Stop Thinking Slides–Start Thinking Canvas
Last fall, I taught four sessions on Effective Presentation Design to some really sharp and savvy students in a high school program called Vantage. At one point in my presentation, I displayed a photo of a 35mm slide and asked the students if they could identify the item. I heard answers like “hard drive” and “diskette,” but mostly, I was met with a perplexed silence. Of the roughly 140 students, not a single one could identify it as a 35mm slide. Add this to the "feeling old" list, just below the time an intern asked me "who is Paul McCartney?"
I went on to brief them on the history of the 35mm slide, which included my own experience watching vacation slides in my grandparents' living room and how the business world adopted 35mm slides as a way to create and deliver professional presentations. It suddenly made sense to them why programmers in the 1980s and 1990s used the 35mm slide as an interface design element (or skeuomorph) in the development of slideware like Aldus Persuasion (released in 1988) and Microsoft Powerpoint (released in 1990).
The Advent of “Paint-by-Numbers” Presentations
In 1951, the Palmer Paint Company introduced the Craft Master brand of paint kits that proclaimed on the box “A beautiful oil painting the first time you try!” The kit came with a board with a pre-drawn composition (like Da Vinci’s Last Supper) with light blue or gray numbered spaces and a corresponding numbered oil paint color to brush into the lines of the area. With patience, and a steady hand, you could create an oil painting that, with enough distance and enough squinting, could pass for art.
Slideware programs are the presentation equivalent of Craft Master kits. Pre-designed templates, color palettes, transitions, animations and features like Smart Art and chart wizards, make it possible for anyone, regardless of visual arts training or ability, to create “beautiful” presentations.
The Tyranny of the Template
At first, business people embraced slideware with the enthusiasm of a third-grader at craft time—it was play time. Corporate projection screens were bursting with flying text, sound effects, animated boxes, spinning pie charts and a rainbow of colorful fonts. Then came the backlash. Branding departments created corporate-sanctioned templates with logos on every slide. Animations and transitions were banned. Fonts were prescribed and colors limited. The fun was over.
The backlash is understandable. In our brand-sensitive world, the drive for consistency and uniformity helps organizations rein in the internal players with their rogue visions and personal tastes. What we are left with is a bland communication that strays from the organic nature of effective visual storytelling. The “slide concept” itself is a limiting factor in the design of business presentations.
The Slide as Container
In presentation design, the slide has become a container for information. When creating presentations, many people view slides as a unit of space which should only have one subject, or area of discussion. A strategic timeline, for example, is laid out with 12 months of information crowded into a single slide, because it “must fit” before you move on to the next slide about the budget. This slide-centric design philosophy is the main reason so many presentations are overloaded with bullet points and stuffed to the edges with charts and information.
The Slide as Unit of Time
Another misconception is that slides are somehow related to delivery time. This leads people to limit the number of slides in a presentation. Rules of thumb like “two minutes per slide” set up unrealistic restrictions (“I’m speaking for an hour, so I can only have 30 slides”). The last one-hour presentation I designed had 78 slides with time for questions and answers. I’ve seen speakers spend an hour on one slide and 5 seconds on another. And yet, with these arbitrary time limits, people tend to cram as much content as possible into their allotted slides.
The Slide as Blank Canvas
The 35mm slide has been challenged. Prezi, a presentation tool launched in 2009, offers a new design approach with a sweeping point-to-point map-like design. With 75 million users, Prezi has made in-roads into the world of visual storytelling and offers a viable alternative to slide-based tools. But there are still millions operating, by choice or mandate, in the Microsoft Powerpoint universe.
When I teach presentation design classes, I help students unlearn the slide-centric design philosophy. I encourage them to go to the Layout menu and choose Blank Slide—get rid of the templates and start with a fresh expanse of pure white pixels. I want them to think more about the flow of the presentation. I want them to approach presentation design as a form of visual storytelling. I ask them to think about their audience and how, and when, they should deliver information. I remind them of human brain science; our limited cognitive capacity and the importance of emotions in how we process information.
If you want a visual treat, go to an Asian art museum and look for a Chinese handscroll. With brush and ink, ancient Chinese artists created epic stories through meandering and richly-detailed landscapes. Many of these scrolls are quite long and originally required the viewer to roll the painting out on a table and enjoy the story in parts. Beginning with an idea, these artists used as much space as they needed to tell their story.
Think of your presentation as a blank canvas—or better yet, an endless blank scroll. Then get to work telling your story—without false constraints.
Postscript for Those Stuck in Slideland
I hear you. You’re reading this and saying, “This is great, and all, but I work for PolyMegaSuperCorp, Inc., and they have ironclad brand standards to follow and your concept of a blank canvas just isn’t going to fly here.”
I understand your position and will address this in a future article about using a blank canvas approach within the confines of a template.