Tag Archives: presentation design

What’s really wrong with Comic Sans?


Photo Credit: eanur0 via Compfight cc


The short answer is nothing and everything.

The long answer is still nothing and everything, but let’s explore why. Comic Sans, which was created by Vincent Connare was never meant to be used in the regular system of fonts available on a Windows PC (Source). It was created to solve an incongruity Connare noticed while he was working on Microsoft Bob, the interface designed to make the computer-using experience more palatable to novice computer users (Source). Connare noticed that while the interface was a cartoon, the characters’ text boxes uses Times New Roman. This didn’t make sense to Connare, so he created Comic Sans based on the style of Marvel and DC comics. So, the purpose of Comic Sans was to fit a very specific interface and experience–the comic, cartoon, animated experience. It was not meant to be used for business letters, websites, products, signage, CERN presentations, or tributes to retiring Popes. Christine Erickson of Mashable.com explains the source of Comic Sans’ bad rep: “While Comic Sans is perfectly adequate in designs for children or designs related to comic books or cartoons, designers believe it has no place in business or professional work usage. It’s also ill-suited in content body text, which means it’s best used as a headline/heading or short quote — in other words, a comic book” (Source).

In essence, the problem with comic sans goes back to the user (it’s the same reason we have “death by PowerPoint”). The problem with the typeface is not inherent to the typeface itself; the problem is that we use it incorrectly. Every typeface and individual font has a personality and mood. Research has even shown that typefaces evoke specific emotional responses in us. Eric Jaffe of Fast Company writes that “the latest evidence suggests that typefaces convey their own meanings and elicit their own emotions independent of the words they spell out” (Source).

So, not only does a font have a particular tone, but that tone is independent of the words written in that font–this means that text’s impact and meaning can be affected by the typeface used. Jaffe cites a 2004 study in which researchers noted that students described fonts like Times New Roman as professional but common; Helvetica was blah and least artistic; Comic Sans was childish (Source). An even more surprising study included in Jaffe’s article emphasized that while most fonts illicit one emotional response, “Comic Sans produced spikes across the emotional spectrum–from agitation to calm. It’s basically a rollercoaster of emotions wrapped in a few playful curves. People either love it or hate it” (Source). So, consistently incorrect use of an emotionally charged font has led to Comic Sans becoming the most hated, ridiculed, and ostracized font (it’s pretty much as bad as using Word Art).

Do we, as presentation designers ignore the public outcry to ban Comic Sans? Do we ignore the many criminally inappropriate uses of Comic Sans we see every day? How do we explain to novice designers, students, and those who use Comic Sans when a more appropriate font exists that it is up to them to turn the Comic Sans tide, to ensure it is used only when appropriate–in cartoons? Designers out there have their own solutions. Comic Sans Criminal asks users to take a pledge to think twice before choosing a font, and to consider its purpose. The folks who created Ban Comic Sans.com have turned their focus to positivity and using words for good, not evil. Dave and Holly Combs founded the Department of Public Words, an organization whose mission is use the power of positive words to better our community. By emphasizing the positive use of words and typography, we can emphasize that type must be used appropriately; it must be used for good.

Finally, designer Craig Rozynski has created a sleeker, more designer-friendly version of Comic Sans called Comic Neue. It is available to download free here. I tell students and teachers that bullets, Comic Sans, and frenetic animations “kill” their audiences and their presentation’s impact. Sometimes, this is perceived as me hating on the very foundations of the Keynote/PowerPoint presentation. And, they are right. But reducing this idea to “hating” is missing the point, which is that we must do better as presenters. The only way we can work to create better presentations is to let go of the bad habits of the past. Once we outgrow those habits, we may learn to use them the right way.

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Design Smarter: Three Views on Storyboarding


Yesterday, I talked about creating a design decisions slide to serve as a guide for designing a presentation. Today, I’d like to share with you another strategy for designing and organizing a presentation. In Ideate, we learn that the first step of design is to storyboard ideas. But, what does it mean to storyboard a presentation? Storyboarding is a strategy we use in Professional Communication and Presentation as an alternative to an linear outline. While outlining works well for presentations that are content-only, it is difficult to think like a designer and visualize design using a word processor or text-based organizational tool like a formal outline. Storyboarding, a term borrowed from film, television, and animation, essentially means creating a structure that allows one to not only determine the order and organization of content but also begin visualizing the design that goes along with that content. How does one create and execute a storyboard? Here are three professional presenters on the subject:

Scott Schwertly, Ethos3

Schwertly and his firm Ethos3 are leading the presentation revolution (be sure to scroll to the end of their blog to download a copy of the Presentation Manifesto) by following their core values–my favorite of which is “Embrace and Drive Change.” In their latest addition to their comprehensive and beautifully designed blog, “Ethos3 Secrets: Crafting a Storyboard,” Schwertly shares his team’s process for creating and using a storyboard. The starting point is the big picture, the big takeaway, or the big idea. Having this in place before even beginning a storyboard can help a project stay on track. Then, using presentation software, paper, or a word processing program, create the template for your storyboard. In class, we use the layout below for storyboarding along with sticky notes.

