by Adam Noar
Sometimes it’s good to go back to the basics and be reminded about the fundamentals. It’s why restaurants have to pass annual cleanliness inspections to certify that they haven’t forgotten that e-coli doesn’t belong in food, or why elevators are checked every so often to make sure that their cables aren’t about to snap and trap people in between floors and leave them with no other recourse to survival than to eat each other while they await rescue.
Similarly terrible things can happen to you if you don’t go back every now and then and calibrate your presentation design principles. It is important to make sure that your presentations look great, are easy to follow, and don’t cause bodily harm to innocent onlookers (I’ve seen some pretty nasty looking design compositions over the years).
So here are eight basic design composition principles to think about, in case you’ve forgotten or perhaps need a little inspiration to keep your designs from going stale.
This method of composition is useful if you have one image that you intend to display. Keep in mind that with this sort of composition, you are relying not on a primary image, but on a single image to command your audience’s attention and tell a story, elaborate a talking point, or achieve some other task.
When you design a single image slide, it should be pretty simple to ensure that the image stands out; it should, after all, be the only image on the page. Other elements such as display text do not necessarily need to take a back seat to the visual heft of your main image, but they should certainly be complimentary in terms of their layout, font style, and size. Make sure that when you do pick a single image—whether it’s a photo, an icon, or statistical content such as a graph or chart—that it fits in with the rest of your design. There is no sense in picking a good image to anchor your slide if it will not provide greater harmony to your presentation as a whole.
The Divine Proportion
You may have heard the Divine Proportion called other names such as the Fibonacci Sequence, the Golden Ratio, or simply Phi. While this ratio (approximately 1:1.618) has most famously been used by architects and artists including Leonardo da Vinci to create perfectly proportioned human bodies and faces in their work, you can apply this classical rule of proportion to the presentation slides that you make.
Of course, you do not need to be as mathematically precise as a Renaissance painter when you create your layout, but if you come up with a design based on the Divine Proportion you will be pleasantly surprised to notice that your slide seems to be very streamlined and flows well from one piece of content to another. What does this look like when it’s put into practice? Imagine you start out with a primary image, positioned in one corner of the slide. Adjacent to this image but about 40% smaller is a bit of text—perhaps a quick and dirty bullet list—that gives your audience an important set of facts or supporting data to keep in mind. And then farther down you have yet an even smaller image or text that either complements the second piece or acts as a visual foil to the original, main image. For the sake of avoiding visual clutter it is best to go no further than four levels into the sequence; anything more than that and you risk overwhelming your audience with too much information.
The focal point design principle is all about making one particular piece of your slide stand out first. It could be an image, a data set, or a piece of text, depending on your presentation. What is crucial to this kind of design is that the focal point arrests your audience’s vision. From there, the rest of your slide should be designed to maximize visual flow from that focal point to key succession points.
For example, your focal point could simply be an enlarged header text—click here to learn more about some awesome fonts making the rounds this year—that grabs your viewers’ attention. “Quarterly Profits Have Tripled,” “Never Wear A Onesie to Work,” and “How Can We Stop the Zombie Apocalypse?” are all decent examples of headers that you might make extra big and bold and use as focal points. From there you could list a few important bullet points such as “74% increase in YTD revenue thanks to revamped Google PPC campaign,” “Alternatives to onesies include jeans, shorts, dresses, and yoga pants,” or “Build concrete underground bunkers adjacent to aquifers and stocked with 10 years’ supply of microwaveable bean and cheese burritos.” You could also choose to include a small set of icons that introduce your ideas in a non-verbal fashion.
Grid design is a pretty nifty way of partitioning your design into separate quadrants. It’s a good way to organize a visual space into several important spaces and especially useful when you have more than one focal point of a slide that you need to convey to your audience. When you divide your composition into separate boxes—whether they are all the same size or vary in shape and area is up to your tastes and the sort of content you’ll be displaying in them—it enables you to draw natural boundaries around different areas of your design.
This can be useful for a number of different reasons. For example, you might want to partition your slide into a grid where each box features an image with display text highlighting a separate key talking point; the grid helps keep the images distinct from each other and prevents the composition from feeling too jumbled. You also might want to use a grid design if your presentation involves soliciting the audience’s opinion, such as real-time interactive quizzes or opinion surveys. In this case, you could devote a different block of the grid to one particular answer or another.
