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

Designing PowerPoint

All the flashy backgrounds, painstaking animations and intense clipart research are for nothing if the message has been gutted from the shell.

In my line of work, I find myself constantly producing PowerPoint presentations. Sometimes these are just individual slides (like a diagram or case study), sometimes they are templates, and sometimes they are whole, individual presentations. Most of my PowerPoint work is completed at my day job where I am an in-house designer, but my freelancing alter ego occasionally comes across a client needing some presentational pick-up. Over the years, I have built and edited hundreds of PowerPoint files.

I know a lot of people think PowerPoint is the devil incarnate, but in the corporate world, it is an ubiquitous evil. To shake some of the negative stereotypes, I apply traditional design principals to make my company and clients look better than the competition.

We go to 120 trade shows a year, and we present at every single one. We also use Macromedia’s Breeze for hundreds of online demos. Our PowerPoint is often the first thing a potential customer will see from us, so it is critical (and easy) to make a good impression before they even receive a brochure.

PowerPoint is used by nearly sales guy on the planet, with a whole industry of accessories built around the presentation guru / road warrior concept. It is employed for downloadable or live web demos, and it is even used (or abused, depending on your point of view) to pass along copy, concepts and notes between internal team members. With this volume of use, PowerPoint slide design becomes just another facet of a company’s identity program.

From Chuck’s Neighborhood PeeCee Warehouse to Apple Computer, the local cafe with the amazing bagels to Starbucks Coffee, every business benefits from a unique identity, a look and feel that separates them from competition. The company logo is only a small part. Corporate colors, type treatments, illustration styles and repeated graphic elements are all parts of the greater whole. This identity is carried through to stationary, trade show graphics, packaging, advertising and yes, PowerPoint.

The software has become so ubiquitous that I consider it part of a greater paradigm shift in mainstream communication. The only problem is that this evolution is hindering communication. Like text messaging or 200-pixel banner ads, the information is compressed to a set of key buzzwords, crippling the message by stripping the skeleton of any meat. Bullet points become rapid-fire metadata. I give you the words “purple” and “fish”—you figure out what I am trying to say.

  • Leverage your existing technology
  • Realize rapid ROI
  • Streamlined implementation

Is about as meaningful as:

  • Parsed cabbage flux capacitor
  • Disco glitter manifestation
  • Expressive giraffe BLT

Maybe a hundred years ago those phrases denoted something, but by sheer repetition and abuse, the PowerPoint generation has crushed the meaning like 200,000 people at a Stones concert trampling through a flower garden.

In the same way a good logo supports a successful identity program, good PowerPoint transcends half-assed bullet points and reinforces the speaker—their personality, message and purpose. It doesn’t recycle the same, tired messaging over and over. Not only does it look awesome, good PowerPoint hammers home the presenter’s message with unique phrasing, interesting design elements and a certain disregard for the status quo bullshit buzz-speak.

All the flashy backgrounds, painstaking animations and intense clipart research are for nothing if the message has been gutted from the shell. So while I “design” PowerPoint, I design for the audience because I am focused on how they will react to the information.

Is there anyone else that does PowerPoint for clients or their own company? Is there anyone else who takes PowerPoint design as seriously? I know this is mostly an in-house designer topic, but I’m sure it affects some freelancers out there as well.

commentary + criticism

Stefan Hayden

wrote the following on Thursday December 30, 2004

I just did my first PowerPoint for a school. I went in to the project with a holier then thou attitude and was not looking forward to how PowerPoint would hold me back. Even still it was interesting to rise to the occasion and put together a cohesive project. It was interesting to see how all I saw were the limitations and shortcomings while all the client saw was a massive improvement in the overall presentation.

This post really scares and amazes me that PowerPoint really is a factor in the design business world. Next we need looks in to the best way to put a presentation together and hacks to get more functionality out of it.

With Flash MX, Macromedia has made the push to be the next PowerPoint. While I don’t know if I would want to put 50 year olds in middle management in front of the flash interface I sure wish it were standard for my sake. With designers delving more in to PowerPoint will Microsoft try and add new features to keep in from of their competitors?

This whole idea has my mind spinning.


wrote the following on Thursday December 30, 2004

I watch your feed and I just had to comment – this is an important topic. Powerpoint is not evil, but in the wrong (or inexperienced) hands it can destroy meaning, message, and image without mercy. Remember all those flash intro’s in days of yore? Same thing – a would-be-do-gooder tool in the wrong hands.