This student drew in ideas for slides ,and in the lines provided, explained what he would cover on each slide.

This student drew in ideas for slides ,and in the lines provided, explained what he would cover on each slide.

Once you begin filling in your storyboard, remember a few important things: 1. Imagine your visual support as you craft your content and 2. Revision is part of the process and is key to generating a strong structure.

Garr Reynolds, Presentation Zen

I was first introduced to the concept of storyboarding via the Zen master, Garr Reynolds. I had always known about presenter’s notes and the ability to use them as a way to combine content and visuals, but as I was still creating “slideuments,” my use of these notes was minimal. Reading the article “Lessons from the art of storyboarding” helped me move into the realm of cinematic presentations. Reynolds’ article is less a how to and more an inspirational tool illustrating what we can learn about visualization from the folks who’ve done it best since 1923, The Walt Disney Company. According to Reynolds, storyboarding helps presenters visualize the story behind their presentation. To be a good storyboarder, one must be not only a good communicator who can create a clear, engaging, and cohesive story, but also be a great storyteller, using visuals to communicate “the meaning and the feelings behind the idea” (Source). Reynolds suggests going analog for this process–a whiteboard with sticky notes and markers, a strategy used by other leading professionals in the field (and which works very well for team projects).

Nancy Duarte, Duarte Design

Duarte Design uses whiteboards and sticky notes, a practice Nancy Duarte, Fairy Godmother of Presentations, discusses in her books Slide:ology, Resonate, and the HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations. In the final article I’ll share with you, Duarte explains her unique approach to storyboarding in developing a presentation on visual thinking. For this particular presentation, the traditional storyboard and stickynote format left the presentation disconnected and disjointed. So, Duarte used receipt tape (just as Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road on one continuous roll of paper as opposed to separate sheets) to storyboard the presentation. The result was a cohesive and connected presentation. Check out the result on Duarte’s blog. The lesson here is be creative! The strength of your drawings doesn’t matter, neither does any one way of storyboarding. The point is to use the best tool for you in a specific presentation development situation.

To learn more about storyboarding, check out the following articles from Tweak Your Slides:

Storyboarding a PechaKucha

Storyboarding: Four Patterns of Organization

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Want to create an original design? Create a “design decisions” slide.

Slide-full presentations have become a ubiquitous standard in most major fields–scientists, educators, CEOs, and military personnel are expected to have a PowerPoint to accompany their verbal presentations. For most people, that means opening slide software, choosing a template, and in 30 minutes, creating what I call the bullet-riddled death machine. After countless meetings, workshops, and student presentations full of generic, forgettable, confusing, or pointless slides, I’ve begun tuning out most presentations with slides. The presentations with slides that I do pay attention to are those that are so subtly, cleanly, and minimally designed that they simply serve as visual support and enhancement for a presenter’s beautifully structured content and engaging delivery.

Note what I am saying here–your content and delivery matter more than your visual design, but if you do use visuals, your first concern must be design. As Nancy Duarte says, having great slides with poor content is like putting lipstick on a pig–it’s still a pig (Source)! A colleague walked by my desk while I was working on Ideate and loved the design, but said “but, how long did that take you?” It definitely took longer than choosing the craft template and transferring hundreds of pages worth of content onto slides, but like anything else, the time one puts into something reflects how others will perceive the finished product.

So, what do we do? We have to have slides (another colleague is in danger of losing his job because he doesn’t use PowerPoint, Prezi, or other slide software in the classroom), but more importantly, we have to begin creating slides that serve as visual support, are worth displaying, and that are uniquely aligned with our topics. The answer is of course design, but design doesn’t necessarily have to take hundreds of hours of work. Great design is simple, and simplicity starts by creating your “design box” for a project via a design decisions slide. This slide, which one would hide before presenting, serves as a guide for the rest of the deck. Using a design decisions slide restricts the presenter to the elements needed to create a unified look while also being unrestricted enough to allow for variations.

