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PowerPoint Design Guide

May 29, 2009

As I think about designing lessons in PowerPoint and read a little more about how people process visual information, as in Stephen Kosslyn’s Clear and to the Point: 8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations (Oxford U Press), it becomes clearer that four principles should guide me.  The four principles are size, simplicity, contrast, and predictability.   In writing them down, they seem so obvious, but they weren’t obvious to me when I began using PowerPoint nor as I learned how to do “cool things” with it.  So at the risk of belaboring the obvious, I will discuss the guidelines a little here.

Size matters because everyone has to easily see the information on the slide.  I keep going back through presentations that I have used in previous semesters and making the text bigger so that even my students who need glasses but don’t or won’t admit it can see the information.  That is not what I want them struggling with.

Simplicity, which may be the most encompassing principle, should rule almost every design decision.  Simplicity in part rules because every piece of information on a slide will be processed.  The cute little clip art butterflies put there for decoration must be processed and determined whether they need attention or not.  Some students might give them attention and not the content I would like them to focus on!  So simplicity of design should rule, and anything that is not essential to helping the student understand or focus should be left out.

Contrast is like size.  The students need to see the material, and contrast makes it happen.  I have had a few disasters in which the contrast was not strong enough to overcome projectors that washed out much of the color, or the slideshow looked good on my home computer, but it did not in the classroom.  I have simplified as much as I can by relying on dark and light contrasts.  I saw somewhere the recommendation to use only three colors, and if I were limited to only three, I would probably choose red, white, and black with red used for emphasis.

The fourth guide is predictability.  Predictability reduces the cognitive demand on the learner as they process the information in the slides.  If the slides are predictable in design, the learner can more quickly focus on the content.  Predictability also enables us to sneak in a surprise that is really a surprise from time to time. 

Those are the four guides that I will be using in designing my PowerPoint slides: size, simplicity, contrast, and predictability.

 

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