This tool is ubiquitous in education, business, the military, the government. I’m a designer, and I’m not interested in fighting the creation of these applications. I could be spending this time to learn what they can/can’t/shouldn’t do. Only then can I convey best practices and make good design choices for my clients. You never get to be a carpenter if you’re refusing to use a hammer just because they’re ‘everywhere’.

Edward Tufte recommends we use PP for nothing but slideshows but I can’t agree with this fully (although it is decent for slideshows). People sometimes rely on the tool or the corporation to do everything for them, but the tool will never build your presentation for you, you must embrace your content and carefully execute it’s presentation in a tool that has limits and contstraints. Like crafting anything of worth, it’s about process and sacrifice.

Unfortunately many presenters don’t take the time to think deeply about their presentations or understand the tool, then subsequently fail in conveying their content, and slink away muttering about the presentation tool. I don’t buy it for a second.

So to make a short story long, yes! I do take Powerpoint seriously. So seriously in fact, my colleagues and I are writing a series of documents presenting best practices for using Powerpoint. These will be available to the public and will cover everything from Typeography and color usage, to presenting different forms of content.

mister ken

wrote the following on Thursday December 30, 2004

I’m also wondering if there are any examples of well designed Powerpoint presentations? The design magazines seem to want to ignore this bastard step child of corporate design.

We just had to sit through one from Oracle.
Black screem, white type, red Oracle logo and horrible bit mapped photos of happy employees. It served the exact opposite of what was intended during the meeting. In fact, the rep apologized for the presentation before we started. Adding ‘our in-house team does not like to create PP presenations’.

We all sort of groad when we land a PP project. They are so difficult to create because in most cases the speaker is thinking very organically about their content. Simple changes can have dramatic effects to our work and they don’t understand the process. At all.


Christian Messer

wrote the following on Thursday December 30, 2004

I have just begun to design Power-Point presentations. I am a freelancer and at this point (no pun intended), I welcome the extra fat paycheck that comes with it.

I dance a happy jig that in-house designers think that it is beneath them to design them. Yes, it is a hellish program to work with at times, but I can stand the headaches as I learn how to make it work for me.

My only real concern is that the damn thing doesn’t have keyboard shortcuts. Other than that, I am more than happy to do the work.

It’s a living.


wrote the following on Thursday December 30, 2004

Thanks for the excellent feedback everyone. adetskas, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your comment “Unfortunately many presenters don’t take the time to think deeply about their presentations or understand the tool, then subsequently fail in conveying their content, and slink away muttering about the presentation tool.”

In my company, I have become the PowerPoint guru—the go-to guy so to speak. While this is due in part to my design skills, it is also because I think about the structure of the presentation, and how the information will flow. Most people slap some bullet points and clipart together and add exactly ZERO value to their presentation.


wrote the following on Thursday December 30, 2004

I recently attended a meeting at a large, worldwide corporation. Everything was first class, from the conference room with the rich cherry wood trimmings, to the catered breakfast and lunch, to the demeanor and professionalism of the folks I was meeting with.

Then came the PowerPoint…ugh.

One in particular (there were several we had to sit through) which included clipart quality silly cartoon figures throughout. Not just as hilite graphics – but as the central theme.

I really think that most corporations don’t understand what kind of impact their PowerPoint presentations can make. As you say, it can sometimes be the very first impression a company can make. given that, I believe it’s imperative to assign a professional to the task, or at least provide training to those individuals who will be developing the presentations.

Craig Gilman

wrote the following on Wednesday July 6, 2005

Our Presentations are Top Class – Even if I do say so myself. But we’ve moved away from Powerpoint where we can… we try to get clients to think more televisually about their presentations. That doesn’t mean that we won’t use powerpoint at all – but it’s a mindest change we try to make in people. I totally agree about the Buzzwords YUK! I HATE corporate Jargon. – Right that’s me done…

One more touchpoint into the marketing mix ;)


wrote the following on Friday April 3, 2009

2 words: Anoto penPresenter

If you do tons of PowerPoint presentations whether your at a trade show, or corporate environment etc..this is the the best tool to use to enhance your slides. It uses digital pen and paper technology.

It makes presentations more fun and interactive. You can even use it as digital whiteboard.

If you know how to use a pen and paper, you can use this!