How to Create a Design Decisions Slide

Before tackling a new project, begin with design. First, choose a black or white slideshow to start with a blank canvas. This will help you keep the focus on design.

Core Colors

The first step is to choose two to three core colors (any more than this can create discord or disconnect for beginning designers). With these two to three colors, a presenter can create a diverse yet connected palette. One can adapt the brightness, lightness, and saturation of these three colors to vary the color palette. Align the color palette with a discipline, mood, or industry. A great place to go for complimentary and mood-based palettes is Design-Seeds.com. Creating a new color palette is easy in both Keynote and PowerPoint due to the “color grabber” tool (pictured below).

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Next, choose your typeface. One or two fonts working together can help you further emphasize unified design. It’s important though, that if you choose two fonts, you work to use them together consistently. If choosing one font (which is in my opinion even better), choose a font with multiple weights. Choosing a font like Josefinsans is an excellent beginner design strategy. Fonts like these come with multiple versions (light, italic, bold, semi-bold, etc.) or weights that can be used in different ways (to show emphasis, for instance). Using one font with multiple weights further emphasizes unified design.

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Supporting Shape/Imagery

Presentation design can take on many forms. Sometimes an image alone can communicate volumes; sometimes an image or well-aligned series of images paired with text can work better. According to the Picture Superiority Effect, words paired with images help us retain information far longer than text or image alone. Sometimes, though, an image is great, but helping that text gel with the image (especially when one is trying to use a full-bleed image) can be difficult. Using a shape on a visual can help that text more visible as well as reinforcing your design’s overall unity. You can also begin making decisions about the type of imagery you will use. Will you use pictures, icons, or a combination of these?

Here is my design decisions slide for Ideate:

Design elements; Network designed by Brennan Novak from The Noun Project, Brain designed by Linda Yuki Nakanishi from The Noun Project, Earth by  NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Design elements; Network designed by Brennan Novak from The Noun Project, Brain designed by Linda Yuki Nakanishi from The Noun Project, Earth by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

These are the rules for creating a design slide for a presentation. What about for a slidedoc, the new brand of design introduced by Nancy Duarte’s firm a few weeks ago? Well, according to Duarte, a slidedoc needs the same kind of visual support that a presentation does–consistently treated imagery, colors, and a typeface set. However, a slidedoc, because it is meant to be read can be more diverse. Instead of one typeface, a slidedoc can feature multiple typefaces for heads, content, and highlighted text; a slidedoc can also include five colors with two additional neutral colors (grey, black). Finally, a slidedoc needs a system of images, icons, and shapes.

Here is my design decisions slide for my first slidedoc, “An Introduction to the New PCP.” I chose five colors plus two neutrals (as I tell my students, I’ve done this enough to move beyond basic visual design and they can too with time!), two fonts, Josefinsans and Josefinslab, and as this is a slidedoc, I’ll be using a combination of shapes, icons, and imagery to create emphasis.

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Slideshare of the Day: Wild Slides by Make Great


Roar Sweetly aka Make Great aka Charmaine is a TYS reader and fellow presentation designer and educator. She recently debuted her blog on presentation development, Make Great, by uploading her first Slideshare, “Wild Slides: 20 Tips to Improve your PowerPoint Presentations.” This simple and succinct deck provides viewers with 20 practical tips for developing, designing, and delivering slides to an audience. Charmaine excels in my biggest area of growth–keeping ideas simple and information delivery digestible. Three of my favorite tips are Content comes before slides, Don’t treat slides as a teleprompter, and Work hard on your slides. I believe the first two tips are manifestations of the third. If one works hard on one’s slides, there will be great attention to what needs to be said (and why) over decoration and the presenter will know to develop slides that serve as the enhancement of and not the container of information.

Check out Charmaine’s deck below and her blog here!

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Another Great and FREE Resource by Duarte Design

