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Thirteen absurdly common slide design mistakes that are holding you back (with GIFs!)

When’s the last time you looked at something that was poorly designed and said, “Ya, I’ll buy that.”

Probably pretty rare, right?

Look at the world's top brands — they all emphasize design and design thinking.

Why? We are innately visual learners.

Even before design was a thing, humans have looked at visual cues to determine danger.

Fast-forward to now, design is everywhere: billboards, movie posters, websites, social media, and, of course, presentations. We now even have tools like Canva and AI-driven software that takes the guesswork out of the design and allows anyone to create amazing content with a few taps.

Our professional output largely revolves around one thing: presentations.

Presentations are an inherently visual medium.

We're using slide visuals to tell a story, emphasize a point, or communicate an idea. How pleasing our slides look is a massive part of how credible our presentation comes across.

This is why it's important for everyone who makes presentations to not just throw a few bullets on a slide and call it a day.

This is why it's important for presentation creators to pick up a temporary mantle of “Slide Designer” when we are indeed designing slides — even if you don't have “Designer” in your title.

Why everyone should learn a little bit of design 

In the world of presentations, design helps us bring to life intangible concepts like statistics, strategies, or sales pitches. Design can make research seem more simple and strategic frameworks less confusing.

In general, design helps your audience perceive information better. One study revealed that our brain is wired to process visual information faster as approximately 90% of the information that is transmitted to the brain is visual.

Apart from this, the brain processes visual information faster than text. The same study reported that visual information gets to the brain 60,000 times faster.

Retention and comprehension of information also increases when text is combined with visuals. Another study revealed that student performance increased to 89% when text-based instructions were accompanied by visuals.

Moreover, our memories may be fundamentally linked to images. Education consultant Dr. Lynell Burmark discussed the power of visual literacy.

He believes that words are only processed by our short-term memory, claiming that “unless our words, concepts, ideas are hooked onto an image, they will go in one ear, sail through the brain, and go out the other ear.”

Additionally, Dr. Burmark believes that images are permanently ingrained into our long-term memory. This was further confirmed in a study that found that after three days, users retained 65% of visual information which was a stark contrast to the 20% text retention rate for written or spoken information.

These data-backed claims demonstrate that it really doesn't matter how brilliant your content is — if it comes with bad visuals, it might as well be thrown in the trash.

So let’s dive into common mistakes non-designers make when building their decks!

Line it up

Elements on a slide create imaginary lines that our brains pick up. If one line of text doesn't line up with another, or if an icon is a bit lower than it should be — you've got alignment issues. This takes practice to really get good at, but start by drawing vertical and horizontal lines on the page to check the alignment of everything that's on it. Remember, the less stuff that's on your slide, to begin with, the easier it will be to line it up.

Space it out

One of the number one issues novice (and experienced) presentation creators make is that they put too much stuff on a slide; it's almost as if there's a desire to want to fill every single blank space on it with text, photos, and images. This, my fellow presentation creators, is the opposite of what should be happening. Don’t take empty space as an invitation to add more stuff! Space out your elements on your slides, give them room to breathe. If it looks crowded, odds are, it is.

Mind your margins

Every design has a margin, the spacing around the outside of the document where content is not permitted to extend beyond. Margins shouldn't be too thin and margins should be respected — meaning don't allow content to cross the margin line. When you have a margin violation, it creates unnecessary clutter that our mind kind of freaks out over. To avoid this, make sure you always keep content inside your margins.

Pump the color brakes

Limit the amount of colors you use on a slide (photographs aside). In most instances, it’s best to use your brand or company's existing color palette. However, if you need to use your own, be strategic. What I usually recommend is to pick one primary color and one highlight color. 95% of the time, you'll be using your primary color (or different shades of it) and gray scale colors (like near-black and white). The near-black I use is #333333. The remaining 5% is reserved for your highlight color to be used only when you need to draw attention to something important. For more inspiration on picking your color palette, you can reference the trending palettes at Coolors.co.

Keep it in the (font) family

While fonts can help convey meaning and emotions, it’s best to leave the font experimenting to the designers. For non-designers, the safest route to go is to choose a single font family with a variety of font weights. This way, you can’t go wrong in mixing and matching serif and sans serif fonts.  

Pick one thing to focus on

I frequently ask clients I work with to pinpoint the most important thing on the slide. Nine times out of ten, the thing they show me is usually buried somewhere hard to find on the slide. This could be a statistic, a short phrase, or even a chart. Each slide should have the most important thing be the most noticeable thing. Making it big and bold and front and center with less important elements being smaller, and more subtle.

Consistency is king

Inconsistency is the enemy of good design. Headlines that jump around a tiny bit from slide to slide. Text sizes are all over the place. The list is long.

But, here are a few inconsistencies that you should always check:

  • Headlines should be in the same place and be the same size

  • Margins should be the same

  • Circles should be circles and not ovals

  • Fonts should all be the same

  • Pick only a few font sizes and stick with them

  • Colors should all be the same (e.g. use the same red or blue throughout)

  • Slide numbers should all be the same

  • Graphs and table formatting should all be the same

  • Icons should be the same style

  • Similar elements on a slide should be consistent

Lastly, the best way to maintain consistency is to design something once, then duplicate it and replace the content. This way, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time you want to drive.

Lean into your Master Slides

A good template will have standard font sizes and places for content throughout. Again, don't reinvent the wheel if you don't have to. Use your template to reorganize content on your slides, so they fit best practices. Don't have a solid template? Email me and we can chat.

Keep copy short and sweet

As a standard practice, it’s best to limit your paragraphs to no more than three lines of text and keep your sentences under ten words. Also, never go more than two-layers-deep with your bullet points and try to keep the number of sub-bullets to four or less. It's gets crazy beyond that. 

Easy-to-read = easy-to-understand

Any copy written on a slide should be legible otherwise, what’s the point? It's okay to have smaller font sizes, as long as you have bigger font sizes that summarize what the smaller font size is trying to say. 

Moreover, if you're putting text over an image of photograph, make sure it's easy to read. In this situation, I always recommend making the photograph darker, or putting a solid color semi-transparent shape between your text and your background image.

Lastly, according to design textbook author Emil Ruder, the optimal character count per line of text should be between 50 and 70 including spaces. Ruder adds that jumping to a new line energizes the subconscious mind.

Don’t ramble, just show a visual

Since visuals are more effective in communicating information compared to text, visualize your ideas and content when possible. Something attached to key dates? Show a timeline. Talking about a process? Show a process visual with key steps. What about something geographical? Show a map with some pins in it. Doing this massively helps with communicating ideas, no matter how complex.

Change things up, but not too much!

It's important to not bore our audience with the same slide layout over and over and over again. To avoid this, you should change up your layouts throughout your presentation. However, this tip is usually taken to its unfortunate extreme when I mention it. To avoid this, I recommend darker and more photo-heavy slides for beginning and ending slides — with middle slides sticking to white backgrounds.

See a good layout? Steal it.

If you see a good layout in another presentation, steal it. Straight up! I'm not talking about just ripping off the entire design, I'm talking about the layout: the elements a slide has and the general size and positioning of each. Practicing tried-and-true layouts is the easiest way to get better at design and boost your consistency. 

Putting it into Action

In order to communicate great ideas, data, and content, you need to be able to explain it visually. Otherwise, you might as well throw that deck in the trash. You don’t need to be a trained designer to learn design principles, so start avoiding these mistakes in your next deck and watch the results roll in.

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