Three PowerPoint presentation design rules you can break

Learn these PowerPoint presentation design rules. Then learn the occasions when you can break them.

When it comes to PowerPoint presentation design, some rules are inviolable. Break them and you’ll be performing the Ghostbusters equivalent of crossing the streams, ushering in a world of pain, seven years of bad luck and tuts of disapproval from your audience.

Take typefaces for example. What have we told you about keeping things clean and simple? Well today we’re going to tell you the opposite – with a few caveats of course. Nine times out of 10, it pays to heed PowerPoint presentation design rules. Every now and then, though, it pays more to go against the flow.


Rule #1: Use clean and simple fonts that are highly legible

It’s generally recommended that sans serifs fonts are used for presentations as these are sharp and easy to make out on-screen, even when being viewed from the back of a lecture theatre. Major developers, such as Google and Apple, have long favoured sans serifs, and where Apple goes the world generally follows. The recent trend for flat design is merely a continuation of this, favouring legibility over all else. If you want your slides to stand out, it makes sense to use sans serifs, right?

Most of the time, we’d tend to agree. After all, there’s little point in deploying ornate fonts if your audience will struggle to make them out. If they’ve got to decipher your message before they can process it, you’ve already lost. And yet, there are some instances where you can get away with using fancier fonts, including serifs and scripted designs. HD displays keep getting better, with improved resolution and backlighting giving more decorative fonts a chance to shine. For body text, we’d still recommend sans serifs, but if your display quality and room size will permit, there’s nothing to stop you from being more adventurous with your headers and titles.


#Rule 2: Use images sparingly

Images are an ideal way of breaking up text, providing welcome respite from slide after slide filled with dense text and little else. We’re all aware of the power of images and of the need to select powerful imagery that will enhance a presentation as opposed to cheapening it. But to be effective, images – like animations – need to be used sparingly. Otherwise, instead of highlighting your key points, they’ll hijack your presentation. But at the risk of sounding like Morpheus from The Matrix, what if we told you it was possible to feature images on every single slide and get away with it?

In some cases, not only can you justify using images throughout, but you can use them at the expense of text. For this approach to work, there are a few conditions that will need to be met. For one thing, it helps if you work in a creative industry. Web developer? Fashion designer? Cupcake maker? Go ahead. Provided you’re willing to supply the words – you know, by speaking to your audience – there’s no reason why your slides can’t largely be image-based, with simple headers serving as your only on-screen prompts. Wow them with pictures of your gorgeous desserts or responsive websites. Win them over with your persuasive words.


#Rule 3: Your presentation should follow a script

Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end, and we’ve certainly expended enough energy on emphasising the importance of storytelling, even when delivering a corporate presentation. Slides should follow one another in a logical order to avoid jumping from point to point, leaving your audience befuddled. Well, as you’ve probably guessed by this stage of the article, here comes the part where we encourage you to do the complete opposite.

Depending on your subject matter, there may be occasions where not only can you get away with abandoning a narrative, but doing so will actually improve your presentation. Typically, this will involve a highly-interactive presentation where the direction it takes is reliant on audience interaction. Thanks to Zoom for PowerPoint, it’s never been easier to assemble nonlinear slideshows, jumping from point to point on a whim without having to manually cycle through your entire slide set in the process. You’ll need to be familiar with your subject matter and confident at deviating from your script to pull this off, but do it right and your audience will look at you like you’re some kind of presentational god. Which is exactly what you are.


Breaking the rules to make your point

Just because absolute rules exist doesn’t mean you have to follow them absolutely. We wouldn’t suggest you run amok and start wilfully breaking every rule in the book, but if you’re confident with the fundamentals of PowerPoint, there’s no reason why you can’t start experimenting as your audience and subject matter permits. Ditch sans serif fonts. Overdose on images. Deviate from conventional storytelling narratives.

As the maxim goes, rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools. Break all of these rules at once and don’t blame us if you end up with a screen full of spaghetti. Bend them in isolation, however, and beautiful things can happen.

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