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.
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:
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.