Before PowerPoint: The Evolution of Presentations

Written by:
Orana Velarde

evolution of presentations before PowerPoint history of presentations wide header

When PowerPoint was introduced in 1987, presentations changed forever. It wasn’t long before the presentation software took over and tools like overhead projectors and slide carousels became storage room trash.

Before slides were designed on computers, they were made by hand. It took several days to design a slide deck and it was really expensive.

Back in those days, presentations were visualized with tools like paper flip charts and slide projectors, and these were used in classrooms and meeting rooms all over the world.

Interestingly, the design of the slides resembled the visual styles found in other fields of graphic design from the same time period. The evolution of presentations has followed trends, just like advertisement and fashion.

In this article, we’ll look at how presentations have evolved over time and how they've turned into the slide decks we know today.

 

Ancient Presentations

By definition, a presentation is a visual tool designed to help a person tell a story. This story can be for various purposes, including educational, entertainment and even business.

Cave paintings were the first of those "visual tools."

Neanderthal cave paintings, considered to be the first instances of art in human history, were created to tell stories of personal experiences.

These stories were handed down to their children with the help of the drawings they had done on the cave walls.

Jumping ahead thousands of years, another example of historic art can be considered a style of presentation. During the middle ages, Gothic cathedrals were lined with grand colorful stained glass windows.

evolution of presentations before powerpoint history of presentations ancient cathedral paintings

Stained glass windows at Canterbury Cathedral

The images depicted stories from the Bible and the life of Jesus. The purpose of these windows was to visually enrich the sermons and the preachings given to the congregation.

The same teaching practice is seen in Buddhist temples throughout Southeast Asia. There, teachings are found to be painted on the walls of the monks’ learning areas in equally sized rectangles.

What's interesting is that each painting and each window of ancient times can be considered a “vintage presentation slide.”

 

Chalkboards and Whiteboards

The first purpose of presentations was education. It wasn’t until later that people started using presentations in offices and sales meetings, too.

The first tool used for presenting lessons to students was the well-known chalkboard. In fact, teachers have used chalkboards for hundreds of years to teach many generations of students.

Some teachers wrote as they spoke, while others prepared the boards beforehand. You could say that the latter was the most similar to the kind of presentations we know of today.

Here's a video of a well-known lecture by author Kurt Vonnegut that not only shows how a chalkboard can be a great presentation tool, but also teaches us about the storytelling process itself:

 
For decades, scientists and mathematicians used chalkboards to present their findings. Their complicated calculations filled large boards. While explaining, they pointed at different sections of the board with a long stick.

The photograph below shows a group of NASA scientists in 1961 showing a photojournalist how they worked out calculations about space exploration.

There are no real calculations on this board, only reference equations. Still, the visual message was delivered. It shows how scientists would present their knowledge and make calculations.

evolution of presentations before powerpoint history of presentations nasa scientists chalkboard calculations

NASA scientists presenting their calculations in 1961

 

Digital Presentations Inspired by Chalkboards and Whiteboards

The chalkboard will always represent the classroom; in all fields of design. Even today, there are plenty of chalkboard and whiteboard presentation templates available for PowerPoint and other alternatives like Visme.

Ironically, chalkboards are now more popular in bars and restaurants than in the classroom. Whiteboards, on the other hand, are now interactive and still used in classrooms around the world.

 

Paper Flip Charts and Poster Cards

Another tool commonly used in the classroom for presenting information to students before PowerPoint was the flip chart.

The first flip charts were actually printed posters joined together with metal fasteners. Presenters used to flip over these posters one by one to present and explain each one.

Flip charts were created for visual lessons and could be used repeatedly. Teachers could access these flip charts through the school libraries.

The image below is of an antique flip chart titled Science Charts:

evolution of presentations before powerpoint history of presentations antique flip chart science charts

Science Charts an educational flip chart from the 1940s

It was used by teachers for presenting information to the students. It’s full of monochrome illustrations that helped the teacher explain the lessons without the need for a chalkboard.