Symmetry appeals especially to the neat and tidy impulses we (OK, most of us) have. There is something inherently satisfying with seeing an evenly folded piece of paper, or a perfectly organized pyramid of bowling pins waiting to be knocked over. That same sense of symmetry has its moment in designing a great slide, too.
Bilateral symmetry, where you draw an invisible line across the composition to create a mirror image, is useful for imbuing your presentation with a sense of formality and elegance. Picture having two equally sized sections of content, such as text and image, displayed on either side of each other. Each one has roughly the same dimensions. Each one is positioned the same distance from the margins on the respective sides of the page. This kind of layout works best when you have content that skews more towards scientific or technical subjects; you want to keep things as straightforward as possible, so it is a good idea to use symmetrical balance in your composition to minimize the amount of extra visual effort your viewers have to input in order to follow exactly what is going on. And when using symmetrical balance gets a bit too tedious, that means it’s time for . . .
Asymmetrical compositions! What makes this sort of balance so enjoyable is that it is abstract, loose, and relative. You could choose to display an enlarged image with an off-center header, or perhaps a list of key bullet points that are aligned in a staggered fashion as they go down the page.
Since you don’t have the pigeon-holing constraint of arranging your content in the mirror-image style that comes with symmetrical balance, you can get a little bit wild when you arrange elements. That does not mean that there is complete visual chaos in this type of alignment. Rather, you focus on letting different weights balance each other out – there are ratios of big to small that are very complementary and not necessarily symmetrical (a good example of this would be the Golden Rule).
There are several different factors that you can look out for when you design an asymmetrical composition. Size, where large items are heavier in terms of their visual pull than small ones. Value, where dark items fell heavier than lighter ones. Color, where bright and bold colors are stronger and more visually arresting than neutral or muted ones. Isolation, where a single object stands out against the rest of the slide simply by virtue of the negative space around it (think of how this relates to the single visual principle discussed earlier). Quantity, where a few smaller objects balance out a single larger object. Consider how you can design a slide based on any one or more of these factors, and don’t be afraid to get creative!
Think of how many company logos use radial design as their focal point, and you can see why this is a brilliant, if under-utilized technique for creating beautiful compositions. Target, Starbucks, and even the Obama campaign logo, to a certain extent, all rely on radial balance to make a statement. With a bit of creativity you can do the same thing with your presentation.
Radial balance works by creating a spiraling or concentric circle effect where your eyes are drawn towards a (usually central) focal point thanks to the composition of elements in the design. In a slide this could manifest itself as a large main image with a spiral focus such as a staircase or nautilus shell. You could also arrange a spiral word cloud with key talking points leading to your main header or theme.
If you really want to make an impact on your audience, try arranging your slide so that multiple repetitions of a certain element create an impressive visual effect. You could do this by using colorful background designs or textures (but try not to make them too impressive, lest they distract from your actual slide content). You can also incorporate this into the slide content itself.
There’s a fancy term in English literature called Anaphora, which refers to the repetition of the first part of a sentence. One of the most famous examples of this comes from Winston Churchill, a man who had a way with words. Check out this excerpt from one of his most famous speeches; it looks pretty awesome in bullet points:
- We shall fight on the beaches
- We shall fight on the landing grounds
- We shall fight in the fields and in the streets
- We shall fight in the hills
And so on. You can also use repetition with elements such as icons designed by the same designer, or the same font style, or anything else that looks good cloned a bunch of times.
Design isn’t something to be underestimated—and hopefully you can get back to basics by following some of these tasteful composition tips. When you design a presentation that features The Golden Rule or symmetrical balance as its cornerstone, you are ensuring a seamless and beautiful aesthetic which will no doubt please your audience.
So are you already using any one of these major design principles that we’ve discussed? What are some design deficiencies you have battled before that maybe you can fix by utilizing one of these principles? Let me know what you think and please try to be as specific as possible. Sound off in the comments below!
Lastly, do you have a friend that could benefit from learning about these presentation design tips? If so, email them this post.
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All Images by Aleksandar Savić via Dribble