Designing visual presentations can be tough for those who are not visually or artistically inclined, or for presenters who are simply not well-versed in slide design technology.
However, pairing your talk with a well-designed visual accompaniment, like a PowerPoint presentation, can mean the difference between a piece of communication that moves an audience and succeeds at delivering a message—and one that fails and is forgotten. Good visuals are so important for presentations because research has shown that visual information is easier for humans to process, remember, and recall.
If you feel like you could use some extra help ensuring that your deck is designed to make a powerful impression on audiences, we recommend you develop critique language skills. Learning how to use critique language to evaluate slides will allow you to improve your own slides, or help you communicate to a colleague how they could improve theirs.
Here are some tips for determining whether slides are designed well or ineffectively, how to articulate their strengths and weaknesses, and what active steps you can take to improve the visual design of any presentation using critique language.
Learn and Evaluate the 5 Essential Slide Design Elements
There are 5 essential design elements of every slide that are critical to the visual impact a presentation makes. Learn what these elements are as a presenter, then refer to each when you evaluate the visual quality of a presentation. Make sure you carefully consider each element when you look at a slide, then determine whether it is executed to effectively communicate your message, or whether it may obscure your meaning or get overlooked.
Contrast between design elements (in color, size, etc.) helps focus attention, create drama, and set hierarchy. When you look at a presentation slide, consider the contrast in the design and ask yourself: Is the prioritization clear, or is it indistinct?
Whitespace drives focus and is like the oxygen of a slide: it must exist so that all other elements can function the way they are supposed to. When you consider the whitespace on a slide, ask yourself: Is the space open, or cluttered? If a slide feels too cluttered, decide how it can be pared-down for more effective messaging.
Good hierarchy treats things visually according to their importance. Consider the most and least important elements on a slide when evaluating. Ask yourself: is a parent/child relationship apparent or absent in the ideas on the slide? If you can’t tell the most important takeaway, make changes so that what’s essential is highlighted.
Consistency and cohesiveness are vital for delivering one comprehensible presentation big idea. Unity is achieved through consistent look and feel, image treatment, and placement of elements. As you go through each of your presentation slides, decide: does the presentation look structured or unstructured? Make changes to ensure every slide looks like it’s coming from the same place and presenter.
Flow is what directs the eye along certain, pre-determined paths of a slide to areas of focus. Consider: is there a clear path for the eye to follow on this slide or is that path unclear? Make sure people look at the thing you need them to, so you make your point.
Does This Slide Pass the Glance Test?
After you evaluate every slide for its critical design elements, use the Glance Test to ensure that it is comprehensible and digestible for everyone sitting in your audience.
The Glance Test is a powerful method used to ensure that slides can be easily understood and taken in by people who are sitting far away from the presentation screen and who only have a brief moment to look at the slide (while they are simultaneously listening to you talk).
Here’s how to use the Glance Test:
- Look at a slide for 3 seconds, then look away from the slide.
- Determine whether you can remember and communicate the information or message that was included in the slide.
- If, after three seconds, you are wondering what the slide was about, or can’t quite convey the message you saw, the slide has too much information for your audience to process.
- If the slide doesn’t pass the glance test, return to it to pare it down or redesign it.
Don’t Just Identify Problems, Propose Solutions
If you are critiquing a colleague’s slides, or you are attempting to improve your own, you want to start by identifying which slides don’t properly execute the 5 essential slide design elements, or which don’t pass the Glance Test.
However, it is not enough to simply point out the problems with the slides and say why they don’t work. Instead, it helps to take it one step further and explain where the slides might be failing, and in what ways they could be improved. Could this slide be improved by adding more contrast into the background? Could unity be achieved by having all of the photos in black and white? Could we achieve more whitespace by breaking this content up over 3 slides? It’s easy to identify problems, it’s more valuable to help solve them.
By approaching a deck with an improvement mentality, and understanding what makes a slide work—or fail—you can easily understand which elements should be tweaked, and how they can be changed to better fit effective slide design criteria.
Proposing solutions during a critique for a colleague can also help boost a presenter’s confidence and make them clearer on their big idea.
Allow for a Defense of the Design
If you are critiquing the design of another person and they strongly disagree about a slide you believe doesn’t work, allow them to defend the design. See if their defense aligns with the essential principles of effective slide design.
If a slide fails the glance test for you, ask them to expand on how they believe their slide makes a lasting, effective impact in under 3 seconds. It’s possible your mind will be changed after hearing them defend their design choices.
If blue isn’t working for you as a background color, ask them if they think it’s achieving enough contrast for the text. They may explain that brand standards say blue must be used for backgrounds but the color of the type could be changed.
It’s most likely that the process will be a good lesson on the important principles of slide design for both the critique giver and the recipient.
By utilizing critique language to make yours and others’ presentations better, you can ensure that you’re effectively reaching everyone in your audience in a way that resonates.
Illustrated by Melissa Chen