Designing visual aids

A truck with only two wheels walking; an ineffective (and distracting) visual aidEffective visuals help your audience understand and remember the key points of your presentation. Overhead projectors and slides, blackboards, handouts, and computer programs like PowerPoint can greatly enhance your message if they are used effectively. The following tips will help you design effective visual aids. 

Make each visual stand on its own

Each visual needs to be clear and understandable on its own. To help you accomplish this, consider using the following tips:

  • limit each slide to only one topic, and give it a relevant title
  • state sources where appropriate – for statistics, figures, pictures, etc.
  • number headings to clearly illustrate where you are in your presentation
  • know your audience: avoid abbreviations and jargon unfamiliar to them
  • use meaningful graphics when they reinforce your written message
  • highlight key information on charts, tables, and graphs to help focus your audience’s attention (i.e., use colour, circle the information, or use a pointer)
  • make points concise yet meaningful – avoid being cryptic

Achieve balanced and consistent layouts

Balance and consistency are important when creating a presentation package. While your visuals should be able to stand alone, they also need to fit together into a coherent whole. The following tips should help:

  • keep type sizes and fonts consistent on all visuals in a presentation
  • format headings consistently (e.g., use bold text and increased font size)
  • use no more than two fonts per slide (one for headings and one for main text) or choose different sizes of the same font for headings and main text
  • spread the information out so that it fills the screen
  • choose contrasting colours (e.g., dark background with light lettering)
  • use colour consistently but avoid overuse – two to four colours per slide
  • be aware of the connotations behind colours (e.g., red on a financial statement comes with the negative connotation of having a cash deficit)
  • use parallel grammar for points (e.g., begin each point with the same part of speech)

Make visuals easy to read

Visuals are only effective if your audience can physically see them. Here are some tips:

  • use 24 - 28 point font for main text and 32 - 40 point font for headings
  • if writing by hand on overhead slides, make your letters at least 1/2” (1.0 cm) high
  • avoid distracting, unnecessary graphics and excessively complex backgrounds
  • use clear, standard fonts such as Times New Roman, Arial, or Helvetica
  • consider using boldface lettering to make text thicker
  • avoid putting much text in italics or all upper-case letters – this slows down reading
  • ensure diagrams are not too intricate to be visible from the back of the room
  • limit each point to one line whenever possible to limit reading time

Include only your main points

Effective visuals should aid your audience, not you! They are not your lecture notes. The following tips will help you design concise, content-rich visuals:

  • write only main points on your visuals, not the details that support them – avoid giving the audience your presentation to read
  • put the key words you repeat throughout your presentation on your visuals (repetition is acceptable in presentations, since it helps audience retention)
  • make your points discrete: do not simply break up paragraphs
  • assume your audience will copy down everything you present on a visual – keep information clear, simple, and minimal