PowerPoint Revolution: 21st Century Design

In a previous article, I reviewed several common PowerPoint designs used in corporate meeting rooms around the world today, and what you can do to improve on them. But now, let’s aim higher. After all, we’re professionals. We should look and act like them, even behind closed conference room doors. It’s time we dragged our presentations into the 21st century. Let the Revolution begin!

What Are We Doing?

Long ago in an office culture far, far away, people gave speeches. They spoke seriously, intelligently, confidently, authoritatively, and even (dare I say it?) charismatically.

Today, we hold meetings: prep meetings, review meetings, status updates, team meetings, division meetings, All Hands!, and hot washes and lessons learned. And it has become standard practice to prepare slides for all of these meetings, regardless of whether the slides are really needed.

Slides are visual tools to support discussions. Discussions are not excuses to look at slides!

Slides for All Seasons

Today, PowerPoint presentations are used for everything. In addition to speeches, sales pitches, and team meetings, PowerPoint files are created in place of traditional documents: status reports, financial reviews, technical evaluations, and more.

This is a problem. If you don’t believe me, then you may want to read about the events leading up to the destruction of the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia. Seriously.

PowerPoint is an effective tool for displaying visuals. However, PowerPoint does not support good data design, good graphic art, or good writing.

Better Designs

Where should we look for inspiration for our 21st century slides? Everywhere! Study television commercials, print advertisements, and Web sites. What are the top companies in your industry doing? What are the top companies in the world doing?

Question: How are advertisements like slides?

Answer: Advertisements are used to explain products and services to millions of uninformed people in just a few seconds. They convey complex business messages through visual media. They strive to be focused, dynamic, and…well, good.

We can convince complete strangers to buy a product in 30 seconds. Why do we need 70 slides and 2 hours (through lunch! every month!) at the division status meeting to explain our projects to our own coworkers?

Design Rule #1: Less is More

(Clichés tend to be true!)

Look at your presentation. How many slides are there? Twenty? Fifty? A hundred? And how many of them contain powerful, illustrative visuals? If the second number is less than the first number, it’s time to warm up your Delete key.

Design Exercise #1

Make a copy of your presentation to revise. Now, delete all of the slides that only contain text. All of them. But before you consign those slides to oblivion, copy the text to a Word document. (We’ll use it later.)

Gone is the list of speakers! Gone is the agenda! Gone are the second and third comings of the agenda to remind the audience where we are in the briefing! Gone are the lists of facts and partners, lists of questions, prompts for questions!

Now, how many slides are left? Twenty percent? Five percent? Excellent!

And how much text have you captured in your Word document? Go ahead and fix the formatting to look like regular text (12pt Times), and take out the bullets. What’s left from your dozens of slides? Three pages? Less?

Design Rule #2: Even Less is Even More

(The cliché that keeps on giving!)

Statistician and design guru Edward Tufte has published several books about good design, and he has coined a term for all the administrative flotsam and jetsam that clutter up a document: Chartjunk. What is chartjunk on a PowerPoint slide?

  • Headers and footers
  • Titles and subtitles
  • Dates and page numbers
  • Logos, clipart, and drop-shadows
  • Anything that has ever been called “cute” or “fun”

What does that leave? Content.

Design Exercise #2

Minimize all chartjunk on your remaining slides. It might help to try this while projecting the slides in a vacant meeting room (if there is such a thing).

  1. Shrink your logo. If it is in color, make it a black or white silhouette.
  2. Make disclaimers, dates, and page numbers tiny. Make the titles small. Seriously, small. As long as you can read it from the back of the room, it’s fine.
  3. Delete any graphics or bits of excitement that you know are not necessary. I’m looking at you, watermark!
  4. Now, add your footer content to the header. Arrange it all together in the smallest space within reason.

I ended up with this:


No footer and a header only 0.75 inches tall. Just look at all the space you have reclaimed for your content!

Design Rule #3: Black is the New Black

A presentation is a light show. You are bouncing a harsh white light off a glaring white screen straight into the eyeballs of weary cubicle dwellers, some of them sitting only a few feet away. There is no need to blind your coworkers. Make your backgrounds black, and make your content bright.

