Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Backgrounds With Impact

There are several technical and aesthetic considerations when choosing and building backgrounds.

Ensuring your content and messaging are crystal clear is only half the battle in a successful presentation. Like a jury, the audience is constantly judging you on the small things. Jumping text, inconsistent colors and poorly implemented graphics are errors as grievous as showing up late, stumbling over notes and never making eye contact.

Graphic design should be invisible. The slide background should facilitate the message, not dominate. It should set the tone and frame the content, give it a place to exist, but not distract from the message or the speaker.

To that end, there are some considerations when choosing or building backgrounds. Some points are technical. Most are simply about the little things, and how these add up to make the design serve the greater purpose.

High-Contrast Content

A presentation is useless if it cannot be read. High contrast is imperative. There is no global equation for determining if a certain text color works on a certain background color; the process is instinctual and subject to trial and error.

  • For white backgrounds, black and dark versions of red and blue work exceptionally well.
  • For dark backgrounds, like black or rich blues, white is ideal, but options such as yellow or very pale, icy blues can achieve interesting and often captivating color combinations.
  • A good visual trick is to use a background color that accepts both white and black font colors. Dark oranges, rich greens (apple green especially) and even certain blues can be excellent choices for the design-adventurous.
  • Color combinations to avoid: Black and red, in any situation. Also color-similar combinations, such as orange text on yellow backgrounds, or light blue text on dark blue backgrounds.

Let Your Images Pop

The same contrast rules apply to pictures. It would be unwise to put flowers on a bright background, when white or black would be more effective in making the colors pop. Just as counter-productive would be an American flag on a red and blue background, or a green bar graph on a green background.

Background choice is especially critical when working with non-square images. Unless they are created with true transparency (see the tutorial “Creating Transparent Graphics”), they will be stuck with a white background. If the white clashes with an underlying color or pattern, it looks hurried and unprofessional.

Solid Works Best

Solid fields of color are always better. White text is more readable on a block of dark blue than a picture of water since there are no textures to distract the eye. This is why large images set as backgrounds can be dangerous. Unless they are heavily “screened,” blurred or faded, they are more likely to hide and obfuscate text than help reinforce your message.

Conservative gradients can work just as well as a solid color, while adding a touch of visual interest. The operative word, however, is conservative. Fire engine red fading into lemon yellow is not conservative; it is a diabolic combination more likely to melt the eyes of your viewers.

Headers, Footers and Vertical Borders

Headers, footers and vertical borders can add tremendous visual value to your background. Instead of text or pictures floating in a large blob of white space, these elements frame the content and help define the “setting” for the story.

Headers also denote important information. For instance, using a high-contrast header for slide titles is often a good idea because the dramatic color difference will catch the audience’s eye.

Consistency is Key

Often, the single element that sets award-winning design apart from cringingly bad amateur design is consistency. To that end, stick with one background. Only once have I ever found the need to construct two different backgrounds for a single presentation. One was for normal text, the other for showcasing a specific type of graphic — in this case, pictures of the client’s retail stores. Using more than one background should be a deliberate and meaningful design decision.

Be Faithful to the Theme

In this case, the word “theme” is an umbrella term. If you work for a large corporation, there are already branding guidelines to adhere to, like using the company’s fonts and colors. (You wouldn’t want to build a presentation for IBM and not use their signature blue and easily recognized logo. This is their brand, or corporate theme.)

However, your theme might not have anything to do with a specific brand. Maybe you are giving a speech to a group of grade-school teachers. Using dark blue and images of high-tech computer equipment might not be appropriate; instead, consider a softer colors like green and images of chalkboards, textbooks or apples. They might be visual clichés, but nothing will be more effective in promoting the theme of education.

Careful Image Preparation

The short version:
For all backgrounds, make the images 1600×1200 and save them as 24-bit PNG.
The long version (with explanation):
You’ll find many presentations with backgrounds that look “fuzzy” or “wrinkled.” This is a result of an automatic compression command that PowerPoint places on every imported image. This compression squeezes color and detail information out of an image in an effort to reduce the file size. Rarely are the results acceptable.

There are two concrete rules in getting your images to look razor-sharp. First, always save in 24-bit PNG. There are multiple benefits to this format:

  • 24-bit PNG is “lossless” compression, meaning it keeps the file size small without changing the actual image. On the other hand, JPEG or GIF are “lossy” by nature.
  • You can save a PNG out of just about any program (PhotoShop, MS Paint, etc), and can open them just about anywhere as well (even Internet Explorer), making them easy to share and edit.
  • It is pronounced “ping,” which sounds cool and is fun to say.

The second rule of thumb is to always create images bigger than the final size. Typical projectors, laptops and a good portion of desktop computers display information at a size of 1024 pixels wide by 768 pixels high. Each pixel is a tiny square of color. The more pixels, the more information can be displayed and the more detailed an image will be.

Since the vast majority or any given audience operates in the 1024×768 world, we need to create our backgrounds in 1600×1200. It is the same aspect ration (4:3), but since the pixel depth is higher at 1600×1200, there is far less visible data loss after the picture goes through PowerPoint’s nasty little compression algorithm. (If this is confusing, consider digital cameras. A 6-megapixel camera will capture more pixels in one picture than a 1-megapixel camera. If a 6×4 print is derived from both, the 6-megapixel version will be near-perfect, while the 1-megapixel print will be visibly “digital.” Those five extra megapixels are squeezing more pixels into the same physical space, resulting in more detail and color depth.)

Armed with these tips, you’re ready to create the best backgrounds your text, charts and illustrations could ask for. You’ll be fine if you remember two important things: good design is invisible, and the most successful backgrounds let the content come first.