Visual Design: Setting Your Slides Up For Success


When I learned that I would have a few very special guests attending my visual design lecture, I redesigned my lesson plans.  While these lessons aren’t quite Slideshare-ready yet, I would like to share them with you over the next few days.  I promise to debut the new visual design Slideshare presentation before the end of January!

The new lessons focus on teaching my students 7 key rules for effective slide design.  Today, we’ll begin with rule number one:


The most basic lesson we learn first in my visual design class is that slides are not documents.  In order to create slides that use the Keynote or PowerPoint medium as it was intended to be used – for a visual purpose – we must set up our slides for success.

Setting our slides up for failure looks a little something like this:


We select a template in Keynote or PowerPoint.  This is a template we’ve used a thousand times before, and everyone in our audience has seen this template before.  After we select “Venetian,” we are then trapped into creating documents because of the layout of the template:


Our options are to insert text, bullets, and maybe throw in a picture in one corner.  These templates actually encourage us to put a document on a slide.  The first rule of slide design is that slides are not documents.  We have to begin to think about slides in a different way.

Slides were intended to be a visual medium, and a document is the opposite of a visual aid.  In her book Resonate, Nancy Duarte explains that there is an enormous difference between a document and a movie.  A slide falls directly in between the two:



Our slides will contain some text just like a document does.  But our slides will also contain large and clear images just like a film.

So how can we set up our slides for success?  How can we set up our slides in a way that encourages us to create a visual aid instead of document?

First, we must realize that we cannot open Keynote or PowerPoint right away.  We must develop our content first.  Most of us create our content and design our slides at the same time.  Because we do not separate 1) content creation and 2) slide design, we mix the two together.  This leads to “slideuments” (as Garr Reynolds calls them).


Setting our slides up for success means opening Word instead of Keynote and outlining our content, our message.  The time to design visuals is after a strong message has been created.  If we work on both simultaneously, we are not creating a well-organized presentation that will meet our audience’s needs.  Instead, we treat Keynote as our own personal teleprompter… We use our slides as our notes.

Notice that my document in Word (above) looks a lot like what you might see on an ineffective slide.  Save the bullets for Word.  Save all of the text for your notecards.  This is NOT what you will put on your slides.  Instead of text, your slides will apply universal principles of design to connect with and engage your audience.  We’ll learn HOW to create those effective slides in the rest of this visual design series.

The brainstorming, idea creation, and idea organization phase can happen on Word.  However, if you’re a more visual person, you may want to use a storyboard format:


However your brain works, the first step to a strong presentation is to build effective content.  Stay away from Keynote or PowerPoint in the beginning so that your ideas are well constructed.  This will ensure your message will reach your audience, connect with them, engage them, and, hopefully, resonate.  After you’ve crafted a strong message using an outline or storyboard, THEN open your presentation design software.  If we begin to separate “slide” and “document” in our minds, and if we prepare our presentation in light of this distinction, we can begin to work toward creating effective slides.


6 thoughts on “Visual Design: Setting Your Slides Up For Success

  1. Alex you couldn’t be more right about the separation of ‘document’ and ‘presentation’. It’s something I still struggle with as an ‘old school’ presenter. Having a view of your process is extremely helpful!

  2. Reblogged this on Tim Riecker and commented:
    I’ve been following Alex’s blog for a while now – the work she and her peers do in presentation design is truly revolutionary. This post, in particular, is a great introduction to how she works. I’ve certainly been at fault for many years for designing presentations like documents. It’s a tough habit to break, but I’m committing to the visual design method from now on!

    If you do any kinds of training or presentations – FOLLOW HER BLOG! She gives a ton of great advice!

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