This article is meant to give you the ultimate presentation design inspiration. It will provide you with a vast amount of resources, so you can master the art of transforming ideas into beautiful slides.
Putting together great looking slides can be quite a challenge. The reason for this is that the overall process of designing a deck requires much more than just a keen eye for aesthetics. Creating a stunning presentation actually involves a variety of disciplines, and design can only take you so far. This guide will cover all there is to know about presentation design, from the minute you sit down to sketch your ideas, to the moment when you deliver your slides publicly.
So whether you are a designer in the look for some ideas for your graphic work, or simply a regular presenter who wants to improve the quality of your slides, you’ve come to the right place.
Let’s get to it then. Here’s an index of all the subjects we’ll be covering, so you can navigate the article in a much easier way:
Probably the hardest part of creating a presentation is choosing what content goes in, what doesn’t, and on which order. The success of the entire process relies on a solid story, and that’s why it’s critical that you dedicate a fair amount of time to this part.
The overall process of creating a presentation looks (or should look) something like this:
1. Knowledge: Having a solid knowledge of the subject you’re presenting is absolutely key. It will allow to convey your message naturally, and provide the foundation of your presentation. Nothing inflicts more pain than listening to somebody spend two hours explaining something you could’ve learned on Google in five minutes.
2. Content: With great knowledge, comes great content to support your presentation. Be picky with the sources of information you use, and make sure to attribute any relevant source of information as it adds credibility to your speech. Respect your audience, and provide something worth listening to.
3. Synthesis: The editing part is where most people fail the test, as it is probably the hardest and most thorough process of all. It implies getting rid of any unnecessary information, and focusing on small chunks of information that people will be able to grasp and remember. After all, people came to listen to you, not to read a manifesto from a projection. A poor editorial work is a slippery slope that leads to blasting your slides with an insane amount of data, causing the infamous Death by PowerPoint. We’ll further detail best practices on this regard later in the article.
4. Outline: After you’ve successfully synthesized all the main ideas that you wish to convey, it is time to arrange all the chunks of information into a logical presentation outline. Probably the best piece of advice I can give you is to do everything up to this point without even touching your presentation software. Scribble on a piece of paper, on your iPhone or on a computer if you must, but resist the temptation of jumping into your presentation tool for drafts until you’ve managed to complete all the prior steps. It will only distract you, and make you waste valuable time.
5. Design: FINALLY! The fun part, and the easiest (?) part as well! This is the moment to put a spell on your slides, and blow your audience away with a killer visual proposal. Now it’s the time to jump into your presentation software, and make the most of the graphic resources. This article has a big section on presentation design inspiration and best practices so stay tuned!
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6. Delivery: It’s not over till it’s over. You can have the most epic content, in the most stunning slides ever designed, and still screw things up by failing to deliver your pitch properly. The fundamental rule? Practice, practice, practice. You need to be able to deliver your deck even if the projector sets on fire. Most importantly, you need to make a connection with your audience. Otherwise, everyone’s time is gonna be wasted.
Once you have successfully segregated all the most relevant content, you can now start planning how to present your ideas to your audience. The main objective is to guide your audience through your pitch deck, following a train of thoughts that’s coherent and easy to follow. Each presentation has particular requirements, so there are no hard rules here.
Garr Reynolds, who is an internationally acclaimed communication expert, shares valuable tips on this particular stage in presentation making:
“...I usually use a legal pad and pen (or a whiteboard if there is enough space) to create a rough kind of storyboard. I find the analog approach stimulates my creativity a bit more as I said. No software to get in my way and I can easily see how the flow will go. I draw sample images that I can use to support a particular point, say, a pie chart here, a photo there, perhaps a line graph in this section and so on...”
This isn’t intended to be picture perfect, nor to represent exactly how your slides will look like. In fact, this has nothing to do with aesthetics (yet). This is simply a draft to organize the key elements of your story.
