Slide Design Principles

Giving a slide presentation has become a routine part of oration. But slides have also become overused and misused. Don’t settle for being one of the legion who inflict “death by PowerPoint” (or Google Slides or your other slide application of choice). The Graduate Division online Canvas Professional Development course includes a video module on Slide Design Principles. You may self-enroll in this Canvas course. The video covers the following slide design principles.

What? Who? Why? Plan on Paper Before Opening Your Slide Application

Write your script before considering what graphics will help convey your message. Your script—and your accompanying slides, should you decide you need them—answer the questions, “What is my presentation about?” and “Who is my audience?” The answer to the third question—“Why do I need slides?”—needs to convince you that visuals will increase audience understanding of your spoken message, the way illustrations in written text do.

Draw rough drafts of (or describe in a few words on notecards) the images you decide you need and insert them into the script. After creating your images, you’re ready to open your slide application and add the images.

Images Rule, Use Text Sparingly, Never Read Your Slides (or Ask Your Audience To)

Images should dominate your slides. If you use text, be terse. Never put full sentences on slides. Never read your slides. The Redundancy Principle explains why not to do this.

Images that take up the entire slide real estate are best. Any very terse text that you think must go on the slide with the image can be superimposed for effect.

Make sure you give credit to images that are not your own and that you have permission to use them if they are not in the public domain and specifically cited as free to use. Even if they are free, cite where you got them. (This is also what you should do for any data you provide in your talk and on your slides that came from sources other than you and your research.)

Make One Point Per Slide, Put No More Than Six Elements on a Slide

Don’t offload work that belongs to you onto your slides. Slides supplement and support you. The spoken word is your primary means of conveying your information. (Read the previous section; visit the Redundancy Principle site.)

Keep slides simple. Most people can retain no more than seven elements or bits of discrete data in short-term memory. Think of the seven digits of a local phone number. Limiting slide elements to six increases the odds of them being remembered by the audience. All elements on a slide should work together to make one point.

Tell a Story

A presentation related as a story with narrative arc—beginning, event(s), end—not only will be more memorable to the audience but will also be easier for you to remember and perfect with timing. Your slides should visually aid the telling of your story.

Don’t Use a White Background

Particularly on an electronic screen, a white background fatigues eyes faster than even just an off-white background. Light elements on a dark background work best, the greater the number of slides.

Use Color Judiciously

Primary colors grab the attention of those who can see the full color spectrum. If you use color to distinguish the different elements of a graph, add a secondary way of distinguishing, such as patterns. Consult websites that reveal what colored graphics look like to those with various color deficiencies. (Two of these are Colblindor: Coblis Color Blindness Simulator and Color Oracle.) Just as color reliance should be avoided in website design, so, too, should it be avoided in slideshow images.

Colors and their combinations also evoke particular moods to the all-color-seeing. You’ll find numerous sites about this concept online.

Use the Animation Feature Judiciously

Some animation features can help you tell your story and drive home points, but don’t get carried away. Having your maximum of six elements appear one at a time on your slide might make them more memorable.

Use the Blackout Feature to Bring Attention Back to You

Remember that slides supplement you and what you’re saying. Give your audience time to take in a slide with the point that the slide is helping you make or the part of the story you’re telling; then black out the slide to bring full attention back to you and what you’re saying. Consider focusing audience attention on a slide completely by ceasing to talk after you say what goes with the slide and then blacking out the slide to bring the audience back to you.


Practice a lot. Memorize your talk—not word for word (except, perhaps, your opening statement)—but the points or outline of how your talk goes and what slides you’re going to show for which points or parts of your story. This strategy gives you the freedom to tell your story, make your points, with slightly different words. Memorizing your presentation and wearing a microphone headset or lapel microphone allows you to leave the podium and walk around your stage and directly interact with your audience. Doing this will also get your audience more engaged and make for a more memorable presentation.