The Art of Slide Design


With conferences and meetups ranking high on the average dev rel team’s set of priorities, it can be surprising how often bad slides can get in the way of good clear communication. In this session, recorded at DevRelCon London 2017, Technical Manager Melinda Seckington shares how some simple design element tweaks can magnify the impact of your presentation.


For most of my life, I hated giving presentations. As a kid, as a teen, as a university student, I was so scared and nervous that I tried to avoid giving talks as much as possible. Because whenever I did do one, I’d basically be a bunch of nerves for the entire week before my talk. And often, because of those nerves, the presentation would really not turn out that great. And I didn’t believe it was something that I’d ever be able to do. And I didn’t really think it was something that I’d ever be able to enjoy.

So, for me, the secret, the magical solution came from preparation. So I find that whenever I try to learn something new, it becomes easier for me if I understand all the different aspects, all the different building blocks of what it is that I’m trying to learn.

And with presentations, it was about a couple of different things. So it was about understanding my emotions, and how my face, and body, and voice were reacting whenever I got nervous. It was about understanding how to tell compelling stories and how to keep an audience engaged. And it was about understanding how to use the tools I have in the most effective way.

And alongside our voice and our words, our slides are pretty much the most important instruments in our presenter’s toolbox. And we all should learn to use them as effectively as we can.

Effective slides start with clear goals

So that’s basically what this talk is about, How to create effective slides. But what does that mean? What makes your slides effective?

So let’s take a step back and look at why are we presenting in the first place. So what’s the goal of a presentation? Now, at first glance, you might think, you know, each presentation is different. Some will be about teaching a new skill or a bit of knowledge or a new API. Some will be to convince people to use a specific product. Some will be to inspire people to change or do something new. So there are endless motivations for giving a presentation and no two presentations will ever really be the same. Yet, at the heart of it, they all have one thing in common.

No matter what your presentation is about, your number one goal as a presenter is to allow your audience to absorb your information. So whether you’re trying to teach, convince, motivate, frighten, sell, inspire, it’s your responsibility to make that easier for your audience. And this all ties in with the concept of cognitive load. So this is the amount of mental activity required to accomplish a goal. So with mental activity being things like perception, memory, and problem-solving.

So this definition comes from this book, “Universal Principles of Design.” And I’ll be referring to it a couple of times in this presentation. And it’s a really, really good resource book covering 125 design principles and it ties it all back to psychology and physiology research.

And in that book, we also find this quote about cognitive load, “Design should minimise cognitive load to the greatest degree possible.” So when we talk about effective, slides we mean slides that help reduce that cognitive load, slides that help, rather than prevent your audience from consuming your information.

So, how do you create effective slides? How do you create slides that are compelling and help your audience understand what you’re trying to say?

And I think the answer lies in shifting that question to, how do you design effective slides? So we can get a better understanding of slide design by looking at actual design theory.

So, I wanna share four principles of slide design. And hopefully, help you to create slides that allow your audience to absorb that information that you’re trying to present.

So, one thing to bear in mind here is that I don’t believe that there is a one true way of creating slides. So this whole talk isn’t about getting you all to create the same type of slides that I do, but rather it’s helping you to get a basic understanding of design and applying it to your own style and presentations.

Principles for slide design

So, principle number one. Maximise signal, minimise noise.

So this principle comes from the theory of signal-to-noise ratio. So, this is a concept that in every type of communication we have, there is a certain amount of relevant information, the signal, and there is a certain amount of irrelevant information, the noise.

And with good designs, we want to maximise that signal and minimise the noise, so ending up with mainly relevant information rather than irrelevant information.

So, how do we do that in our slide designs? How do we make sure that the information on our slides is mainly relevant rather than irrelevant? And I think we have a couple of different things that we can do to achieve this.

So the first is focus on one purpose per slide. So this is about maximising the signal. So the moment a slide has multiple purposes, it dilutes that relevant information that you’re trying to get across. So rather than having a single slide covering multiple ideas or concepts, split them out over several slides. So this is about making sure that your slide is as relevant as possible to what you are saying at that point of time.

This also means two things. One, your slides are not your teleprompter. Because at that point, your slides have two purposes. You’re using your slides to get a point across to your audience and you’re using your slides as reminders to yourself. If you really need something to help you remember what to say, use your presenter notes for that because that’s what they’re there for.