A wonderful thing happens when you reverse the lighting in a presentation: It becomes easier to focus on the content because there is no distracting, glaring white space. There are only the glowing words, the colorful graphics, the brilliant illustrations. The stuff you came to see!

Design Exercise #3:

Make your backgrounds black and your text white.

Question: Won’t we waste tons of ink when we print out black slides?

Answer: Not if you print correctly. Go to File > Print, find “Color/grayscale” in the Print window (lower left), and select “Pure Black and White.” Voilà! Black ink on white paper, but white text on a black screen. Magic.

Here is my new header in black:


Design Rule #4: Microsoft Word is Your Friend

Raise your hand if you have ever attended a meeting where you were handed a print-out of the slides to be shown at that meeting. Thirty pieces of paper, per person, each one containing half a dozen bullet points of incomplete sentences and irrelevant clip art.

Keep your hand up if that print-out went straight into the trash after that meeting. That’s a lot of wasted paper. Half a ream every time the team meets! Let’s see if we can turn your Word document of deleted slide text into something more useful.

Speed Writing Exercise:

Re-write all of your bullet points as complete sentences. They don’t have to be brilliant, artful sentences. Just put a subject in front of a verb. You can combine multiple bullets into a single sentence if they’re related. Yes, it will take a few minutes. Indulge me.

Keyboards down. What do you have? It’s almost like a little essay, isn’t it? Clear declarative sentences explaining the problem, the proposed solution, how it works, who is involved. It’s like a Statement of Work, or a Scope Document, or a Proposal. In fact, that’s exactly what it is. And it’s only two pages long. We’re saving trees!

Now people can read your Word document before the meeting and arrive ready to have an informed conversation. It might make your meeting more productive. It might even make the meeting shorter!

Design Rule #5: More is More

(Sometimes clichés are wrong.)

Study your slide content carefully. Do you really need a separate slide for each product/team/person? Is there a way to consolidate those timelines and schedules? The more content you have on one slide, the better it can support an informed discussion, and there’s no need to flip back and forth between slides. See example #2 below.

Let’s See Some Slides!

PowerPoint design for the 21st century is not just about slick slides. It’s about improving meetings and communications, saving time and energy, and reducing waste. But yes, it is also about slick slides.

1. Your standard workflow diagram. Notice how you don’t need to put boxes around your words. Even those extra lines are chartjunk!


2. Can comparative data, timelines, multiple product statistics, graphics, and an overview of key events fit on a single slide? Of course! Instead of flipping through a dozen weak slides, your team can study a strong one.


3. If your boss can’t get used to that black background, here is an effective compromise:


Notice that when this last slide is projected on a screen, the content in the black header appears to “float” above the white body area, further de-conflicting administrative debris from genuine content.

Experiment with these ideas. Rethink conventions. For example, why do slides need titles? Shouldn’t the content be fairly obvious? And isn’t there a speaker in the room to explain it?

Viva la Revolución!

Download: PowerPoint file containing the examples shown.

Popular search terms for this article:

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Joseph Lewis is a writer and editor who has worked in the public and private sectors, including military, health care, and technology firms. Visit Joe's site


  1. Phil on the 7th October

    Some good points about design there, especially about the use of logos, watermarks, disclaimers and the like. However, I’ve seen the future, and ppt is dead. Long live http://prezi.com/ Not so good if you’re looking for handouts, but then who really refers back to them.

    • Joseph Lewis on the 7th October

      Phil, I’ve taken a look at Prezi and it is a neat application, but I believe the reality is that few corporate environments would be receptive to using a tool like that any time soon. PPT is deeply entrenched as a standard, as a way of life. I believe it will be with us for quite some time.

  2. Johannes on the 7th October

    You got some good points, I will try to keep them in mind for my next presentaion and try it out!

  3. Damien on the 7th October

    Thanks for sharing. Good points with regard to minimalizing “clutter.”

    But IMHO, I think it’s important to know your environment, especially in regards to your design rule #3. Not all rooms are designed the same. Sometimes, a light background might be better.