In late 2013, Nancy Duarte, fairy godmother of presentation development and design, released a free HTML 5 version of her landmark text, Resonate. I instantly fell in love with this version of her book, which took the print version to a new level of interaction and connectivity. This entirely free version of the book contains behind the scenes tidbits, interactive exercises, videos, and guides to important concepts like Duarte’s Sparkline. This week, Duarte Design released Slidedocs: Spread Ideas with Effective Visual Documents, a free guide to creating what Duarte believes to be a necessary common ground between the density of long-form reports and a live, immersive, cinematic presentation of information. What do you do when you want your audience to preview data and information before a big presentation? What about after a presentation when someone asks for your presentation? What about when you aren’t able to conduct a live presentation at all? The only answer is no longer a lengthy, text-heavy report. Instead, Duarte takes the concept of a “slideument” (coined by Garr Reynolds in Presentation Zen) and actually turns it into a positive–the beautiful blend of text, image, layout, and thorough content development, the “slidedoc.” Check out the interactive and again FREE guide to creating slidedocs below or visit duarte.com/slidedocs. This guide will come in handy as we rework the PCP course. I’ve already seen how presenting information via text-only in proposing the class to others has led to confusion instead of clarification. Thinking of the instruction sheets and other course information we provide to students as slidedocs will help us ensure students not only study their course materials carefully but are engaged and interested while doing so!

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SIMPLE Design: Make Unity a Priority

I am fortunate enough to work for a school that provides teachers with some pretty neat tools for instructional design and student interaction. I teach an on campus iteration of Professional Communication and Presentation (PCP) six times per year. In addition, I also teach one to three sections of the online version of PCP. While I work on both the online and campus classes, in the past six to nine months, the PCP team has been tweaking and retweaking the online course. Teaching public speaking and presentation online is often the pits! How does one create the level of engagement and immersion needed to really help a student internalize weeks worth of material in only 60 hours, or 4 weeks? Well, in some cases, the answer is still forthcoming, but thankfully, I am able to at least engage with my students directly each week through our GoTo Trainings. If you aren’t familiar with Citrix’s GoTo Meeting, it’s becoming the industry leader for synchronous remote meetings, and it’s exclusively used by my school for internal meetings, workshops, and virtual classroom meetings/lectures. The service isn’t perfect and its inability to handle my media rich video archives has caused me to get creative with distributing the session to those who cannot attend it live, but the chance to interact with students and to clarify assignments, lessons, and intentions is invaluable to myself and other online educators. In PCP, I am responsible for holding the GoTo sessions for weeks 3 and 4. Week 3 covers the delivery “leg” of the presentation stool: what REAL Delivery means, how some of the more important aspects of that model fit into an online structure, some best practices for how to rehearse for the students’ upcoming Ignite presentation, and an open Q & A.

In preparation for this one-hour session, I have to adapt the unity and structure of my already existing REAL Delivery deck to fit this structure (as opposed to the structure of a four-eight hour block of class). The exercise leads me to think about two important lessons related to 1. design and 2. organization. In this post, I’ll cover the first lesson:

SIMPLE Design: Make Unity a Priority

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Although this deck is a hybrid of my Conquering Presentation and REAL Delivery decks, AND the inclusion of a few class-specific elements, my goal in creating a visual aid to accompany this session is to use unity–the repetition of key elements like color, text, background, shape, and image style–to communicate how this piece of the students’ learning journey fits into the whole. For most of us, unity means choosing a pre-made template and adding elements.

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Templates are wonderful examples of how unity actually works (choose key elements, repeat and variate on a theme) and why unity is important (consistency helps reduce confusion and puts the focus on content and meaning, not visual fluff). Unfortunately, the limited number of templates, combined with our ingrained use of presentation software (open program, choose template) makes templates cliche, watered-down versions of unity.

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To make unity a priority, focus on taking the idea of a template (repetition) and making it your own. Instead of using someone else’s vision to communicate your concept in a way that is instantly forgettable, use repeated elements to create a unified theme that communicates your concept in an original way.

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Here are a few best practices for choosing two of those key repeated elements, type and color.


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Focus on readability and consistency; your fancy font may be right in line with your topic and theme, but if your audience cannot read it, what’s the point? I cycled through several different choices for REAL Delivery, including my standby, Bebas Neue. I chose Utility all caps because I preferred the heavier weight and thickness when paired with Edmondsans. However, I found that not spacing my letters out somewhat (kerning) made readability a problem. So, when choosing a typeface, integrating it into your design and combining it with your other elements, remember the following:

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Finally, if you have the option of using a font or typeface beyond what is already included in your software, a great place to start is FontSquirrel:

Font Squirrel is one of my favorite sources for commercially-available typefaces and fonts. Their selections are high-quality, carefully selected, and lovely!

Font Squirrel is one of my favorite sources for commercially-available typefaces and fonts. Their selections are high-quality, carefully selected, and lovely!


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A second important element to consider in creating your own unity or making unity a priority is color. Here are three useful tips on choosing color from Ethos 3’s Color Matters:

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One final tip is to use a great color generator, such as design-seeds, which Alex Rister recently discussed on Creating Communication. Here are two of my other favorite color generators/color tools:

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Check in tomorrow for the second lesson from my GoTo Training experience: Murdering Your Darlings. Next week, we will move on to the P in SIMPLE Design, Pictures are Superior!

