Above: A short (1:52) intro about this topic made in Keynote (link to video on bliptv).
Can you learn how to make better slides by looking at a few signs around your local IKEA store? This may sound absurd, yet the lessons are all around you, and you can indeed learn a lot from a well-designed billboard, including those created by IKEA. On page 140 of Nancy Duarte's Slide:ology, Nancy says that good slides in many ways are most similar to billboards. That is, the audience should be able to get the meaning in a very short amount of time.
— Nancy Duarte
Billboards & slides: "glance media"
Good billboards and other signage, must (1) get noticed, (2) be read/understood, (3) be remembered, and (4) we hope an action is taken or one's thinking is influenced. The first three in particular apply to presentation slides as well. I am not suggesting that you literally copy the style of the signs outside an IKEA. But you can incorporate the same principles for your displays used in your live talks that designers use for billboards and other 'glance media.' Most people could not care less about a billboard or the signs outside an IKEA store, of course. But you're different. So you slow down and you pay attention to "the design of it." You notice the elements such as color, size, shape, line, pattern, texture, emptiness, alignment, proximity, contrast, and so on.
Samples from the local IKEA in Osaka
Yesterday I took these snaps of the signs outside our local IKEA store in Osaka. With the exception of the subject matter/content, how are these signs similar or dissimilar to the visuals you use now for your live talks?
Above: Notice how the images are large and "bleed" off the edges of the frame. Lots of empty space and a clear design priority. Text can be easily and quickly read from a distance and at a glance.
Above: The billboard on the left is the actual one at IKEA in Osaka. Then I asked myself the question: What would happen if everyone had the power to create billboards? On the right is the answer, a "death-by-billboard" version of the IKEA sign featuring the same content on the left (with more detail added). So what's wrong with the version on the right? If it were a sign or billboard the passerby would miss all of it (if they noticed it at all). If it were a slide used in a live talk, all that information and clutter in the frame would not only be distracting and hard to read, it would raise the question: Why are you there? (a question my buddy David S. Rose — "The Pitch Coach" — always asks.)
8 lessons from standing outside an IKEA store
Below are eight things you can takeaway from the billboards shown above and apply to your next presentation project. (The sample slides are from my slide library; click for a larger size.)
(1) Make it visual.
Slides are visual aids, not "text aids," right? Again, it must be noticed (we notice compelling visuals), understood, and remembered (we remember images). We are visual beings. You do not have to use slides, but *if* you do, make them highly visual. And remember brain rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses. (See the book Brain Rules.)
(2) One slide, one point.
IKEA does not try to cram many products into a sign or give a lot of information about that product in a sign, though there is plenty of space to do that if they wanted to. Instead they feature a single item at a large size — it gets noticed, read, and remembered. For presentations, "one slide, one point" is a good general principle to follow. Don't be afraid to tell your visual story over many frames.
(3) Make type big.
As designer Robin Williams says, "Don't be a wimp!" People are indeed too wimpy when it comes to text on a slide. Have some grapes! The type on the IKEA building, for example, is enormous and the billboards too feature bold type that sticks out. Display type should get attention and get the point across. Big gets noticed and read, and big makes for easy contrast with small, aiding in guiding the viewers eye. Kerning becomes an issue with text at larger sizes because the spacing that worked automatically at 12 point may be unbalanced at a much larger point size, but since you are not using so many words at the larger size, adjusting a few letter pairs here and there (such as WA, etc.) will not be such a big deal. Also, the size of symbols can be adjusted at larger sizes (e.g., $, ¥, &, #, %, etc.). Notice how the "¥" mark on the IKEA signs is reduced in size to fit more harmoniously with the numbers. The monetary symbol can still be seen perfectly fine, but it would be overpowering if the yen mark and numbers were of the same point size; the "¥" would be unnecessarily large. A minor thing, yes, but it all adds up. Display type and body type are different.
(4) Contrast rules!
Contrast is perhaps the most important principle of all. You can achieve contrast in many ways, size (big/small) space (near/far), and color (light/dark, warm/cool), etc. IKEA achieves great contrast with color by using a vivid warm color which comes at you (yellow) and a cool color for background (dark blue) on the side of their gigantic building. White and black (the greatest color contrast) is also often used in the IKEA billboards. Although I do not recommend the IKEA brand color scheme (unless you work for IKEA or one of the Swedish Olympic teams), IKEA graphics make good use of contrast.
(5) Don't be afraid to bleed.
The product images displayed on IKEA signs bleed off the edge. That is, part of the image does not appear or "fit" in the frame. The frame (billboard or slide, etc.) seems bigger and more engaging when an image is bled over the edge such as those pictured above, as if the entire image is too big to fit. This is a common effect but ignored by many presenters who are careful to keep every element within the slide frame. Bleeding off the edge can make the images seem larger while at the same time leaving more empty space on the canvas, giving more clarity to the overall visual and plenty of breathing room for another element.
(6) Rule of Thirds.
The rule of thirds is a good general principle to follow for arranging elements on your canvas (slide). The IKEA samples above do not follow it rigidly — it is only a general principle — but each billboard has plenty of empty space and clear design priorities. Usually the eye is drawn to the large image first and then the large display text (although personally I think my eye goes to the type first, but I'm oddly attracted to fat and clean sans-serif typefaces). There are many more examples of the rule of thirds applied to slides in Presentation Zen (pp.151-152) and in Slide:ology (p.161)
(7) Empty space.
The rule of thirds is useful for achieving a more balanced look that utilizes empty space. Others will tell you to fill that empty space for myriad reasons including that "it looks more serious" if every bit of the slide is filled with text, data, and images. Resist the urge to add more. There are no prizes given for making your slides as dense as possible (besides, the competition for that dubious honor is fierce anyway). See this recent Dilbert comic on this issue.
(8) Have a visual theme.
The IKEA signs are all different but they are clearly from the same "brand" and follow a theme, yet there is no decorative template. For slides you do not need to follow a pre-packaged template found in the software, but there does need to be a visual theme. This can be achieved by using the same typeface, the same genre of photography, same background color, and so on. You do not have to use your company logo on every slide, however. If you don't have a visual theme across a slide deck, putting your logo on every slide to "tie 'em together" will not help much and it may just imply that your visual brand is one big mess tied together with the ubiquitous logo. Keep it simple.
Learning from the streets
Yes, slides and billboards are different, but presentation visuals have much more in common with billboards and other signage than they do with documents. As you walk the city streets, begin to pay attention to the ubiquitous signage with a critical eye, asking yourself what works and what doesn't, and why.
(Note about the Video: The short presentation at top was made in Keynote and saved as a QT movie. Keynote is amazing at handling multimedia. Yes, I realize the video quality inside the video of the Keynote slides is of a poor quality. The video was shot with a handheld Nikon Coolpix. Someday I'll dust off my HD camera and shoot a proper video, but there is no beating the simplicity and utility of a pocket-sized video camera.)