Number two. Your slides are not meant as notes or references for people after your talk. Your slides are meant for the audience that are there in the room with you. If you need to share something with people afterwards, use a format that actually makes sense for that. So a blog post or a video of a talk or anything other than the slides that are meant for your audience. So make your audience the number one priority when you’re making your slides.

So one thing I see happen a lot is using bullet points to cover multiple ideas on one slide. So, for instance, this slide about cats. If you’re gonna be talking about each of the individual points for a couple of minutes, you’re basically diluting the signal of every single point that you’re trying to make. Because while you are talking about the brief history of the house cat, your audience is actually reading and thinking about all the other things that are on your slide and they won’t be listening to you.

So it’s much better to split that out over multiple slides. Allow your audience to focus on that one thing that you’re trying to get across. Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t be using bullet points at all, but use them to support the specific purpose of your slide. So, for instance, in this example, they’re used to list a set of names that belong together. So all the information together is what makes it relevant.

Another exception is when you’re using it to recap or give an overview of all the things that you said earlier. So this slide has the same content as we saw before but in this scenario, you’ve covered each of those points already. So the purpose, in this case, is to show stuff that you’ve covered before in one single slide. So the audience doesn’t have to focus as much on the individual points because none of it is new information, they’ve each been dealt with separately already. So, context really matters a lot.

Minimise distraction

The second thing we want is to make sure our slides aren’t distracting. So, in this case, we’re trying to minimise noise. So ensuring that we don’t have any irrelevant information. So, I’ll give a couple of examples, but there are lots of different ways that your slides can be distracting. Generally, try to use common sense and just make your slides clean and simple.

So, one way of being distracting is by having way too much text on one slide. So the moment you have a slide like this, people stop listening to you because they’re either distracted by trying to read all the stuff on it or they get distracted by trying to listen to you and read at the same time. So think about what information really, really matters and distill it down to just the very essential.

Another way slides can be distracting is when there’s just too much going on them. So this is an extreme example, even though my cat is really awesome. But I often feel that people want to use all the space that they on the slide. So making things just super busy and really hard to process. So keep your slides simple and clean so that they’re not visually distracting.

So this is exactly the same images as before, but because there’s no overlapping and because there’s no text over it it’s much easier for the audience to process.

So to recap, you can maximise signal by focusing on one purpose per slide and you can minimise noise by reducing distractions on your slide.

So principle number two. Make important information stand out. So again, let’s go back to some theory. So, the von Restorff effect is a phenomenon where you’re more likely to remember things that are noticeably different than things that are common. So this is about making things look more unique or distinctive so that it stands out more and that people will remember them.

So this is basically what the definition of contrast is, “The state of being strikingly different from something else in juxtaposition or close association.”

So what we want is to use contrast in our slides to make things memorable. So, a good example of using contrast comes from this book from Nancy Duarte which is all about how to make good presentations. And I recommend looking at it if you’re interested in learning more about this topic.

So, in that book, one of the things she explains is contrast through disvisualisation. So highlighting how we can use contrast in a couple of different ways. Using color, shape, size, shade, and proximity. So in each of these examples, you’re automatically drawn to the element that stands out.

Finding your colours

So, I’ll cover only three of these here and give examples for them because I think shade is basically a variation of colour, and proximity is actually quite hard to apply I find. So I’ll give some quick examples for each of these, starting with colour.

So first step is choose a colour palette which has contrasting colours. So in the case of colour, contrasting doesn’t necessarily have to mean exact opposite. It’s more about having colours that work well together and are different enough from each other that you can see that they are noticeably different. So I won’t go into too much detail here about colour theory because there are quite a lot of websites and books out there that cover this. One of those websites though, that I really like is So this allows you to quickly try out different colour combinations and it shows different variations of it so it helps you choose what colours you wanna use.

So one way of using colour contrast is to use it within a slide to highlight the most important phrase or data. So going a bit meta you’ll have noticed that most of my own slides have been following this pattern, with the yellow as a highlight piece of data.

As I mentioned before, the colours don’t need to be too opposite to each other. So you can use the same colour, in this case, green and achieve contrast from having the different variations of green.

