Simplicity, complexity, and the wagasa
"プレゼンテーション zen" introduced in Japan

11 ways to use images poorly in slides

Slides As digital cameras have become ubiquitous, and cheap (or free) photo websites plentiful, more people than ever are using images in presentations. Images are not appropriate for every kind of talk, but even when images are appropriate (such as keynote/ballroom style presentations), people are still making the same common mistakes. So here are some things to keep in mind if you use images in your next talk. (Get a larger version of the "slides" image here.)

Case study: a single slide
Let's imagine you are preparing a presentation for a large audience on current issues in Japanese education. One issue facing schools and universities in Japan today is the decreasing number of potential students due to fewer children being born. So our sample slide touches on the low fertility rate in Japan in this context. You could either use a full-bleed image like the one on the left below or a smaller image of a photograph of a school yard in Japan as seen on the slide on the right below. If you chose the slide on the right you could also have a simple line chart fade in as you talk about the declining rate as a long-term trend.

Poorexample.005   Poorexample.017

The common mistakes
For our sample here we'll use the photo on the left above as a starting point. How many different ways could we use the same image (at different resolutions) inappropriately or use a different image in a way that is less effective than the one on the left?  Here are eleven common mistakes:

(1) Image is too small
You do not have to go full bleed with an image, but this particular image does not work at a such a small size (The slide is 800x600, this image is 183x152.)


(2) Image is placed randomly on slide
The image may be large enough now to be seen easily, but it's put willy-nilly on the slide. Usually this results in the text getting lost in the background (though in this case the text is still legible). Looks accidental.


(3) Image is almost full-screen but not quite
Again, nothing should look accidental. This looks like they were going for the full-bleed background image effect but just missed. Now the software background template can be seen just enough to become a bit of noise


(4) Image is of poor quality (pixelated)
This is all too common. This happens when you take a low-rez jpeg (from a website, for example) and stretch it out. Oh, the humanity!


(5) Image is of poor quality & contains watermark
Even worse is to take a free comp from a photo website and stretch it out. This introduces distracting visual noise (and says you are either cheap, lazy, or both). If you cannot afford images (or do not have a camera, etc.), then it's better to use none at all.


(6) Image is stretched horizontally & distorted
This is all too common. This occurs when people stretch out an image to make it "fit."


(7) Image is stretched vertically & distorted
This becomes a distraction and looks odd. Are young Japanese students really 8-feet tall these days?


(8) Presenter tiles image
Just because the software lets you tile an image, does not mean you should use this feature. Now the background image has too much salience (even if it did not have watermarks).


(9) Clip art is chosen
Avoid off-the-shelf clip art (though your own sketches & drawings can be a refreshing change if used consistently throughout the visuals).


(10) Image is lame & has nothing to do with content
Not sure what two guys shaking hands in front of a globe has to do with the fertility rate in Japan. Yet even if we were talking about "international partnership" the image is still a cliché.


(11) Background image has too much salience (text hard to see)
Sometimes the image is actually a pretty good one but it just needs a bit of editing so that the text will pop out more. The slide on the left below is not horrible but the balance is off and the text does not pop out as much as it could. For the slide on the right below, the image is cropped for better balance, giving more space for the text to breath (and a transparent box is added to help the text pop out a bit more, though there are other ways to do this).

Poorexample.018   Poorexample.019

Text & images
Text within images is but one way to use text/data and images harmoniously. As always, much depends on the topic and the context. Images can be very powerful and effective if used with careful intention. The question is not do you have too many? or too few? but rather what's your intention? You can give a good presentation without any images at all, but if you do use images in slides, try to keep these eleven tips in mind.

There are clearly more than eleven ways to use images inappropriately, what are some of the ones that you have observed over the years? Would love to hear your stories.

Update: Here are a few different (though similar) ways to use images in a slide featuring a quote on my personal blog.



Cool post. Just a thought on the top-right example slide (with the idea of the fade-in line chart over the tilted picture): It seems like slanting a line chart might make it hard to read the angle or distort the trend a bit.


Hi Saleem. You point is a good one. I'm just experimenting here. Still, the data is very, very simple and the point (if I ever did something like this, which I have not) is just to show the trend as I talk about the declining birth rate. Thanks for your comment! -g


Few ways to do it right, countless ways to screw it up. :)

"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it."


Love that first image - thanks for sharing it with us Garr!


Splendid. This is clear, descriptive and something that many of us need to get it right. Using photos in pitch slides requires skills. Using photos in scientific slides or presentations is another thing. Small discussion on usage of photo slides would have been great.

Thank you Garr Reynolds for this clarification.


