Murphy's Law states: "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong." This is especially true and especially painful when there is an audience involved.

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PowerPoint Design in 2009:

wonder…writing’s on the wall” (but make sure there are no bullet points and that you have a big dramatic photo you found on Flickr in the background. Why? I don’t know.).

[Editor’s note: Olivia Mitchell has devised an incredibly interesting and ambitious group blogging project. She asked an army of  PowerPoint designers, speaking coaches and other presentation professionals to write posts exploring the theme “What I’d like to see in PowerPoint slide design in 2009.” Although Breaking Murphy’s Law has been careful to refrain from dealing with the disasters that can befall those not careful about their PowerPoint design decisions (there are so many others writing about that so much better than I ever could), I thought I would break with this unofficial policy and contribute the following.]

Superstition involves doing something without knowing why you do it (other than it makes you feel better in some way you can’t quite explain). It seems to me like there is more and more of this kind of thinking going into PowerPoint design. In 2009, I would like to see less.

Things I’ve heard recently:

  • You should never have any text on your slide with a font size of less that 28 points.
  • All presentations should have no more than 10 slides, be no longer than 20 minutes and use fonts no smaller than 30 points.
  • Three bullets per slide and they can’t be sentences.
  • Bullet points are deadly

Like many superstitious beliefs, design criteria like these usually have a rational, thoughtful beginning. However, over time, they became less and less methods for achieving particular aesthetic or rhetorical goals and end up as thoughtlessly applied dogma.

They might have started as something that someone read in one of the many excellent presentation design books that have come out in recent years. However, what the book suggested became corrupted and misinterpreted as it was passed from person to person, each with less and less understanding of the original research and experience that informed the context the book was working from (kind of like a game of “Whisper Down the Lane”).

They might have grown out of techniques and design decisions that worked once for a particular type of content or audience. Due to that success, they now get blindly applied to each subsequent  presentation situation whether they are appropriate or not.

The bottom line is anytime a design “rule” is applied to a slide or a presentation thoughtlessly, without any consideration of the audience or the requirements of the messages being communicated, you have the makings of a massive presentation disaster on par with a projector blowing up.

Through the hard work of many great presentation designers, writers and thinkers (starting with Tufte right on through Reynolds, Abela, Duarte and Atkinson) just about everyone knows that it’s a bad idea to blindly follow the path of least resistance offered by PowerPoint’s design automation. In 2009, let’s work to get out another message that’s just as important:

When you believe in things that you don’t understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition ain’t the way, yeh, yeh.

~Stevie Wonder, “Superstition”

6 comments to PowerPoint Design in 2009: “Very Superstitious…

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