Reynolds also quotes the McKinsey presentation handbook to explain the importance of this process:
“...presentation structure is paramount. Without it, your wonderful style, delivery and great supporting visuals will fall flat. If you took the time in the first step to outline your ideas and set them up in a logical fashion, then your thinking should be very clear. You can visualize the logic of your content and the flow of the presentation. If your ideas are not clear first, it will be impossible to design the proper structure later when you create visuals and/or supporting documents. Your audience needs to see where you are going…”
All of this may seem obvious, but the awful truth is that the majority of people skip these steps, and jump into creating their slides right away. Starting by the details (slides) instead of the big picture (storyline) is like choosing what color you’re going to paint a house before thinking about where you’re gonna build it, or what materials you’re gonna use.
“...And it is not enough to simply have an “agenda” or “roadmap” slide in the beginning that illustrates the organization of your talk. If you do not actually have a solid road of logic and structure, then an outline slide will be of no use. In fact, the audience may become even more irritated since you made the promise of organization in the beginning, but then failed to deliver the promise with a presentation which is muddled and lacks focus...”
So, with all of this in mind, make sure you take enough time, and think about your story thoroughly. The easiest, most widespread way of planning your presentation outline is to use the three act structure:
The idea of the three act structure used in presentations is that, after all, to present is to tell a story. It has been used for decades in theatre and cinema, and it is a fairly simple formula: you have three acts to tell your story, and each act serves a purpose to advance that story.
This is where you establish the origin or problem; in a movie that would be the first scenes where you get to meet the main characters of the movie, and the starting point of the movie’s journey. In a presentation, the first act (which in this case is the first few slides) is where you tell your audience about the problem you’re trying to solve, and what the current state of things is for that particular subject. This introductory part is critical, since most spectators are quick to judge you based on the first seconds of speech. There needs to be a hook, a truth about your value proposition that motivates people to pay attention to you. Sometimes rookie presenters make the mistake of leaving all the good stuff for the end of their pitch, and by doing so they risk having enough momentum for the audience to even get to that point without falling asleep. Keep a great quote, a great stat, an alarming number for your first slides to shake your audience from minute one.
It usually begins with a plot twist. A sudden turn in the story that unfolds the main events of the play. In a presentation, this comprises the development of your pitch. It usually builds up as you move along in your slides, up to the point where you reach the climax of your entire presentation. This whole part gives you the opportunity to explain what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, why you’re the one to carry out the task better than anyone else, what is the vision you are pursuing, etc. Keeping your audience’s attention gets even trickier here, specially for presentations that go beyond 30 minutes (it’s hard to believe sometimes people talk non-stop for two hours). No one ever complained for a brief, to-the-point presentation, so don’t stretch your second act for too long.
The highest point of interest, of immersion within the plot, should occur at the end of your second act. This is called the climax of your presentation, and depending on the presentation's purpose, it opens up the opportunity to do “the ask”. That can range from revealing your new product, how much money you are raising, the release date of a new project, etc. If your presentation is compelling enough, the audience is fully on your side. After the climax, the third act is usually the shortest, and helps summarize the main points discussed in your pitch and bring closure to your whole story.
How do you define what’s pretty? Is there even a way to grade aesthetics?
“You recognize a great photograph when you see it, but how do you rationalize why you like what you like?
Turns out there ARE principles that rule the realm of design, and make us like, or dislike, a certain image or graphic composition. These are commonly known as design principles, and work on a subconscious level as we perceive the visible world in front of us.
I’ll focus on 4 major principles that relate closely to presentation design:
The ultimate goal of a graphic composition is to speak with one visual voice. What this means is that all graphic elements need to be coherent, and consistent throughout your design. Unity and harmony are achieved by different methods, which include for example sticking to 1 or 2 fonts tops, and using a color palette that is consistent on your different media outputs.
Unity is absolutely key when establishing corporate identity. A company needs to speak with a unique voice, and that covers from the obvious stuff (company goodies, corporate communications) to more complex outputs (i.e. marketing material).
There should be an intended order in which your graphic composition should be read, and that order should be obvious to the spectator. This is why establishing visual hierarchy is an important part of arranging content. Have you ever visited a website where you don’t know where to start, what to click first, which navigation is global, or local? Well, those websites are perfect examples of poorly established visual hierarchies. The result? People become overwhelmed, feel lost, and quickly lose interest and leave. Conveying visual hierarchy can be achieved not only by positioning elements in an intended and well thought order; it can also be established by the use color, shape and text, and the relationship in size and distribution of each of those elements.
