Design Strategy

Lessons from TED: 5 Simple Tweaks

Besides being a daily source of inspiration for many of us at Duarte, this year’s TED Conference also gave us a chance to flex some of our creative muscles and turn out a variety of nice presentations. Since we enjoyed working on these projects so much, we thought you might appreciate seeing how we approached a few of them. And since TED released Barry Schwartz’s talk this week, we thought it would be a good one to start with.

TED Talks brought with them their own unique set of challenges:

  • Budget. With a limited budget for each presentation, we had to constrain ourselves in certain ways. Project management and content development was kept to a minimum so designers would have time to produce great visuals. Presenters were instructed to bring us a presentation they felt was “complete”, something few of our non-TED clients are expected to do.
  • No standard templates. Since one of the great things about TED is the diversity of speakers, we couldn’t use a single template for all of the presentations. That meant we would have to design a new template for each one.
  • 18 Minutes. TED Talks are limited to 18 minutes, so we often had to help presenters (some of whom were not used to working within time limits) trim down their presentations so they would fit in the required time.

Those constraints were common to all the TED Talks we worked on. So let’s take a look at how we dealt with those constraints with this particular talk. First, during the months (or hours!) leading up to TED, presenters would send us their complete slide deck. Here’s a sampling from this presentation:


Usually, our team can put together a good strategy within a few minutes of seeing the original slides. In this case, we saw an opportunity to implement five simple tricks:

1. Use a custom background

PowerPoint and Keynote both come with some nice backgrounds. Used appropriately, they can be the perfect backdrop for your presentation. However, they all share the disadvantage of being available to everyone who uses PowerPoint or Keynote. Find a way to be unique.

After: custom background
After: custom background

We wanted the background to be unique, but also subtle. We knew right away that the speaker’s words would be the highlight of this talk so we wanted a clean, simple background. Also, our designer looked at past TED Talks for an idea of what the presentation environment would be like, then chose his colors based on what would look good onstage.

So where can you get a custom background? One place to look is a stock photo site like istockphoto or shutterstock. They have thousands of textures and gradients for sale, many of which would make an excellent background for your presentation. Another option is to simply make one yourself. Our solution was a simple gradient. Creating your own background is easily accomplished with only the tools included in both PowerPoint and Keynote.

2. Choose your fonts wisely

The original deck used a standard Serif font, which we don’t tend to use for presentations that will be projected. (Page 143 in slide:ology for those of you following along.) Serif fonts (like Times New Roman) have little extra details at the end of letter strokes, like the lines at the bottom of many of the letters you’re reading right now. And they tend to work better when your words will go on for more than one line. The letters in sans-serif fonts (like Helvetica) don’t include those extra details, tend to be bigger and bolder, and generally work better in short bursts, like in headlines, captions, and short phrases.

We chose Helvetica for this presentation, for a few reasons: it’s a relatively standard font, so we wouldn’t have to worry about mix-ups backstage; it’s a clean, easily readable, sans serif font; and, well… we LOVE Helvetica here at Duarte Design (check out our logo). We wouldn’t use it for every presentation, but it was a good fit for this one.

3. Use animations and transitions appropriately

If you’ve watched the TED Talk online, then you may have noticed some subtle transitions and a small animation or two. Then again, maybe you didn’t. If we did things right, you felt them, but didn’t really notice them. We wanted the presentation to feel smooth and soft, so we used some soft dissolves and gentle scrolling to enhance the overall experience.

Can you imagine engaging with the speaker’s voice while words are zipping and flying back and forth on the screen? Sadly, you probably can. And it would have been completely inappropriate for this talk. We also could have forsaken animation altogether, but we felt that a small amount of movement added something to the whole presentation. If your animations don’t add something positive to your presentation, you’re probably better off taking them out.

4. One idea per slide

This was a key improvement we made to this presentation. Presenters often include many ideas on one slide, doing their best to be efficient with their slide real estate. An honorable gesture, but totally unnecessary in a digital world.


During a live presentation, visuals exist in time as well as space. The audience doesn’t need to stare at the same four points while the speaker weaves his story around each of them. So we turned this single bullet slide into four different slides, letting the audience absorb them one at a time and (once again) highlighting the speaker’s voice as the most important part of the experience.

5. Take care of your images

I heard a speaker at a recent conference (not TED) give instructions to the audience on inserting images into their presentations. “When you look for images on Google,” he said, “try to find the highest quality version”. I could hear a tiny cry of pain from designers and photographers all over the world.

Folks, Google Image Search is not an appropriate tool for building professional presentations. Finding the “perfect” image on Google gives you no rights whatsoever to use it in your presentation. You need to contact the owner of the image and get permission, by paying for licensing rights. Or asking really nicely.

Having said that, once you have permission to use an image, you want to make it look great for it’s on-screen debut. If you have Photoshop, you can do it yourself. If not, why not try out an online photo retouching service? Do everything you can to make sure the image enhances your story rather than detracts from it.

In this presentation, our main concern was making sure the visuals were clear and the captions were easy to read. Take a look:


Overall, this presentation “makeover” was pretty simple and didn’t take too much time. But even these small improvements made a dramatic impact on the end result. Keep these five tips in mind the next time you need to “clean up” your boss’s slides. They’ll save you time and make a big difference.

Doug Neff