    For instance, I was at a presentation where the presenter used a black background, but the room was situated where there were windows to the left of the presenter. Even though the shades were down and the lights were dim, the light from the windows still posed a problem. The environment made it difficult to read portions of the slides. A suggestion from the audience was for the presenter to use a lighter background.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like black backgrounds with white text. And not all rooms will be like the one I described. However, I realized when I was there that as a presenter I have a few of options to be prepared:

    1) Scope the place out before I present and check the room and equipment (always a good idea).
    2) Prepare 2 copies of my slides beforehand. One with a dark background, and the other with a light. If I can’t get in the room beforehand, then at least I can make an on-site decision.

    Just some thoughts.

    • Joseph Lewis on the 7th October

      Damien, you raise an interesting point. The physical environment of the meeting can be a barrier to change or to style as much as the corporate environment.

      This is one reason that I advised testing some or all of your slide edits in an actual meeting room with a projector. A color or a graphic could look great on your computer monitor, but on a projector it could be washed out, or too dark, or the colors could look completely different.

      All the more reason to work on your slides long before you have a presentation deadline looming over you.

  4. Detroit Web Design on the 8th October

    “Make your backgrounds black, and make your content bright.”

    This has traditionally been a faux pas in design but perhaps it’s different when using a projector and looking at a large presentation.

    Nice article.

    • Joseph Lewis on the 8th October

      In print or other “physical” media, one of the best presentation styles is to place the product/content on a white background, like placing colorful food on a white plate. This creates the effect of a blank canvas on which there is only one focus, one work of art: your content.

      But in presentations, you frequently find yourself in a dim or dark room, similar to a movie theater. Now think back to all of your movie experiences: When the opening titles and credits and logos appear, are they usually bright content on a dark background? Yep. This is because you’re in a dark environment, so it helps you to focus on content when it is the only bright thing in the room.

      If you do the opposite, then all of the white space on your slide becomes “active” while the dark content essentially becomes a void or a hole in the light.

      This brings us back to the issue of knowing your environment. Practice and experiment with different techniques to find the ones that work best for you and your audiences.

    • Jen on the 13th October

      I agree with some of the other comments. I don’t necessarily agree with “black background with white text”. I have seen most presentations with a dark background fail and have always found lighter presentations easier to read. Plus when you put them on something like slide share later and have to shrink them down it always looks better. I can see your points of when black could be better, but I wouldn’t make a blanket statement to say you should always go with this first. I have rarely been in a room where the lights have been turned off for a PPT presentation…

      Great article, I hope some people listen and improve their PPTs! Wouldn’t it be great to have less people reading bullet points from the screen? *snore*

    • J S on the 28th November

      Black backgrounds with light text are trendy now (see your latest Operating System release update), but in the long run it’s easier to read black text on white/light backgrounds. There have been a lot of speed and comprehension studies of text and background color combinations and black on white is the best. “Ogilvy on Advertising” has some discussion on this.

      Rather than retype narrative (I’m always adding and changing content up to the start of the presentation because it’s by necessity a timely medium) don’t hand out copies ahead of time. People only flip through them reading ahead and not listening to the content you’re delivering. If someone wants a copy they’ll ask at the end for an email.

      I do love how you crush all the clutter into a nifty box. Keep advocating that!

  5. Rico Smith on the 9th October

    I have worked with PPT before and has recently switched over to iWork ’09’s Keynote. In Keynote, it is much easier to create slick designs with the templates given and for me personally it’s much easier and simpler to work with when generating your own content.

    Thank you for the great article. I will definitely keep these things in mind when I create a portfolio presentation for my next client or potential boss.

  6. Katie on the 10th June

    I really wish my teachers had seen this. I could never understand how some people think purple text on an orange background would look good. It pains me to even think about it. If PowerPoints are going to survive, and I’m not saying it won’t, there should be mandatory lessons for anyone who decides they are going to make one.

  7. Miguel.M on the 5th December

    Just a humble contribution about Presentations Design not only PowerPoint Presentations Design – even if PowerPoint still is the best solution in Presentations Design delivery…





  8. Philip on the 13th March

    Thanks for the tips! I am in the process of redesigning our ppt template for our office. I want to utilize one of your tips right away.

    You said “Now, add your footer content to the header. Arrange it all together in the smallest space within reason.” How did you embed the header info? Looks like you have dynamic page numbers and date, but I can’t see how that is possible unless that info is actually in the background image itself.

    Thanks again for the great article!

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