Applying Principles of Design to Presentations

I really enjoyed exploring the Presentation Zen blog this past week, and noticing the ways that good design can really make or break a presentation.  Unfortunately, bad presentation/slide design is so ubiquitous that we come to expect it, and it usually never phases us when we are subjected to poorly designed presentations ourselves.    
(Left panel of the Shōrin-zu byōbu (松林図 屏風, Pine Trees screen) by Hasegawa Tōhaku, c.1595.  The effective use of empty space can help accentuate other areas of the work.  This is true in art, as well as presentations.  Photo credit: Wikipedia –

In addition to the resources provided as course links, as well as through the posts of other COETAIL blogs that I follow, I did a little extra digging myself into other resources and places to learn more about designing presentations that are both effective, and aesthetically pleasing.  In this video, Paulina Maldonado of Georgetown University shares her thoughts and advice on the subject, which are very consistent with those highlighted in the Presentation Zen blog, and elsewhere.

For this blog post, I’ve decided to apply the principles of Presentation Zen to a set of slides that I used recently in my grade 10 science classes.  The slides are part of a biology unit in which we (myself and other grade 10 science teachers) aim to use farming as a context for introducing principles of ecology, and the interconnections between biotic and abiotic factors in an ecosystem.  In the unit, we use the “push pull” farming method as a case study.

Version 1:

The first version of my presentation was put together very hastily, and under time pressure.  Even before learning about the principles of good design, I was aware that this was clearly not the best looking or aesthetically pleasing of presentations.  But – it got the job done. So above, you can see the original version, containing many slides that proudly flaunt total disregard for good design.  

This set of slides offered some “low hanging fruit” for design improvement. Photos were placed in places that seemed arbitrary, links to documents or videos were pasted in full on the slides, and some of the slides used too much text.  There are other issues with the design of the first version as well, but you get the idea.  They speak for themselves, and I’m sure you will agree that this will not win any awards for good presentation design.  .  

In redesigning the slides, I made the following adjustments, which you will be able to note when comparing the two.  

  1. I applied pictures as background, instead of pasting in photos as “boxes” against a plane background.  
  2. I paid careful attention to color contrast between text and background, to ensure that text was clear.
  3. I placed text in areas where there was no visual conflict with the background image.
  4. Replaced whole links that were haphazardly pasted in the presentation with hyperlinks in specific words/text.  This dramatically cleaned up the appearance of several slides.  
  5. I tried to use as few words as possible, to minimize reading during the presentation, and (hopefully) maximize the essential concepts of what we are trying to convey.

Here is the second version of the presentation, in which you will be able to identify the changes highlighted above.  

Version 2:

Having completed this second, improved version of the original presentation, the natural question to ask is – why not do this for every presentation?  As Jeff Utecht explains in this video, design takes time.  My own experience specifically resonated with his sentiments as well, in finding that it was the hunt for good visuals that took the most time.  Now that I’ve learned the principles of good presentation design, it will be impossible for me to not critique other presentations that I watch – or give.  I know that I will cringe on the inside while giving presentations that will clearly violate many of these rules and guidelines, however, I simply don’t have the time to tweak every slide to meet these standards.

If you have any further feedback on other ways I could modify this presentation, please leave a comment below.  I also welcome any other resources you might recommend for learning more about elements of good design in presentations.  Thanks for reading!

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