Check out the rest of the SIMPLE Design series below:

SIMPLE Design: Why Simple Isn’t Easy

SIMPLE Design: Ideally, One Idea Per Slide

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Simple Design: Ideally, One Idea Per Slide

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The SIMPLE design series covers my six principles for effective visual design. The first piece in this series covered the concept of simplicity in design, with a focus on a very basic truth–simple isn’t easy; it takes work. In this installment, I’ll cover the next letter in this acronym, “I,” which stands for…

Ideally, One Idea Per Slide

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Years of slideument conditioning has led all of us (including me as you’ll soon see) to see our slides as a document, something that is only really complete when filled with content (text, image, clip art, chart, random animated gif). This habit means that we’ve managed to keep our slides low in number, but high in noise (and conversely, low in signal).  According to Garr Reynolds, “[p]rojected slides should be as visual as possible and support our point quickly, efficiently (good signal-to-noise ratio), and powerfully. The verbal content, the verbal proof, evidence, and appeal/emotion comes mostly from our spoken word” (Source). So, in a live situation, it’s the presenter and not the slides who must carry the weight of the signal or content. Creating a content-heavy slide places the focus on the visual aid (in the worst way possible), can cause cognitive dissonance and confusion, and can damage a speaker’s credibility. As an educator, I felt the need to fill slides with as much content as possible, especially in courses I felt less than solid in or that required more lecture focus than composition and writing, particularly Latin American Humanities:

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What’s wrong with this slide? Well, even when I presented information by only showing one bullet at a time, my students first had no tangible concept to attach to ideas like “universal constructivism”, and second, as John Medina discusses in his must-read Brain Rules, the mind cannot multi-task, which is exactly what we ask audiences to do when we create slideuments. Our audience must read our slides AND listen to us, which they just cannot do. According to Medina, “[r]esearch shows your error rate goes up 50% and it takes you twice as long to do things” (Source) when the myth of multi-tasking is in play. Further, as Nancy Duarte asserts in Slide:ology, slides, like billboards are “glance media”, which means that your audience should be able to process your visual story quickly and then return to listening to your awesome content.

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The situation becomes even more complex when we are asked as presenters to provide our slides for publication or when we use our slides as study guides for our students. How do we keep our slides cinematic AND also communicate dense amounts of content? Reynolds has a few suggestions, including the most obvious and useful one–create a set of display slides and create a separate document with complete notes (Source). I find that doing this gives students the opportunity to use their critical thinking skills and decide what is really important or note worthy.  I want to share one of my most important design epiphanies that helped me find a good balance between content and design. Keeping this idea in mind has helped me move towards truly SIMPLE Design: An Extra Slide Costs Nothing!

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So, instead of placing every bit of information about Joaquin Torres-Garcia and Universal Constructivism on one slide, I can break the information up over many slides.

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Have you faced the challenge of creating cinematic slides that are also content-rich? What are your great ideas for moving away from the slideument? 

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Corporate vs. Conference: Jesse Dee’s You Suck at PowerPoint

Jesse Dee’s “You Suck at PowerPoint” is one of the most viewed presentations on Slideshare with over 1 million views.

In his presentation, Jesse lays down the five biggest mistakes PowerPoint users make and provides some fixes for these problems. Jesse Dee’s 5 mistakes are:

  1. Too much information, or what Garr Reynolds refers to as a slideument.
  2. Not enough visuals, or text-driven visuals decrease retention, not increase it.
  3. Horrible quality, or in a age of abundance and design, audiences no longer respond to clip art and comic sans.
  4. Visual vomit, or once you have visuals, you must design them for maximum effectiveness.
  5. Lack of prep, or the number one reason why users rely on bullets and templates is because of a lack of content development and rehearsal time.

Because of its popularity and in your face honesty about the misuse of PowerPoint by individuals and corporations alike, the presentation often faces a bit of resistance and backlash. Today, a response to Jesse Dee’s presentation was posted on Slideshare:

The presentation, by design firm Stinson Design, calls attention to several of Dee’s suggestions that Stinson Design believes just won’t work for corporate presenters. The deck makes a distinction between corporate and conference presenters based on the level of control one type of presenter has than another does not. Conference presenters, according to the deck “have control on their content and can decide to present minimal amounts of data” (Source). In contrast, corporate presenters are limited because they must present dense amounts of information and data. The distinction is unclear to me because as a conference attendee, I’ve seen conference presenters display dense amounts of information and data (unfortunately, mostly using bullet points and poorly designed data display), and as a presenter, I was restricted by time, audience type, and subject matter. As someone who has watched four years of “corporate” business pitches, I’ve also seen dense data and complex financial information be presented in a cinematic way that still shows the investor that the presenter is knowledgeable and able to communicate the complex using simplicity.

