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Hierarchy And Contrast: The Basis of Good Design
By Margo Halverson   Printer Friendly Version

The basic question: What do you want the viewer to see first?
You sit facing your computer, staring at the big slide presentation you've been putting together all day, and you are bored out of your skull. It's not the project. It's not the information. It's the fact that your slides look just like the last PowerPoint presentation you made. And the one before that. And the one before that.

But what are you supposed to do? Unless you've been trained in design -- which few of us have -- it's hard to know what goes where or how to put things together or in what order, so that you communicate your message boldly and effectively.

Well, of course, no one can become an instant graphic designer, but understanding a few design basics can transform that presentation from dull to dynamic.

At the heart of all good design is the concept of hierarchy, which is the process of ranking elements (your graphics and text) in order of importance. It is the basis for every design decision and makes you ask yourself the question: "What do I want the viewer to see first?"

Well, you've probably put together enough slides to know you most often want your viewer to see your headline first. But what about all the other elements? Do you give them all similar weight? Are they all of equal importance? Of course they're not. And that is why you must use certain design techniques to set them apart.

They way in which we do this is through the use of contrast. Simply put, contrast means making bold design moves that show differences between elements. (Slight variations, on the other hand, cause conflict, which only irritates the eye and confuses the viewer.) Contrast enlivens the slide, adds visual interest and makes clear where the viewer's eye should go first.

It is achieved through a number of methods -- element grouping and spacing, type size, style and color -- and through choosing which of these work together and don't compete.

Using contrast need not be a complicated proposition. In fact, the simpler you keep things, the more likely you are to produce a slide that's easy to read. Think of it this way: When you want something melodic and harmonious to come out of your stereo, you don't turn all the knobs up to 10, do you? No, because all you get is noise.

Well, you can run into the same kind of "noise" problem on a slide by turning everything up too high -- making too many elements too big, too bold, too colorful. Too much! What you need to do, instead, is to start small, experiment and be selective. You'll be surprised how much contrast you can achieve through just one or two design moves.

The Key to Clear Hierarchy: Rank and Simplify
Start by ranking your elements in order of importance and deciding what needs to go on your slide. Remember -- white space is your friend. Don't try to cram too much in. Next, group related elements -- bullet points, lists, names, for example -- and isolate them for emphasis. Grouping tells the viewer which elements are connected in meaning, and isolating them (spacing them apart from one another) helps to break up blocks of text and graphics on your slide.

Now you're ready to add contrast.

Size is an obvious first move, although you may want to leave this for last, since you can often achieve sufficient contrast through other more interesting design techniques. Keep in mind, though, you should use no more than three type sizes per presentation, or you'll risk running into that "noise" issue.

Next, you may want to try experimenting with the text style. Bolding out a word is certainly one way to set it apart, but italics, a different font, small caps or underlining can produce the same effect.

Color creates lively contrast, whether it is added to a word or phrase, or used for line rules, bands or boxes. Not only does color grab the viewer's attention, but it also helps to isolate your elements. But you must be careful and sparing with color. More is definitely not better. (Again, noise alert.) You must also make sure your choices are bold -- no gray with light blue! -- and that your contrasts are clear.

Exaggerate One Item, Not Everything!
Once you have worked through these techniques, you may want to experiment by exaggerating one or two of them. Exaggeration will help establish a focal point and make clear to the viewer what is most important on the slide and in what order it should be viewed. One, big red word on an otherwise black-and-white slide will help shout that word out, as will capturing it in a band or box of color. Size alone can also be exaggerated. The trick is to keep it in check and be selective.

Most important in making your slides interesting and engaging, however, is to not always go for the most obvious move. Who says a headline has to be at the top of your slide? Through the appropriate use of contrast and exaggeration -- boxing it out, bumping it up, putting it in color -- you can draw the viewer's eye to it first, no matter its position on the slide.

But you must remember, once you have made a design decision, you must stick with it throughout your presentation. You must strive for consistency in order to maintain clarity, and you do this through repetition: Keep your headline in the same place on each slide, repeat type selections, color and line rules, or you will end up with a muddled mess.

Following these design basics -- grouping related elements, isolating for emphasis, contrasting type style, color and size, exaggerating and repeating elements -- may not make you a graphic designer, but your presentations may end up looking like they were put together by one.

See examples of good design vs. bad design by clicking on the links below.

Slide 1 | Slide 2 | Slide 3

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