And besides using contrast within slides, you can also use contrast between slides. So if you use Keynote, this is the Light Table View, and you basically can get to see an entire overview of all your slides.

So this is an overview of one of my presentations from last year. And I basically, each time, used a red slide at the start of a section to highlight that we were beginning a new section. And because all the other slides are white, the red title slide just stands out much more and makes people pay attention.

Think about shape

Second way to use contrast is shape. Now, traditionally, when you think of shapes you think of things like that. Circles, squares, triangles. And while they can be used within your slides for contrast, those aren’t actually the shapes that we rely the most on in our presentations.

What we rely on a lot are fonts. So one way of achieving contrast is through using different types of fonts within your presentation. So, I tend to use custom fonts because the fonts that are built in our systems are mostly designed for reading paragraphs of text. So they don’t really quite work as well on a slide. And also, people are more familiar with them. So it won’t stand out as much as it could.

If you don’t wanna spend anything, the first place to look is Google Fonts for free fonts. The main focus of that collection is providing fonts as web fonts, but you can download them too and use them in most slide editors.

If you’re willing to pay for fonts, have a look at the bundles on these websites. So rather than buying a single font, you basically buy a bundle of different fonts. And they often include quite a large and interesting selection. And there’s also lots of different pretty fonts out there and you can kind of get addicted to it so be careful with that.

Once you have multiple fonts, you can start playing around with them to create contrasts. So, in this first example, we’re using different fonts within the same phrase or sentence. So the contrast is used to highlight specific words.

Second way is just using different fonts for different elements on the slide. So, in this case, is about making it easier for the audience to understand the different purposes of those specific elements. Because if it was all in the same text, it would just make it much too confusing to read and to comprehend. So this is again, about lowering that cognitive load that is on your audience.

And the same is true for when you’re displaying code. So if you’ve got multiple elements on your slide with different purposes, use contrast to show that they are different.

Third way to use contrast is size. So the simplest way of using size for contrast is just grabbing an element and making it bigger. So using it to make a statement about something. Or you can play around and make each part of the sentence a different size. Again, you’ll have noticed I tend to use this pattern a lot within my own slides.

What becomes interesting, though, is when you start pairing different fonts, with different sizes, with different colours. It means that you can really play around with making a slide look quite graphic. And these types of slides will stand out more and just make it more compelling to people, making it more memorable for them.

So these are three ways that you can use contrast to highlight key information and make it more memorable for your audience. So, through colour, shape, and size.

So, principle number three is Show and Tell. This principle comes from the picture superiority effect. So it states that information recall is better when combining text and images. So rather than relying on purely text alone, we should be using visuals to support what we are saying. So people remember things better if they’re absorbing that info both in text and in a visual way.

Adding visual elements

So I wanna talk about four ways of adding those visuals to your presentations.

So, first, photos. Photos are pretty much the easiest way of adding visuals. It makes your slides more lively, more memorable. The thing though, with photos, and also with gifs is that they do need to be relevant to what you are saying. So keep principle number one in mind. Maximise signal, minimise noise. So the moment that photos aren’t relevant or if the connection is too tenuous, the photo only becomes noise.

So the main place I still go for my photos is Flickr. So specifically, their Creative Commons search. So it means that you can easily search for images with specific licenses, making it easier to know whether or not you can use them.

Another place I go is Pexels. They have a huge collection of free to use stock images. And while they can be quite pretty, again, the main thing to keep in mind here is make sure they’re relevant. If they’re not, it’s better to just use an abstract background or just a solid colour. So don’t use photos for the sake of using photos.

I mentioned these design bundles earlier already, but again, these are great resources for finding images as well.

So the easiest way to use photos is to use them to completely fill up the slide and then pair it in some way with text over it. Just to compare, you can see that if you use the smaller image, it just doesn’t have as much emotional impact. And using the smaller image, it actually makes a slide much more distracting.

So, by using the image as the background, you’re driving the point home much, much more. And if you use the right image, the audience will have a much more visceral reaction, which, again, makes it more memorable.

So play around and experiment with different photos and different fonts because changing either can make a slide feel quite different.

Next is icons. So the easiest resource for icons is the Noun Project. This website offers a ton of royalty-free icons of all different topics. And you’re bound to find icons in there that you can use. I even found one for Synergy once. And I’m really annoyed with myself for looking that up.