In the deck, several challenges corporate presenters face in using the cinematic method of presentation design are brought to light. However, instead of looking at these challenges as reasons to abandon the universal principles of design used by 21st century presenters, let’s look at some of these challenges as opportunities. In every instance, presenting well is a challenge; it’s all about being up to the challenge!

Challenge #1: Cutting content is not always possible because corporate presenters have A LOT  of information to communicate

Jesse Dee provides a reasonable solution for this. Use one slide for each piece of content, data, and information. Stinson believes that the amount of information that needs to be presented makes this solution impossible. However, as instructional designers and teachers have learned, the working memory is a finite container (Source). It’s working memory that we are addressing when presenting information to others, and that part of our minds can only retain so much information before information begins to flow over the top of that container and out of our minds. As Julie Dirksen points out, “You can keep handing material to your learners, but you can’t make them carry it around” (Source). So, we must focus as presenters on what’s really necessary; we must be ruthless editors and only include what’s necessary on a set of slides. Similarly, we must understand that slides are not always necessary. A few days ago, I shared this tongue in cheek example of a PowerPoint version of The Gettysburg Address. The idea Lincoln was communicating was complex, controversial, and challenging. He uses ingenuity, the brevity of words, and pathos to communicate this complex idea to his audience in a way that has resonated for hundreds of years.

But, this doesn’t mean that we are sacrificing information for design, not at all. Your audiences can easily (actually much more easily than on a slide) read through dense amounts of information on a document (and that document can be designed for maximum readability, flow, and retention) that you hand out as an accompaniment to your slides, which are not meant to be containers of your information, but an enhancement of your content. This is not a “luxury” as the deck claims. It is simply good old-fashioned troubleshooting. It also helps keep the presentation of content relevant to the audience. Despite what we tell ourselves, our audiences don’t want all of the information on a slide (even if they are conditioned to this). Subconsciously, the mind wants to be able to easily and clearly make sense of information. This is best accomplished by breaking up dense information into smaller chunks.

Challenge #2: It’s easier for a conference presenter to find imagery than a corporate presenter because corporate presenters need niche-specific images

I want to address this challenge very simply. It is not easy to find strong imagery–for anyone. The process of finding and choosing strong images requires time, ingenuity, and at times metaphorical thinking. I sometimes spend hours looking for one image, only to have to revise my approach because I am restricted to commercially-available images only (which is the same challenge corporate presenters face). On this blog, I’ve shared several ways to search through compfight.com, which is one of the best resources for free images available to corporate folks. Another option is the use of commercially-available iconography, such as those found on The Noun Project.

Challenge #3: Custom fonts are great but they are not so great for sharing a presentation with others. Similarly, standard fonts are not really that bad as long as the material is clear/readable

I have to agree with the creators of the deck that a standard font is not really THAT bad when it comes to design, and if one has to use a font like Arial, that’s at least better than using comic sans or herculenum. However, what makes a standard font problematic is that just like standard stock imagery, your audience is desensitized to it. This is not to say that I believe one must use a custom font (many of which are free), but using a typeface that connects to your audience, message, and theme can help set your message apart from others in your audience’s mind. Presentation designer Christin Upshaw puts the choice of font quite well:

“[U]sing just a basic font that EVERYONE has (Arial, Tahoma, etc.) is absolutely the right course of action. That doesn’t mean your presentation has to have bad design, it just means the font can’t be something you purchased. You can still make it look great.”

So, what do you do if your client does not have a font installed on his or her computer? If the license allows distribution, give them the font. Even better, export your work as a pdf (which is how many Slideshare users, including Stinson Design, upload their work) and distribute a static, unchanging, and well-designed file to your attendees.

Challenge #4: PowerPoint is still most often used, so it’s the best way to create your work and distribute it to others

Yes, PowerPoint is still the standard, but what’s awesome about tools like Slide Rocket, Google Docs, and Keynote is that files can be converted to PowerPoint (Keynote actually opens PowerPoint files..something I doubt Microsoft will ever add to PowerPoint) and shared with your audience. Neat, right?


