4 Principles of Painless Presentation Design

“I’m just not creative!” I often hear this when I sit down with a client to work on presentation design. It reflects a common belief that design is solely about aesthetics. Aesthetics is definitely a component of design (and is one of Rams’ principles of good design). But good design is not restricted to those with artistic talent. Good design can be achieved by most of us, simply by following well-established, objective design principles.

When we use good design in presentations (or documents, brochures, and other materials), we make it easier for our audience to comprehend our message. So good design is really important! 

Let’s take a look at the four most basic design principles that can be used by anyone when working on a presentation. These are:

  1. contrast
  2. repetition
  3. alignment, and
  4. proximity.

These four principles can be easily recalled using the acronym CRAP. Let’s take a look at each of these applied to a super simple PowerPoint title slide.

Title Slide


We’ll start with proximity. In the title slide above, there are four lines of text. Two lines are part of the title, and two lines relate to the author and his work affiliation. Notice that each of the four lines is separated from the next by pretty much the same amount of space.

Equal space between elements

According to the principle of proximity, items that are close to each other are perceived as being related. To apply the principle of proximity, related items should be close to each other. Unrelated items should not be close to each other. Organizing information in this way reduces complexity in a design. Let’s apply this principle to our title slide, by moving the title lines closer together, moving the author lines closer together, and separating the title and author info.

Applying Proximity

As you can see, the grouping that results from proximity allows the reader to instantly grock what’s happening—there’s the title, and there’s the author information. The visual separation saves precious cognitive processing time for the reader.


The next thing to notice in our slide is the alignment of text. In the slide above, the text is aligned in the center of the slide. As you look at that slide, notice what your eyes have to do—as they begin each line of text, they need to go back and forth to find the start of the line. This visual ambiguity results in greater cognitive processing. The principle of alignment gets at the importance of placing objects along a line or edge, to create unity and cohesion among the information.

If we align all the text to the left, as in the slide below, the eye has a nice hard line to follow along the left edge. While proximity has separated the text into groups, the alignment has tied it together.

Left alignment

Below is an alternative possibility, with the text aligned to the right of the slide.

Right alignment


Making a change based on the principle of proximity has done some of the job of distinguishing between title and author information on the slide. The principle of contrast suggests making the difference stronger, so it really pops. If contrast is done well, it can instantly communicate information hierarchy in your materials. There are numerous ways to incorporate contrast.

In the example below, contrast is added by increasing the size of the font in the title, increasing the space between title and author info, and using different fonts—the title uses a sans-serif font, and the author info uses a serif font. Another bit of contrast is added in the title, using the size of the font to distinguish between the main title and the subtitle.

Font and size for contrast

In the second example below, contrast is added by placing the title in a black box, clearly distinguishing it from the author information.

Black and white contrast


The principle of repetition gets at the importance of consistency with various elements in a design. The consistency ties the work together. Design elements could be fonts, font sizes, color, consistent use of space, or anything else that is visually noticeable from slide to slide, section to section, page to page, etc.

In the example below, the “seven” in the title is changed to number “7”. Design elements of a shape and color are added to the number.

Design element for repetition

To use repetition in the design, the same shape and color element is used for each of the 7 tips throughout the presentation. Using the same design elements for each tip creates a unity and cohesiveness to the presentation.

Design element for repetition

Next Steps

None of the changes made here are difficult or earth shattering, but if you look at the difference between the starting title slide and the others that use the principles, the improvement is obvious. Adding contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity to designs is relatively simple but leads to significant design improvements.

I’d recommend a two step process to practice use of these principles. First, go to SlideShare and view some of the featured presentations. For each that you look at, notice how the designer does, or doesn’t, incorporate the principles. Think and draw out how you’d change aspects of the slides to incorporate the principles. Second, go to some of your old slide decks. Apply the principles to your own designs. Play with the different possibilities. After taking a little time to look critically at other designs, and then playing around with your own, you will start to integrate these principles. It will be easier to apply them to your next presentation.

If you want more on applying these principles, I highly recommend Robin Williams’ The Non-Designer’s Design Book. This book was an important find for me when I started out as a web designer in the mid-90s, and it remains a foundational book for any budding designer.

I’d love to hear about any changes you’ve made to your slide decks, or other materials, using these principles. Please leave a comment below!

Note: The content for title slide and first slide used in this post were randomly swiped from http://www.slideshare.net/HubSpot/facebook-success-7-cheat-codes-for-nonprofits-22941998