Not exactly another way to use image poorly...
When you use a full-slide visual, I prefer it when that visual doesn't match EXACTLY the idea covered by the speaker for that slide.
I prefer when there's a little gap or when the connection is not totally obvious.
The viewer will indeed wonder about the connection when first seeing the slide. Then, using the input of the presenter, we will actually create a personal-based meaning. By recreating this thinking process, I think understanding and long-term memorization is improved.

And if the visual can be thought-provoking or even frightening (Like the slide about blogging and sharks with the visual of a threatening shark in your PZ book), all the better.


Good stuff here. I especially liked the advice about going full bleed or not. There's no "close to full bleed" that's acceptable. Noted and thanks.

AJ Kandy

Unless you use white backgrounds exclusively, inserting a piece of web clip art with a white background just looks unprofessional and cheap. Keynote and the latest version of PowerPoint both natively support transparent alpha channels in PNG and TIF images. It looks much nicer to have an image that's close-cut with antialiased edges, and you can get lots of graphics in this format from stock libraries. The best option is still EPS artwork which remains scalable - right now only Keynote supports that natively.

James Wood

Great points here. I have, unfortunately done these myself in the past.

Just a tip to avoid distortion (6&7) when using PowerPoint one can hold down the SHIFT key while resizing and it will maintain the aspect ratio of the original.


I agree with you, if the presentation is completely understandable without the speaker, then the speaker becomes superfluous. However, if the speaker cannot be understood without the presentation, then the presentation is carrying too much of the load of communication. Visuals should add and support the the spoken word, not replace it.

Presentations Training

Thanks so much for this article. As much as an artist I try to be when I design my presentation, I actually wonder sometimes whether I my creativity is an eyesore. Bravo Brava! Thanks for this!

Jill Cadarette

If your image can't become a full bleed without distortion and you can't crop it to fit, make your background black. It will appear as though the image is full bleed because the background won't show at all when presenting.


@James Wood :
Actually, I think I didn't express myself clearly. The speaker MUST be understood even without presentation to back up the context.

But having a visual that will support (and not paraphrase exactly what the speaker says) is much better since (to me), it triggers a thinking process and builts an unconscious association in the viewer's mind. Hence reinforcing understanding and memorization.

What is optimal to me is to still leave the viewer with some thinking of his own left to do when both seeing hte visual and listening to the speaker.
It should be very small thinking, almost obvious, but inducing that little effort will be worthwhile I think. Again, I may be wrong...


@Jesse re photos in scientific presentations:

Digital cameras have been a huge benefit to those of us doing field-based science. A good photo of the process, phenomena, or study location helps communication immensely. My presentations alternate between full-bleed (or cropped) photos taken by myself and colleagues and simplified plots or tables.

As mentioned in comments above, I use a black background. I can crop images--landscapes look really good in a 16:9 format--and use the area outside the image to display annotations or numerical values.


Let me add one more dont and that is ´research your image well before using it!!´ and here is why.

I once made a major faux pas using an image. In my closing thank you slide (do we even need thank you slides?) to a french automobile company, I put the watermark image of a formula 1 champion driver (belonging to my client´s formula team) with the words Merci Beaucoup (Thank You in french) appearing slowly typewriter style. I was hoping there would be little chuckles or a joke or at least a general lightening of the mood at the end of the presentation. Instead, our client turned around and said, ´but he (referring to the driver I still had on the screen behind me) left us months ago!´ and I felt like someone just punched me hard.


Vintage Garr Reynolds...Thanks Garr-loved the post

Robert Rawlins

It's funny how when reading this it seems like you're stating the obvious but I remember back to when I was working for a training and development company and the tutors would often generate their own presentations and they were almost blind to these rules.


What size file do recommend purchasing (from istockphoto, for example) for best results on full screen powerpoint slides?

PS: I love your website and the great tips you give on Twitter!


My pet peeve is when the text color does not have high enough contrast with the image colors. Or is just not an attractive combination. I've also seen slides where the text runs right over an important part of the picture, for example, the lone subject's face.

Thanks for a great post!



As a former KG student of Spring 2008, I was very surprised to hear that you teach there!

I've went through your book initially and had a thought, incidentally you raised it again.

In one passage of your post you said something about transparency boxes to help your text pop stand out more in contrast with the salient background. You also mentioned there are other ways to do this. What is the principle behind it? From what I gathered in your book and other books, it seems like there's the transparent box, the masking tape/note, or the paper clip to hold the text. Could you elaborate a bit more on the background box?

This is a great post.


Nice post. I especially liked the advice about going full bleed or not. There's no "close to full bleed" that's acceptable. Noted and thanks.

Jeannie Hill

You hit on many key aspects of image use. I like how you talk about when the image is lame & has nothing to do with content. It is a nice refresher. I am guessing that in the past sometimes a reader may not have grasped the reasons why I chose to use a specific image - especially on posts that are really "geeky". With load time becoming a more important aspect of every web page, it is awesome to have your reminder here to pay attention to our use of images.


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