Design Principles

Learning Objectives

Recognize the appropriate amount of information to have on a slide.

Slide and slideshow design have a major impact on your ability to get your message across to your audience. Numerous books address various design fundamentals and slide design, but there isn’t always consensus on what is “best.” What research has shown, though, is that people have trouble grasping information when it comes at them simultaneously through different mediums. “They will either listen to you or read your slides; they cannot do both”[1] ). This leaves you, the presenter, with a lot of power to direct or scatter your audience’s attention. This section will serve as an overview of basic design considerations that even novices can use to improve their slides.

First and foremost, design with your audience in mind. Your slide show is not your outline. The show is also not your handout. As discussed earlier, you can make a significantly more meaningful, content-rich handout that complements your presentation if you do not try to save time by making a slide show that serves as both. Keep your slides short, create a separate handout if needed, and write as many notes for yourself as you need.

All decisions, from the images you use to their placement, should be done with a focus on your message, your medium, and your audience. Each slide should reinforce or enhance your message, so make conscious decisions about each element and concept you include and edit mercilessly.[2] Taken a step further, graphic designer Robin Williams suggests each element be placed on the slide deliberately in relation to every other element on the slide.[3]

A slide with too much information on it (it reproduces the text from the page)

This slide has way too much information on it.

Providing the right amount of information, neither too much nor too little, is one of the key aspects in effective communication.[4] The foundation of this idea is that if the viewers have too little information, they must struggle to put the pieces of the presentation together. Most people, however, include too much information (e.g., slides full of text, meaningless images, overly complicated charts), which taxes the audience’s ability to process the message. “There is simply a limit to a person’s ability to process new information efficiently and effectively” (Reynolds, 2008, p. 122). As a presenter, reducing the amount of information directed at your audience (words, images, sounds, etc.) will help them to better remember your message.[5] In this case, less is actually more.

The first strategy to keeping it simple is to include only one concept or idea per slide. If you need more than one slide, use it, but don’t cram more than one idea on a slide. While many have tried to proscribe the number of slides you need based on the length of your talk, there is no formula that works for every presentation. Use only the number of slides necessary to communicate your message, and make sure the number of slides corresponds to the amount of time allotted for your speech. Practice with more and fewer slides and more and less content on each slide to find the balance between too much information and too little.

With simplicity in mind, the goal is to have a slide that can be understood in three seconds. Think of a slide like a billboard you are passing on the highway (Duarte, 2010). You can achieve this three-second rule by reducing the amount of irrelevant information, also known as noise, in your slide as much as possible. This reduction might include eliminating background images, using clear icons and images, or creating simplified graphs. Your approach should be to remove as much from your slide as possible until it no longer makes any sense if you remove more (Reynolds, 2008).


  1. Duarte, Nancy. Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences. Wiley, 2010, p. 178.
  2. Reynolds, Garr, and Kawasaki, Guy. Presentation Zen. New Riders Pub., 2007.
  3. Williams, Robin. The Non-designer's Design Book: Design and Typographic Principles for the Visual Novice. Peachpit Press, 2015.
  4. Kosslyn, Stephen M., and Kosslyn, Stephen Michael. Clear and to the Point: 8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations. Oxford University Press, 2007.
  5. Mayer, Richard E., and Mayer, Richard E. Multimedia Learning. Cambridge University Press, 2001.