Slide Design Guidelines

lots of images surrounding a central frame

Stephanie Evergreen, PhD, provides some pointers on the best ways to design your slides.

I am not going to give you my personal opinion. Even though I host or give over 100 presentations a year, I’m not about to share with you my anecdotes. I’m writing today to share the Slide Design Guidelines, which are based on the best research available about how people learn and retain information. This not about showing off the bells and whistles of PowerPoint. Frustratingly, the Guidelines are probably limited to a skilled graphic designer. But you are probably not a skilled graphic designer. You’re an employee with budget projections that need to grab attention, a researcher divulging study results at a conference, an entrepreneur trying to sell a plan.

The Slide Design Guidelines are created specifically to get your slides out of your way. They are in place to support the clear, undistracted communication of your awesome ideas.

The Guidelines are broken out into four main sections and they attempt to address some of the biggest problems that get in the way of clear communication.

How much text to use?

Problem: Too much text on the slide. It makes the audience read and listen at the same time, an exhausting task which leads to what researchers call “abandonment” and what weak presenters call “everyone’s on their iPhone.”

Slide Design Guideline: Text, if any, is reserved only for key words. Details and explanation are delivered verbally and/or on a handout. Ideas like ‘4 bullet points per slide’ and ‘six words per bullet point’ are outdated. Generally, you shouldn’t have so much text that it warrants a bullet. But if that just isn’t going to work in your situation, the Guidelines have suggestions for handling extensive text, too.

Use of images

Problem: Images on the slides are fuzzy and low-quality. Images that have been stretched too large or contain a watermark signal a lack of competence on the part of the presenter (sorry, but it’s so true). Sometimes this happens inadvertently, when the presenter tries to pull an image from her existing report or memo, but regardless of intention, it has the same effect.

Slide Design Guideline: Images are high quality. Purchase, take, or make high-quality images. Consider drawing graphics.

Stick figures are okay. Clip art is not.

Review the quality of scanned or pasted images; often quality is low and print is too small to see on screen. If needed, re-create your graphs and diagrams in your slide software, making them as big as possible. Yes, it will take a bit of time. But the alternative communicates that you don’t have the time to care about your audience’s experience.

Use of colour

Problem: Psychedelic colour combinations that are painful to the gaze, impacting reading. If you are stuck using an organisational slide template that uses the company colours of orange and yellow, it was probably difficult to create the slides – so imagine looking at them, projected, 25 feet high.

Slide Design Guideline: Text contrasts with background. Ideally, use dark text on a light background. Light text on a dark background is suitable if the text phrase is short. Other combinations impair legibility and comprehension. This is where the Guidelines begin to disgruntle graphic designers but we’re sticking with the research on legibility here.

Use of diagrams

Problem: Ultra-detailed diagrams overwhelm the audience’s field of vision, making them unable to follow the presentation. I work with researchers and evaluators and we love love LOVE linking boxes with arrows in a spaghetti of a chart. But those tangled diagrams are hard to digest.

Slide Design Guideline: Complex graphics and diagrams are segmented into smaller chunks. Use the “Appear” animation tool to reveal parts of your slide more slowly if lots of text or a complicated diagram is shown. Revealing content in stages guides audience attention.

I developed these guidelines as a response to the need I was hearing in my workshops on this topic: Many of you out there are restricted in your slide creativity because you are obligated to use a (boring, tedious, ugly) organisational template. But but BUT you said you would have some leverage to suggest a more useful alternative if you could present your organisational leadership with a set of guidelines. These are for you. Take them to your leader.

Stephanie Evergreen is the principal consultant at Evergreen Evaluation, a data communications firm.
Her book, Smart Data Communication, will be released by Sage Publications in Spring 2014. Keep in touch on her blog,, or find her @evalu8r on Twitter.

Stephanie has also produced a three-page guide to the Design Guidelines.  You can download it on this link.



Published On: 3rd Sep 2012

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