Effective Visual Layout

Knowing what constitutes an effective visual is important, but equally important is the way in which you place visuals on a document page, slide, or webpage.

Visuals on Document Pages

Consult the page on Incorporating Visuals into Reports & Proposals for fuller information on placing visuals into longer text documents, applying strategies which include the following:

  • Place the visual as close as possible to its related text.
  • Give each visual a number and a clear descriptive title.
  • Refer to the number/title within the body text when discussing the visual’s content.
  • Surround the visual with enough white space to emphasize the image and enhance its readability.

Visuals on Slides

Powerpoint or other similar presentation tools are built for images and, as you’ve read, visual images are key to audience engagement, retention, and acceptance of information.  To place visuals effectively on slides, consider the following tips:

Less is more

Try to keep one main image per slide, in keeping with the concept of one main idea per slide.

Only include more than one image if the concept logically supports more than one image.  If using more than one image, make sure the images are consistent. Note that the slide below uses three images to enhance the idea that many students benefit from prior learning assessment.  All of the faces in the images are approximately the same size.


Formatting Visuals

Although you may not want to use standard powerpoint or other templates that create a very structured look for your presentation, you may want to use design ideas (e.g., under the design tab in powerpoint) for other layout options for particular slides.

Visual to Enhance Text / Text to Enhance Visual

All of the sample slides so far have used visuals to enhance text.  Many presenters use a large image and then insert text to provide the key points that the image presents.  Decide which approach makes sense for your particular slides, with the understanding that you do not have to apply one approach consistently throughout the presentation.

Placement of Visuals

Note that when you are composing a powerpoint slide, you see faint lines and boxes to help you align your information and visuals.  These lines provide good guidelines.  Although you can manipulate and over-ride these suggestions, be careful about placing visuals or text too far right, left, top, or bottom, if you want your audience to be able to absorb the slide’s information easily.

Color – An Important Visual Element

Note that color creates an impact on your slides, as it can provide emphasis, foster understanding, and imply feeling.  Follow these color tips:

  • Black text on a white background is usually very easy to absorb, as long as the text is large enough.
  • Texts other than black need to contrast carefully with their backgrounds for maximum readability.
  • Use complementary colors and contrasting colors.
  • Do not use colors indiscriminately; choose an overall color palette and maintain that throughout.  Too many colors make your slides “busy” and therefore more difficult to comprehend.

Consult Purdue University’s handout on Color Presentation Theory for fuller information and examples of how color can visually enhance or detract from your slides.  The following video also provides an easy-to-understand introduction to the concept of color.

Compare the following slide with the same slide under the “Less is More” sub-heading.  Note how the use of color for the title changes the emphasis of information on the slide.

Slide Layout

The following video offers useful information about key aspects of slide (and document) layout:

  1. Proximity
  2. White Space
  3. Alignment
  4. Contrast
  5. Repetition

The next video offers some interesting observations about slide layout, some of which go against information you’ve been reading in this text – you can see that immediately with the use of a cursive font on the main image below.  Understand that there are no penultimate rules for all slides, except the overall expectation that their information can be easily absorbed and understood. Your purpose, audience, context, and other communication variables dictate your approach each time, for each presentation.  (Note that the actual tips in the video start around the 4:00 minute mark.)

Visuals on Web Pages

Even though web pages are visual media, and pictures and colors are important and interesting, they may be less important than content on a web page. Users should not get confused when they enter a website. They should know where they need to click and understand what will come from that click, and images should enhance that understanding. So images on web pages should not be too large or too plentiful.  They should be used to support the content’s importance, and not overwhelm the page.

That said, images play the same role on web pages as they do on slides.  They can enhance the content, help cut down on content by presenting key concepts visually, and help create an overall feeling for the page. Many of the aspects related to using visuals in documents and on slides can be applied to using visuals on web pages.  Visuals on web pages should:

  • “fit” on the page, either within a web page column format or grid format
  • be positioned next to their accompanying text
  • be clear, consistent in type, and illustrative of main ideas in the text
  • exist in sufficient white space
  • be small enough so that the page loads quickly on all types of connections (e.g., usually with a limit of no more than 5 to 10 KB)

Look at a few sample websites which use visuals to good effect (there are many, many more):

  • The Nature Conservancy – The main page uses one main background visual with words overlaying it to offer a compelling story via the visual.  As the user scrolls down, there are additional photos balanced with accompanying text to highlight their mission and feature story.
  • The Sierra Club – The visual behind the main heading coordinates with that heading; their combined intent is to stimulate action. As the user scrolls down, there are additional photos that introduce different articles.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency’s Report on the Environment – The initial visuals exist in a slide show, with slide images related to the organization’s mission.  As the user scrolls down, there are different images related to various parts of the report, and each of those images is retained as a header when the user is within that particular part of the report.

Summary – Effective Visual Layout

Look at Canva’s web page entitled 10 rules of composition all designers live by for a good overview of visual layout.