So, what’s your take on the corporate vs. conference style of presenting? Are these really unsurmountable challenges?

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Simple Design: Why Simple Isn’t Easy

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The Simple Design series will cover the basics of strong presentation design. The first part in the series is an introduction to the concept of simplicity in design and what that truly means when it comes to creating strong visual aids.

Often, when I consult with students, teachers, and professionals on presentation design, the subject of simplicity comes up. The idea that something complex should at the same time be simple can be a road block for novice presentation designers, particularly because we are so conditioned through misuse of presentation software to fill up every available inch of presentation “real estate” with bullets, clip art, non-sensical diagrams, doo dads, fire animations, wingdings, company logos, word art, and any other number of PowerPoint distractions. Imagine if Abraham Lincoln had used PowerPoint? What would we actually remember about The Gettysburg Address.

Simplicity is a powerful element to creating strong visual aids. Further, simplicity is something we crave, something we are now primed to seek out as we are driven to seek out meaning. Simplicity is the key to meaning; it allows your audience to move past noise directly to signal. But, simplicity isn’t simple or easy. John Madea, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, understands the power of simplicity first hand; in fact, he wrote the book on it. In his 2007 TED talk, “Designing for Simplicity”, Madea dissects the intersection of simplicity and complexity; simplicity is complexity, but it’s complexity at its most elegant and meaningful.

For Madea, simplicity is a part of the human experience; it’s about living life with more joy and less pain. But, simplicity isn’t simple, which is where design comes in. Design is the intersection of art and technology, the simple presentation of the infinitely complex human experience. At its best, design is about simplicity because design is about focusing on the meaningful. In a world of death-by-PowerPoint, this idea of simple design is even more important in the creation of visual aids and slideshows. Why? Because at the core, slides are a form of information design, the use of design elements to communicate, persuade, or inform.

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However, when we choose a template and create a seemingly endless repetition of title, bullets, clip art, incongruous transition/animation, we make content more important than the visual presentation or design of that content. So, what’s the solution? Well, you guessed it–it’s time to make presentation design SIMPLE. The six simple design elements are:

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The first lesson in the Simple Design series is “simplicity takes work.” Before jumping right into designing slides, we must first prepare ourselves for the design mindset, and that means defining what we mean by work.


When it comes to slide design, one of the first and very honest things I tell students and teachers alike is that paring your work down, resisting the urge to jump right into a template, and being ingenious with the tools presentation software provides you with takes much more work than the opposite. To work towards simplicity, begin by considering three areas.


Firstly, it’s important to analyze the context of the presentation and whether or not slides are truly necessary to communicating your message (yes, they are expected, but are they necessary?). A set of slides, if it’s only decoration, can quickly become a distraction for your audience and can cause them to focus less on what you have to communicate and more on what is happening behind or next to you.

Secondly, if you’ve determined that slides are necessary, you should then create a framework for the presentation by developing a storyboard of your content and organization. One of the most consistent pieces of advice given by professionals like Nancy Duarte, Garr Reynolds, and Steve Cherches is go analog! Get away from that computer (believe me, you’ll spend plenty of time on the computer), use your visual thinking skills, and draw your ideas out. Drawing out your presentation can help free you from the restriction that can come from only relying the imagery you search for (whether it is stock photography or creative commons images/iconography). Drawing and storyboarding also helps you see connection you might miss via the linear layout of a slideshow.

Finally, it’s important to set your slides up for design.


This means beginning with a blank slate, so that you can resist the urge to conform your ideas to a template, as opposed to building a “look for your ideas”; turning on grids and rulers (would you build a house without a way to measure your dimensions?), so you can make precise placement a priority; and familiarizing yourself with your presentation software’s advanced tools such as cropping and image editing, font or typography, shapes, objects, and visual effects, so you can polish your individual elements and overall design.


Whether you use Keynote, PowerPoint, Prezi, GoogleDocs, or Slide Rocket, it’s important to begin with a blank canvas. The biggest detriment to original simplicity is the pre-made template.


Any good presentation software includes features that assist you in designing. Designers make deliberate decisions and consider alignment and hierarchy above all. Using grids, rulers, and getting a “bird’s eye view” of your slides will help you move towards simple design.


Finally, explore your software’s advanced features. Keynote and PowerPoint both allow users to edit and enhance images, for instance, which can help you mold an existing image to fit your original theme.

Once you’ve set your slides up for design, it’s time to move on to the I in SIMPLE Design. Stay tuned for the next installment in this series, in which I’ll cover the glance media rule and its connection to slide design.

