 columns, but the start and end points remain the same across the entire presentation.
Reduce eye fatigue
Columns house content in a way that limits the amount of travel the eye has to take to get from one side of the text to another. The eye prefers to digest information in short, left-to-right patterns with multiple lines than one, long left to right line.
Your slides will be more cross-compatible
Adopting a column structure for slides across an organisation really enhances the ability to pull slides in and out of other presentations whilst keeping the same visual cohesion. If I pulled out a page of a magazine and inserted it into the next edition, I shouldn’t be able to tell the difference. The same goes with your slides and the principle behind this lies with HOW you structure you content. Create your graphic design in PowerPoint, so it looks like it has been created by a graphic designer.
You slides will look better in other mediums
Every thought your slides look a little basic when printed out? The text running left to right on a portrait A4/letter page makes it look like someone in primary school put it together? This is because your brain is programmed to disseminate information and you are bombarded by relatively good design every day. The reason your slides don’t look right when printed is because it doesn’t conform to how you’ve been programmed to read content – every time you read a newspaper or magazine or any printed materials, you’re embedding the methodology of reading content in columns and picking out order and structure. The reason it doesn’t look out of place on your slides is that you likely have no reference material to compare this to. Unless you’re in an organisation that already produces slides to a column structure, there may not seem anything out of place with 6 bullet points running left to right across your slide. In fact, its PowerPoints default setting.
This column structure is ESSENTIAL for creating cohesive slides. Learning how to work within this structure should be your first goal before tackling PowerPoint slides. Go out, learn it. Right now.
For reference, we recommend a 3-column layout with 5mm gutters for a 4:3 slide and a 4 or 6 column layout with 5mm gutters for a 16:9 slide. If you’re foraying into the world of A4 PowerPoint layouts (for use with an office printer or for pdf-based documents), a portrait layout can support 6 columns and a landscape layout can support up to 12 columns.
We have created some FREE PowerPoint slides with embedded guides, so you can design like a pro all within PowerPoint:
Or, looking for an even faster shortcut to great print-design PowerPoint? We've prepared Free PowerPoint Templates for Brochures