This poster is a great example of visual hierarchy. The reading order is clear, and the font size guides the user from the general to the specific.
“Focal points are areas of interest, emphasis or difference within a composition that capture and hold the viewer’s attention. The focal points in your design should stand out.”
- Smashing Magazine
This means that not all areas of your design hold (or should hold) the same relevance. Emphasizing specific elements adds movement and ease of read, and keeps the spectator more interested in your content than if everything is arranged in a flat, uniform layout.
Not only is this a beautifully designed website, but also has a very clear notion of the page’s focal points: the main one is clearly the product photo, second is the product's name, and third the zoomed details of colors and materials. The rest of the less relevant information comes next: other views of the product, secondary navigations, price (conveniently toned down as to let the user fall in love first before realising this is a 900 bucks baby stroller).
Similarity and contrast coexist in a delicate balance within the graphical space. Let me explain why: Similarity refers to the intentional repetition of elements in order for the user to get familiar with a certain characteristic. For example: when all chapters in a book begin on a right-side page, with the first letter of the chapter in capitalized and bigger font. The benefit is that the user doesn’t have to figure out every time that he’s reading a new chapter; the previous knowledge allows the user to instantly recognize the course of action. Contrast, on the other hand, refers to breaking similarity in order to draw attention.
I said they coexist in a delicate balance because too much familiarity makes things too repetitive and dull, and too much contrast increases cognitive load, and can be perceived as too chaotic. There should be enough of both in order to achieve a harmonious composition.
The same book in its different outputs for various devices. Thanks to similarity, the user can quickly recognize visual references of the design’s identity, even though the virtual and physical format have significant differences.
Now that you have a solid foundation as to how to structure your story, and how to use design principles to achieve better graphic results, you are ready to jump into some serious design inspiration for your presentations!
We’re gonna show you a curated selection of great slides, and analize one by one so you can grasp what was done and why it worked.
This is a great example on how to make a quote slide more interesting. Several elements make it so: the use of a background adds contextual depth, and makes the whole slide look more polished. Notice how the quotation marks are used in an unconventional fashion, making it stand out even more. The big (huge) font size makes the phrase completely stand out. The last thing to notice here is that there is no additional content on the slide other than the quote itself. This is usually the most effective way of including quotes on your presentation, as it grants the quote its proper relevance. Quotes are usually meant to make people question something, or reflect on a specific idea. Let people read it and don’t distract them with more information until it is time to move on!
This is a great example of a clever use of focal points. The one paragraph is located in the upper left third of the slide, making it the first and obvious point of attention. The use of the right image is also something to take notice here: it’s a simple image that conveys contextual visuals, but doesn’t compete with the foreground elements. A slight variation in font size, weight and color allows to emphasize key elements of the phrase in a very elegant fashion. Last but not least: the slide has very few text, which will always make it more readable and memorable. This you’ll hear me repeat over and over, because it’s true every single time.
I’ve selected these slides as a great example of unity throughout a presentation. Notice how while the slide’s content changes, the layout and element distribution remains consistent. This makes all the slides look like they belong to a single collection.
This is a stunning slide! And yet, it is a very simple one. What works here is the use of big, BIG, font to emphasize a certain phrase. You almost feel the text is using up all the space available, even though it’s only seven words long. There’s a very interesting balance between the light font used on the six smaller words, and the bold one used for the bigger word. You almost feel the the latter is popping out of the screen. The use of black background and white font makes the contrast work beautifully as well.
This slide in contrast with the previous one has way more text, yet it doesn’t feel overcrowded thanks to its clever use of different font sizes to fit in more information. It also has a great color palette that makes it very appealing, and it uses great icons to make the concept even more memorable.
The reason why I chose this slide is not necessarily based on its aesthetics, even though it’s a clean and decent looking slide. The motivation comes from dedicating a slide to summarize what you’ll be talking about during your presentation. This is something that’s fairly simple to do (if you have planned your presentation outline properly) and yet a lot of presenters skip entirely. It helps your audience set expectations on what they’ll learn from you, and it pinpoints the main subjects of your pitch, so you can easily remember them if you happen to lose your train of thoughts.