And again, I’m mentioning the design bundles just because that’s where most of the icons from this presentation come from.

So, icons work as nice little highlights to cement the text that you’re already showing. It’s a lot less distracting than photos but it’s enough of a memory cue that it will help people recall information.

So, third way of adding visuals is using shapes. So with shapes, I mean, use the shapes that are built into your editor. So you can make lines, triangles, circles, squares, and you can achieve quite a lot when you start combining them to create interesting visuals for your slides.

So, one example is to create simple pie charts. It makes a stat just jump out a little bit more. And looking behind the scenes, it’s not that tricky to build up. In this case, it’s two elements. A yellow circle and a blue square on top of it that’s the same blue as the background.

So, once you get the hang of shapes, you can start constructing more interesting slides. So building diagrams that are much clearer than relying on text alone.

And finally, if you combine shapes with fonts and photos, you can really start making your slides look a little bit more unique and give them more personality.

Using animation

So final way to add visuals is animations. So, before showing some examples, I need to remind you not to misuse them. So most presentation editors, they support a lot of different animations. And quite frankly, most of them, like that one, is super, super distracting. If you use animations, try to make sure the animation you’re using makes sense for the purpose of the slide. If it is distracting, make sure the benefits of using it outweigh the downsides.

So one of the most powerful animations within Keynote is Magic Move. So you basically grab an element. So this can be a shape, a font or a photo. And then you just copy it to the next slide and do something slightly different to it. So put it in a different position, put it in a different size. And then Keynote, once you select the Magic Move animation, will just automatically figure out what that animation should be. So you don’t have to play around with trajectory paths and stuff like that. Keynotes will just do the hard stuff for you. So you basically end up with something like this in a really, really quick way. So you can use it to very quickly move things around and just give some movement to them.

So, I mainly like to use animations in places where, by using them, you’re making it easier for the audience to grasp some idea or concept. So, for instance, in timelines. So you’re using the movement to create this illusion of a timeline. So making it easier for your audience to understand.

So those are four ways that you can add visuals to your slides. So using both text and images, it means that your audience will be able to grasp your ideas and concepts much quicker and remember them more.

So, final principle is be consistent. So when we hear consistent, I think some people interpret that as “Let’s make everything look the same or use the same background and the same font for every single slide,” and that’s not what I mean here.

So, in design, consistency is defined like this, “The usability of a system is improved when similar parts are expressed in similar ways.” So when we’re talking about consistency in slide-design, it’s about making sure that those slides that are similar, look and feel the same way. And I think slides are similar if they have a similar purpose. So a bit of a mouthful, but use consistent designs for slides with the same purpose.

Identifying patterns

So this is all about identifying your slide patterns. So what are the types of slides within your presentation? And then make sure that you follow those same patterns over and over again. So, I’ll use this presentation as an example because for the past 20 minutes or so you’ve all been exposed to some of these patterns.

So, this presentation had the heading slide. So, bright and yellow to stand out. We then had our design theory slides. We had our example slides. And then we had all our other slides, which followed a basic design of blue background, white text, yellow highlights with some different variations.

So having these building blocks, it means that your audience have reference points. They become easier to process even though it, kind of, might happen subconsciously. And a handy thing of breaking it down like this it means that for future presentations, you have much more tangible building blocks to use. And as you do more and more presentations you end up building your own library of patterns that you can reuse, and it becomes easier and quicker to put these slides together.

So, identify your slide patterns. What are the types of slides that are in your presentations?

So those are four principles of slide design. So, to recap. Maximise signal, minimise noise. Make important information stand out. Show and tell. And be consistent.

So I hope that by applying these you will make it easier for your audience to consume the information that you’re trying to present. And hopefully, create more effective and beautiful presentations

So, if you had told me 10 years ago that, nowadays, I would regularly be giving presentations and enjoying them I wouldn’t have believed you. At the time, I assumed that to give a good presentation, I would need to focus a lot on me. Making sure that what I say is good, making sure that I don’t make a fool of myself, making sure that I don’t uh and um. In reality, though, the ‘me’ part of it isn’t that important. Good presentations are all about the audience. So it’s your job as a presenter to make sure that you teach, inspire, and motivate your audience.

So, thanks for listening.

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