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

Better Dropshadows

Learn how to create realistic and high-impact shadows for graphics. Go beyond the world of stale shadow presets in PowerPoint and delve into soft gradients, transparency and more.

Since the advent of computer-aided design, the world has become enamored with dropshadows, the subtle shading that sits behind an object to make it appear levitating above the canvas. Graphic artists use to meticulously create these by hand in Photoshop. Now they can be achieved through a series of quick presets in just about every program on the market, from Photoshop to Word to CorelDraw.

Unfortunately, Microsoft’s implementation leaves a lot to be desired. PowerPoint’s dropshadows are achieved by clicking the small “Shadow” button in the lower design toolbar. While we are able to choose the angle, design and color, the effect is little more than a flat gray shape that lacks natural-looking gradation or transparency. In a word, it looks fake.

There are two alternatives, however. One method uses PowerPoint, the other requires a more advanced graphic-editing program like Photoshop.

Using PowerPoint

The PowerPoint technique works best for solid, simple shapes, especially squares and circles. First, replicate the item and delete any content. Open the “Fill Effects” options box by clicking the small triangle next to the “Fill Color” icon (the one that looks like a tilted paint bucket). Click the “Gradient” tab and apply the following settings, substituting the light purple for your slide background color. Hit “OK” to apply the effect.

PowerPoint Gradient Settings

The shape gradient should now fade from black to your chosen color, making it appear “soft.” On the main canvas, right click the shape, and choose Order > Send to Back. Position it behind the original shape, resizing if necessary.

Using Photoshop

This method is more time-consuming and subject to trial and error, but produces a far more satisfying result. First, open Photoshop and create a new document in RGB color, 500 pixels wide and tall, with a resolution of 72 dpi and a background of “Transparent.”

Select the Marquee tool (M), and draw a square (hold down Shift while dragging for a perfect square) that’s about 400 pixels big. If you have the Info palette open, you can monitor the size as you are dragging the square. Go to Edit > Fill and select “Black” from the first dropdown menu. Hit OK, then Select > Deselect (or Ctrl+D) to remove the selection. You now have a big black square.

Center the shape inside the canvas. Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur, choose a radius of 15 pixels and hit “OK.” In the Layers palette, change the transparency to 60%. Then go to File > Save for Web and save the file as a PNG-24. Drop this into your PowerPoint, and marvel at seamless transparency.

Gaussian Blur Setting

Note you can resize this graphic within PowerPoint, but not alter the shape itself. If you have a wide rectangle and wish to create a corresponding dropshadow, you must create a long rectangular version in Photoshop. This can take a bit of experimentation, but for presentations where image is important, it’s worth taking the time to achieve a superior result.

Over the course of several projects, I have created a library of different shadow shapes, so now I can pretty much find what I need (or something close) without opening Photoshop.