I loved this slide for various reasons. The phrase itself is powerful and inviting. It is graciously displayed using several elements that work harmoniously together: the icon, representing the journey part; the user on the background with the wave thingys around it’s head, reinforcing the user-centred concept; and last but not least, an epic color gradient that makes the slide look awesome.
I love this slide. Why? The background image is beautiful and represents the content perfectly. The font size is small, almost as if to let the image speak for its own. The text alignment is centred both vertically and horizontally, which for this particular image works.
That stupid button icon makes this slide almost impossible to miss. It’s self explanatory, it’s loud, and it’s great because of that. Something else that’s good about this slide is the use of white space (not white as in color white, but in terms of free-of-any-element space). The focal points are absolutely clear.
This is a (far) more elaborate use of visuals, but boy how nice it looks! I can easily picture those slides framed and hanged in an office wall. Sometimes “decorating” does serve a purpose, and that is of making something so darn good looking it ends up being memorable.
These I chose not only because they are presentation tips slides, but also because they are a pair of well designed ones. The second one specially because it reminded me of Timothy Samara's 20 Rules of Good Design; one of Timothy’s rules is “treat type as image”. The clever use of line spacing in this slide is a graphical metaphor of the actual pauses needed during verbal pitches. Smart right?
Such a neat example. This slide is rather complex (vector textures in the front and back; a dimmed, blurry layer to soften the background) but it all comes together in a very nice and easy-to-follow way. The takeaway: a slide can be complex in it’s design, as long as that complexity doesn’t compromise the simplicity of the message. Always aim to have dominant elements in your slides (focal points, remember?), and make the rest of the elements more subtle in their form, color and position.
This is a great way of displaying screen captures in a more interesting manner. Instead of simply copy-pasting your raw screenshot, you can frame it nicely into a laptop vector to make it seem more real.
A cool idea to present company’s metrics. The idea here is to emphasize a part of the info by repeating it somewhere else; the percentage is repeated in bolder, bigger font with a different color and typography, and contrasting it with surrounding elements that draw attention to it, like the circle and the background image. The use of the location icon helps once again make a visual reference of the content being discussed.
This variation of the two column layout works pretty nice to make the slides look edgier. Word of caution: this kind of layout can become a little restrictive and work against you depending on the kind of information you wish to add, because space is limited considerably due to the askew grid. This kind of layout works better with fewer text and simpler graphics.
Another beautiful example of how vector illustrations can transform a simple phrase into an artsy composition. This of course is a very time consuming approach, and probably requires an in-house graphic designer to achieve it. But, if available, it surely pays off. In this kind of presentation, the presentation outline and content needs to be final, because the time required to prepare each slide cannot be wasted in last minute changes.
This slide is a great example of simplicity. The main differentiator here is color, and that turns an otherwise dull slide into a sharp looking one. When in doubt, less is more.
Chart slides have a strong tendency to be boring. This slide is a good reference on how to disrupt a chart slide. The heading merges with the chart to maximize the use of space, and editing the chart to remove unnecessary elements makes it look way more interesting.
When all else fails, a few simple tweaks in your slide design are almost foolproof. Capitalize the font, choose a strong primary color for the background, and emphasize a key part of the phrase with either bold, italics or a different color. Doesn’t get any simpler than that.
So, after all these great examples, the main lessons can be summarized as follows:
These two videos will blow you away, and it’s design inspiration all the way. The first is a TEDx talk by designer David McCandless, who talks about the impact of how data is presented. The second one is by Hans Rosling, who besides being a freaking genius is an absolute role model in terms of speech delivery.
Since you took the time to read this entire article, I want to reward your perseverance and your interest in great design! This I will do by sharing a special design kit that you can download right away :) it includes 6 font families and 25 images that I’ve compiled, completely royalty free, that you can use to make even better presentations. I trust they will help you create inspiring work for others as well. All we ask in return is that you subscribe to our design blog (worry not, we are not the spammy kind). Enjoy!