7 tips for designing the perfect slide deck

Image of a man sitting at his desk designing a slide deck on his laptop.

Whether you’re designing virtual instructor-led training or preparing materials for a virtual meeting, presentation or conference, your slide deck can be a powerful tool for engagement and learning transfer. Presentations have come a long way since the days of mismatched clipart and long animation sequences, and in the right hands can boost interaction, reduce cognitive load and help people to access and retain information more effectively.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen.

At one end of the scale we have loud, crowded retro slides that overwhelm our senses with clashing colours, spinning images and (if we’re really unlucky) sound effects to match. At the other end, we have large blocks of text on plain white slides that work better than counting sheep ever could. Besides turning paying attention into a feat of endurance, both ends of this scale can really impact on the perceived effectiveness of training and presentation materials.

Looks do matter.

So, how can we use the principles of visual design to create better virtual slide decks that keep people engaged and maximise learning transfer?

Our 7 design tips for building the perfect slide deck

Here are our Design studio’s top tips for designing the perfect slide deck:

  1. Design with purpose: Always start with the end in mind.
  2. State the obvious: Make sure any key facts or instructions are written on slides.
  3. Get visual: Use photos, illustrations, icons, gifs, or diagrams to support learning and retention.
  4. Put it in motion: Use animation with intention and purpose.
  5. Consistency is key: Pick a theme and stick with it.
  6. Avoid cognitive overload: Remember that visual design is there to support learning, not to overwhelm it.
  7. Make it fun: Learning may be a serious business, but that business happens best when we’re having fun!

1. Design with purpose

At the Virtual Training Team, we always start with the end in mind – the end being what we want people to think, feel and do as a result of their virtual learning experience. Visual design works to support this, not to replace it.

Rather than start by thinking about how you want your slides to look, start by thinking about what outcomes you want to achieve. Visual design is important but design decisions should never be made for aesthetic reasons alone. Instead, every element of the virtual design process should be working to support the purpose and outcomes of delivery, so it’s important that you identify these before you turn your attention to more creative matters!

Want to learn more about our 8-step process for designing virtual training? Check out the ‘Virtual design’ masterclass we deliver as part of our Virtual train the trainer programme

2. State the obvious

There is a time and a place for being mysterious and your virtual slide deck is not that time! Decide what needs to be on the slides and put it on the slides.

Though it’s important to avoid overwhelming people with large blocks of text, you should make sure that any key facts and instructions are visible – this might be an important statistic, top tip or direction for engagement. Writing these key points on the slides can help with accessibility and give people something to refer back to. It also provides a framework for delivery that ensures the most essential points are covered regardless of who the coach or presenter is.

3. Get visual 

Using photos, illustrations, icons, gifs or diagrams in your slide deck can help keep people engaged and support learning and retention. Though learning styles have largely been debunked in recent years, it’s still true that many of us respond well to visual stimuli. Our brains process images quicker than text and we’re more likely to remember text when it’s presented alongside them.

Colour can also be a useful tool for directing attention and encouraging an emotional connection with material – something that can help with learning, selling or just keeping people awake in a long virtual meeting! Just make sure that any text is always in high contrast to the background to ensure readability. Colour images are more memorable than black and white, so consider this too when selecting or creating resources.

Make sure any visual elements you include are relevant to the material and support the overall purpose, and don’t be afraid to simplify rather than decorate! Remember that every element of your slide deck should be there to enhance the content, never to distract from it.

4. Put it in motion 

Though spinning titles and dancing clipart have thankfully fallen out of fashion, that doesn’t mean you can’t use animation to support learning and delivery. Consider using builds to reveal information one piece at a time and reduce cognitive load, including simple motion paths to direct attention or choosing transitions that make the relationship between two slides or objects clear.

When used with intention and purpose, motion can be a useful tool for keeping people engaged and directing focus – just don’t overdo it!

5. Consistency is key

When designing a virtual slide deck, it’s important to pick a theme and stick with it. Too many variations in font, colour, image style or even animation can increase cognitive load and overwhelm the content itself.

This doesn’t mean that every slide you produce has to look the same! Variation within a theme, for example in slide layout, can be a great way to signal a new topic, highlight an important piece of information or just give people a visual jolt back into the room! Get creative within the boundaries of a theme and you’ll have a cohesive, smart looking slide deck that maintains engagement without ever distracting from the content.

6. Avoid cognitive overload

Remember those loud, crowded retro slides that overwhelmed our senses? This is a perfect example of cognitive overload. The human brain can only take in so much information at once and when we throw too much at a slide deck, we risk increasing cognitive load to a level that makes it difficult to process new information. There’s a fine line between creating interesting, engaging slides and distracting people from the content!

As well as sticking to a theme and always keeping your purpose in mind, there are steps you can take to reduce cognitive load:

  • Consider chunking information so that people are able to process one piece at a time. This might mean using more slides with less content, using animation to reveal information point by point, using variations in colour or font to create clear section headers or getting creative in some other way! Avoid overwhelming people with large amounts of new information at once so they have time to process as they go.
  • Make the relationship between items on a slide clear so that people can focus on content rather than figuring out what’s going on! Gestalt’s Laws of Common Region, Proximity, Similarity and Continuation can help you to organise your slides and reduce the cognitive effort required to access information in a logical order.
  • Build in breaks! Although the pacing of a virtual event ultimately lies with the coach or presenter, it’s important that the design allows for breaks. As well as helping to keep people focused, these can act as processing time and reduce the risk of information overload.

7. Make it fun!

Yes, virtual design should always be informed by purpose and should be led by outcomes at every stage of the design process. That doesn’t mean it has to be boring! In fact, adding an element of fun or humour to your designs can reduce anxiety levels and help people to access and retain information more effectively.

Add a funny gif, build in time for the coach or presenter to add their own stories and get creative with your activities. Include breakout rooms in virtual workshops and meetings, or make use of interactive tools if you’re running a larger-scale virtual conference. Learning may be a serious business, but that business happens best when we’re having fun… so have fun!

Final thoughts

If you’re looking to further up your game when it comes to designing a virtual slide deck, why not take a look at our virtual workshop on Delivering presentations virtually or of course our Virtual train the trainer programme!

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