Published in The New Yorker 9/29/2003
by Alex Gregory
On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia exploded upon reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere. The subsequent investigation that sought the causes of the explosion found that, “that the NASA organizational culture had as much to do with the accident as the foam that struck the Orbiter on ascent.” Part of the problematic culture, it turned out, was PowerPoint.
Prior to the launch, groups of NASA engineers sat around tables, looking at PowerPoint slides like the one below, and failed to comprehend that “test data” didn’t include scenarios that the shuttle’s tiles would experience upon liftoff. Looking at the slide, how could anyone comprehend anything that the slide is trying to communicate?
Five years later, another PowerPoint slide made the rounds as an example of the futility of information overload.
The slide has been cited as “an example of a military tool that has spun out of control.” Once again, the capacities of a slideshow software had been outstripped by the intent to shrink and crop a complex message into a bunch of broken phrases, none of them meaning anything. If my message still isn’t getting through to you, here are a couple of links that list the worst ways to use PowerPoint.
- The 10 Biggest PowerPoint Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
- How to Create Presentations that Don’t Suck
- How NOT to use PowerPoint
What makes a good PowerPoint presentation? Simple: simplicity in design.
The “Look and Feel” of a PowerPoint template
There is one other BIG MISTAKE people make when creating a PowerPoint presentation: they open up a new, blank presentation and immediately start pouring and dumping content into the slides left and right, up and down, without taking a moment, or even an hour, to focus on what message is to be conveyed in their presentation. Think about what your presentation is going to be about, and then ask yourself what the slides should look like without anything on them. If your answer is nothing but blank white space, think again. And don’t be afraid to take some time thinking about what your background, or template, should look like.
Templates include objects that will appear on each slide of your presentation. Let’s look at some examples of PowerPoint templates from the following website:
There are additional links to templates under the PowerPoint links to the right on this page, the ones with the asterisk (*) in front of them.
So what elements make up a PowerPoint template? A color background, simple graphic, and text container are the basic components you should think about designing before typing in your words of wisdom and pretty pics. Let’s look at how to build these pieces into a good template.
Opening up a blank PowerPoint template
Let’s start from scratch.
- Open up PowerPoint
- Click on File | New, and double click on the ‘Blank Presentation’ icon.
I strongly recommend only using the blank presentation template.
That way you have total control over what your template will look like.
- Create 3 blank slides, using the Ctrl-m hotkey. You will see the slides on the left column of the PowerPoint window.
- Again, before you start typing away, or cut-and-pasting content into your slide, begin designing your template by working with the Slide Master.
- Right click on the first slide, select the ‘Layout’ option, and click on the ‘Title Slide’ option. Right click on the second slide, and select the ‘Title and Content’ option. Right click on the third slide and select the ‘Blank’ option.
THESE ARE THE ONLY LAYOUTS YOU SHOULD USE IN YOUR PRESENTATIONS!
Think about what goes on a PowerPoint slide. Some slides are introductions about what is to come in the presentation. These are Title Slides. Other slides are text summaries of information you want to convey to your audience. These are Title and Content slides. And finally, there are slides that are predominantly graphics based, like the old 35mm Kodak Carousel slide projector shows. These are created from Blank slides.
Now it’s time to turn those three boring black on white template slides into something more expressive of the message you want to communicate to your audience.
Let’s start by seeing how you can add color to your slides with just a few clicks of the mouse. When you want to make simple changes to all of your slides, the way to do it is to work with the “background” of the slide. Let’s see how that works.
- Right click on the Blank slide, and select the ‘Format Background’ option.
- Click on the fill color drop down option.
- Click on one of the Theme or Standard colors.
- Click on the ‘Apply to All’ button.
Now, all three slides have the color you specified. But the stupid Microsoft colors aren’t the colors you will want to use in most presentations. So let’s get a little deeper into color models.
- Format Background and click on the fill color drop down option again.
- Click on ‘More Colors…’
- You now have two tabs to work with: Standard and Custom. Clicking on any color on the standard color map will make your background that color. The Custom tab, the one you should use to find the exact color you desire, requires some additional explanation.
On a computer monitor, TV or video projector, all colors are a composite function of Red, Green and Blue colors (RGB). That is to say, any color can be specified by defining how much red, green and blue color is used to create the specific color. RGB color values in PowerPoint are defined in a range from 0 (no color) to 255 (fully saturated color). So a RGB value of (255,0,0) would represent pure red, and (0,0,255) would represent pure blue. Here are some additional examples of RGB color values.
You’re not going to use just one color in your presentation. So there’s another question about color you have to answer: what colors would work well together in my presentation. Answering that question requires creating a color palette. Certain pairs of colors, like blue and yellow, and red and green, stand out well against each other, it is easier for us to distinguish these pairs of colors than say, red and orange. The PowerPoint links to the right, the ones starting with the hollow bullet, (¤) offer you tools to figure out 3 or 4 colors that will work well together in your presentation.
Once you have found colors you want to use in your presentation, all you have to do is write down the RGB values for the color you like, select the PowerPoint object you want to have the color, and use the fill color drop down menu to specify that color.
Common sense applies here — if you can’t read it, your audience can’t either. The two categories of fonts are serif (type with curvy branches of the main stems of a letter) and sans serif (type that doesn’t have the curly qs). You should use sans serif fonts for presentations and (rarely) serif font for occasional impact. Here are some examples of how to use fonts effectively in your presentation. A hard copy of various fonts can also help you choose what font will work for you. If you’re really into typography (like me!) the following tools will help you explore the nuances of fonts in greater detail.
Once you have chosen the fonts you like, follow these steps to include them in your PowerPoint template.
- Click on either the Title slide or Title and Content slide.
- On the menu bar, click on View | Slide Master.
- Your slide will now have the words, ‘Click to edit Master title styles. Right click on a text box, and select the ‘Font’ option.
- Click on the ‘Latin text-font’ drop down menu, and select the font of your choice.
- You can also change the color of the font (remember the color palettes) by clicking on the ‘Font Color’ drop down button.
- Once you are done editing your Slide Master, click on View | Normal to return to your regular slides.
Homework Assignment #2
- Think about a PowerPoint presentation you would like to do (4-5 slides only).
- Visualize in your mind what you would like your slides to look like, to help communicate the message you want to give the audience.
- Click through a bunch of the PowerPoint template links and try to find some templates that are close to the “look and feel” you want for your template.
- Use the color palettes to find 3-4 complementary colors you would like to use for your PowerPoint template
- Use the font links to find 1-2 fonts you would like to use for your PowerPoint template.
Post your answers to these five questions on your post page.
Once I reply to your answers, giving you feedback/revisions, you can go ahead and start designing your own PowerPoint template.