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Appropriation in Design: How thin is the line?

Being a designer is being a pirate–you sail the proverbial seas of creativity, see some sweet design booty, plunder it, and make it your own. But, while the “be a pirate” philosophy encourages us to be influenced and inspired by the approaches of others (what better way to prove a design works than to see iterations of it and variations on its approach in other places/mediums), appropriation can very quickly lead to plagiarism. I want to clarify that I am not accusing anyone of plagiarism in this post, merely citing examples of appropriation that are useful in discussing the real difference and line between being inspired by a design and iterating your own, and mimicking or copying someone’s design without attention to the design’s intent or purpose. So, what is the difference between appropriation and plagiarism? Is there a way to clearly define what is acceptable inspiration and what is design piracy?

Botero is one of art's most famous appropriators. This is his "Monalisa", featuring his unique perspective.

Botero is one of art’s most famous appropriators. This is his “Monalisa”, featuring his unique perspective on an existing motif.

Paisley ( Some rights reserved by BrianJamesPhotography)
Botero Monalisa ( Some rights reserved by Micah & Erin)
Picture Frame ( Some rights reserved by eriwst)

According to William Denttrel in his 2005 article for the Design Observer Group, “In the world of design… there seems to be an implicit understanding that any original work can and will evolve into the work of others, eventually working its way into our broader visual culture” (Source). But,  when the derivation is essentially the same as the original, Denttrel’s ultimate point is that this is both “[sad] and wrong”.  Essence here is defined as the core of the composed design. Denttrel is comparing two images of the motif “bird in hand”. One is a stock image used by magazine STEP. The other is one in a series of photographs by artist Victor Schrager. Schrager’s well-known work has been exhibited in museums including the Whitney Museum of American Art, and it’s been published both in magazine and book form. Yes, you may copy type, color, tonality, but composition and intent are different. As curators of art and creators of art (yes, I afford presentation design the same status as other forms of design), shouldn’t we respect the rights of originators? Shouldn’t we look for opportunities to praise appropriation as opposed to mimicry?

Jason Carne defines the difference as follows:

“An artist’s style is not something that is instantly achieved, it’s something that takes years upon years of practice and experimentation to settle into….Hijacking someones personal motifs far exceeds that of simple idea theft, because you’re not just taking a design – you’re taking years of hard work away from someone for your own personal short-term gains.” (Source)

I believe we’ve reached a similar (though entirely different…arghh!) impasse in presentation design.  What makes appropriation more problematic in this field is the fact that as presentation designers, we are supposed to iterate from what we observe others doing. There’s only so many ways to convey a concept using Keynote or PowerPoint right? It is as important in presentation design to clearly define the line and also respect the creative efforts of others, especially in a medium that we’ve been conditioned to use in a peculiar way–choose your pre-made template and fill it in with your information. The problem with doing this with a set of slides is that mimicking type, color, and layout choices coupled with mimicking organization, tone, approach, and content (in the case I am featuring below, the only real change was to phrasing/wording) can cross the appropriation line and move straight into plagiarism.

Recently, on Slideshare, this debate has come to the surface due to some perceived similarities between the work of one designer, SlideComet and another Illiya, aka The Presentation Designer. Both Alex Rister  and slide superstar Eugene discussed the similarities between the decks, and I do believe in this case, that Illiya’s concerns were warranted and his response legitimate. He also provides a useful solution. As he put it:

“[W]hat I will continue to do is work on improving my own unique style, take inspiration certainly but I will always strive to keep things fresh and original. This is what I would urge others to do. There will always be the similar fonts, and colour schemes but what you can’t follow is personality and style.” (Source)

However, reader, I do want to point out that there are more problematic examples of appropriation found on Slideshare and that it’s high time that presentation designers have a dialogue about this subject. When a work copies the essence of a designer’s original, we’ve moved beyond using similar tools in different ways. Check out the following example I found while perusing Slideshare. You can see the original first and then the derivative. The derivative changes only a few of the words used and employs the same type, color choices, and layout decisions. To me, this definitely dilutes the message of the derivative. The fact that the derivative was featured as a top presentation of the day further complicates the situation. I actually would never have seen the deck or recognized it had Slideshare not featured it.

“10 Ways to Be a Marketing Genius Like Lady Gaga” vs. “10 Ways Librarians Can Be a Marketing Genius Like Lady Gaga”

This is the original deck by Jesse Dee.

This is the derivative by Gwyneth Jones.

What do you think? Does this cross the line between appropriation and plagiarism?

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