The flip chart above is from the 1940s, and its design is very similar to the style of the textbooks of the era; monochromatic and very detailed.

Flip charts were also used for business. Their first recorded use for a sales meeting was featured in the book, "The Patterson Principles of Selling", showing John Henry Patterson presenting with two flip charts in 1912.

As an example, here's an image of an antique flip chart used by The Coca-Cola Company that seems to be from around the 1940s:

evolution of presentations before powerpoint history of presentations the coca cola company flip chart advertising

The Coca-Cola Company's flip chart presentation from the 1940s

As we can see, the flip chart above was used for presenting data about advertising practices and effects in the United States.

Unfortunately, we were unable to find any other images of this flip chart presentation that show the rest of its pages.

The image below shows another interesting example of a flip chart presentation being used in a Chevrolet Sales Meeting in the 1950s:

evolution of presentations before powerpoint history of presentations antique flip chart presentation chevrolet sales meeting

Chevrolet Sales Meeting using a flip chart in the 1950s

The flip chart can be seen right at the back against the wall, where it was probably used by the presenter to convey information about the brand.

If you look closely, you will notice that the design style of the flip chart resembles the design style of print advertisement of the era.

The image below shows a flip chart presentation from Sherwin Williams:

evolution of presentations before powerpoint history of presentations flip chart presentation sherwin williams

Sherwin Williams' flip chart presentation on employee benefits

The flip chart above was used as a tool to get employees acquainted with their benefits while being part of the Sherwin Willams family.

This flip chart is from some time around the ’60s or ’70s. The black and white illustrations resemble magazine advertisements of the 1960s.

Printed flip charts like these are sometimes still used in common work areas or employee rest areas.

The image below, for example, shows a flip chart with emergency procedures for a large company:

evolution of presentations before powerpoint history of presentations modern flip chart presentation emergency procedures

Flip chart on workplace emergency procedures

Flip charts like these are still used today because they can be easily laminated, hung on a wall and looked at whenever needed. The "slide" design resembles the colorful 90s style of design.

The first paper flip chart was introduced in the 1970s by Peter Kent. The paper flip chart is a large block of white paper sheets clipped on to a freestanding whiteboard.

Presenters can draw or write on a paper flip chart while speaking, or pre-design it with charts, graphs, and illustrations.

Flip charts were mostly used before PowerPoint came along, but they have also become a bit of a cult classic for giving live presentations. Many people still use them and swear by them for their projects.

Here's a quick video tutorial on how to use flip charts and why they might sometimes be better than digital slides:

 
In the 1960s, between flip charts and projectors, some presentations were visualized with cardboard posters mounted on wooden easels.

In the TV show Mad Men, this presentation technique was seen being used for the pitch meetings in Don Draper’s creative agency.

The video below is a clip from an episode in which Peggy uses large cardboard visuals in a pitch to a Burger Restaurant:

 
She switches from card to card by moving them over to an easel next to the one before it. In other instances, they would flip the card as a big reveal.

As another example, here is a photograph of a sales meeting at the Oscar Meyer Company. Notice how the men are holding a poster card with a sales data chart and showing it to Mr. Oscar Meyer.

evolution of presentations before powerpoint history of presentations poster card presentation sales meeting oscar meyer company

Poster card presentation at Oscar Meyer Company's sales meeting

 

Projectors

During the 1900s, chalkboards, flip charts, and poster cards were great tools for presenting knowledge and information — but they were limited.

When educators and salespeople wanted to present in a more engaging and interactive way, they used projectors of different kinds.

The first projector was The Magic Lantern. It used a candle or kerosene lamp to project light through the film transparencies, instead of a light bulb.

When electricity was invented, projectors quickly evolved and so did presentation design. Here is a visual timeline of the evolution of projectors:

evolution of presentations before powerpoint history of presentations evolution of projectors visual timeline

 

Filmstrips

The first “slides” were seen in filmstrip presentations. These were short 35 mm film negatives projected either on a wall or with a filmstrip machine.

