7 Deadly Sins of Visual Design: Envy


My fellow superteacher Chiara Ojeda and I made a pact to push outside of our comfort zones in the next few months.  A superteacher is always willing to take a chance in order to learn, try, and teach something new!  Chiara will be teaching the Delivery Workshop next month (my personal favorite leg of the presentation stool), and this month, I taught the Visual Design Workshop (her area of expertise).

To help my students learn important visual design concepts, they were assigned to read slide:ology.  To accompany the text, we spent time studying the 7 Deadly Sins of Visual Design.  We began with envy.

Most people don’t understand the difference between a visual presentation and a document.  For example, at work just last week, a co-worker retyped an entire article onto a set of PowerPoint slides.  What is the point?  Students can just read the article.  A document should be a document.  A slideshow should be visual.  The first thing you must accept about Keynote or PowerPoint to avoid slide envy is that the point of a visual presentation is to communicate ideas with others by using visual design.

Before we hit Visual Design during Week Two of Professional Communication and Presentation, my students often feel envious of my slides.  It’s easy to have slide envy, especially when you’re comfortable with death-by-PowerPoint.  However, you can eliminate your slide envy by applying three simple principles to your slides: 1) the picture superiority effect, 2) the “one main idea per slide” concept, and 3) the signal to noise ratio.

The picture superiority effect says that human beings remember images more than we do words.  When it comes to advertising, street signs, or other glance media, such as a slideshow, our retention and recall is much better when exposed to images.  This means that students learn more when an image is paired with a single word or short phrase as opposed to chunks of bulleted text.  The picture superiority effect proves that audiences retain more information and can later recall that information when the PSE is applied (Source).  For more information, please read Universal Principles of Design.

Garr Reynolds says, “You can see the picture superiority effect used widely in marketing communications such as posters, billboards, brochures, annual reports, etc. The effect should be kept in mind too when designing slides (images and text) that support a narrative, though this is often neglected as most people opt for bulleted lists” (Source).  Why are we so heavily reliant on those bullet points?  Because it’s easier, faster, and within our comfort zone to ignore our audience’s needs to continue killing audiences with our terrible PowerPoints.  That’s slide sloth, and we’ll discuss that in an upcoming installment of the 7 Deadly Sins of Visual Design.

The “one main idea per slide” concept appears in Nancy Duarte’s slide:ology.  This concept is important because slides should be glance media.  If you’re delivering a presentation, the audience should use the slides behind you as digital scenery.  If you’re relying on your slides for your content or your delivery, please stop presenting immediately.

Remember that one main idea per slide doesn’t mean one IMAGE per slide.  Using multiple images is absolutely fine if your slide is well organized and unified.  Remember that as long as audiences can digest the slide in 3 seconds, your slide is effective.  Here is an example of a slide with multiple images that still follows Duarte’s one main idea per slide concept:

The third and final principle to avoid slide envy is called the signal to noise ratio.  Think about a radio.  The signal is the station you want to hear: Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross; Madonna’s latest dance hit; the Kentucky versus Florida basketball game.  The noise is anything that gets in the way of that signal: static on the airwaves; someone talking too loudly in the background of the DJ booth; the station next to 90.7 accidentally fizzling in and out.  So how does this apply to a slide?

Your visual message is your signal.  Noise is anything else that detracts from your message.  Signal in the slide below would be the main point I am trying to convey to my audience.  We quickly see an artist’s hands… notice that your eyes focus on the image first; the text is secondary for our eyes.  That’s because, surprise!, people are visual.  Some studies show 60% of all audiences are visual; all studies say half the audience will be visual.  So let’s think about this logically, my death-by-PowerPoint lovers.  If half your audience is visual and half of your audience is verbal, using an all-text method for your visual design means you are not meeting the needs of half of your audience.  If you are doing your job as a presenter, your goal is to meet the needs of everyone in your audience.  If you don’t care about your audience learning or retaining your content, why in the world are you giving a presentation in the first place?

“The fundamental research results remain as true in 2009 as in 2008 – removing extraneous information from a screen actually increases learning” (Source).  Cliff Atkinson’s point hits on the signal to noise ratio.  If the noise is blocking your signal, your audience will not understand your material, engage with/care about your presentation, or retain most of the information you’re saying.  Examples of noise on a slide would be overuse of fonts, colors, animations, transitions, etc.  We’ll talk more about noise when we hit slide gluttony later on in the 7 Deadly Sins of Visual Design series.

Next time, we’ll be covering pride.  Pride was designed especially for those crazy folks who actually believe their text-heavy, bullet-ridden PowerPoints are effective.  Stay tuned!

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