These machines were controlled by hand with a wheel on the side. This wheel would advance the filmstrip one frame, or "slide", at a time.

Educators had access to prepared filmstrip presentations just how they had access to the scientific flip charts. The prepared filmstrips were usually accompanied by an audio file on a vinyl record.

In other instances, the filmstrips came with a printed text which the teacher would read during the presentation to explain things better.

The audio recordings that accompanied filmstrip presentations had a specific sound prompt to let the teacher know when it was time to change to the next frame/slide. The printed text had written prompts, too.

More modern filmstrip machines had automatic slide movements and a slot for a cassette tape which would play in sync with the filmstrip.

The video below shows how filmstrips were viewed in the classroom during the 1970s. It shows a series of filmstrips created by Disney Studios about getting to school safely, with the help of Winnie the Pooh:

 
There were many other filmstrips like these available in schools for educating kids on different subject matters.

 

Slides, Transparencies and the Rise of The Slide Designer

In terms of slide design, the first instances in history where we see actual slide design practices were in the opening and ending credits in movies.

The techniques used for these frames formed the basis for all the slide design techniques that followed. In the 60s and 70s, these techniques were used to create informational filmstrips, much like the one below:

 
The Hungarian website below has a great collection of filmstrip and slide deck series dated as far back as the 1920s up until the 1980s.

Many of the slide decks in this collection have a similar design; very simple composition of image and text. In some cases, the designs are a bit more complex. But for the most part, they seem more educational than creative.

evolution of presentations before powerpoint history of presentations filmstrip slide deck series collection hungary

Hungarian website showcasing old filmstrips and slide decks

Pre-made filmstrips you could get from film studios were great, but they were not always what educators or sales people needed.

This need was the reason for the rise of the slide designer. Teachers started to learn how to create slides and transparencies for their own lessons with the help of videos like the one below:

 
The video above shows techniques to create transparencies and slides by hand to use on overhead projectors and other types of projectors, which needed different size transparencies.

It's interesting to note that the evolution of these projectors went hand in hand with the evolution of slide design.

Handmade slides and transparencies were great for the classroom, but they were not very practical for use in the business space.

For a sales meeting, transparencies had to be prepared days in advance. They then had to be transported in special protective folders along with the machinery needed to present them.

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To better understand how slide design evolved, it’s necessary to understand the difference between slides and transparencies.

Transparencies are essentially any type of see-through material, like paper or film, through which light is able to pass.

In slide design terms, a transparency is an acetate sheet on which the design is printed on. It's then presented using an overhead projector.

Teachers used overhead projectors in classrooms for a fairly long time during the 70s, 80s and well into the 90s.

They used prepared transparency slides, which they could also write on, and gave lessons with the information projected on a screen or whiteboard.

Overhead projectors were also used for business purposes, such as during meetings with prepared printed transparencies.

A slide is very similar to the acetate transparency, but much smaller. Each slide is one frame of film cut from a filmstrip and placed inside a plastic or cardboard frame. Slides are photographic negatives, this means that they are photographs of designs prepared first on paper.

A set of slides was presented with a slide projector. The first ones had slide boxes with a manual slider that brought each slide in front of the light bulb.

In 1965, the well-known Kodak Carousel was introduced. It was then that more sophisticated slide designs eventually started to emerge, such as slide transitions and visual effects.

Ironically, the series finale of Mad Men — a TV series about a marketing company in the 1960s — includes a memorable scene in which the main character pitches a marketing idea for the Kodak Carousel.

 

The Role of the Slide Designer

As slide and transparency projectors became more popular, companies wanted to have their own slide decks for sales meetings and pitches.

The way slides were designed was very similar to the technique behind print advertising. The designs were first put together on white paper using rulers, Exacto knives, rubber cement, and typesetting sheets.

Each slide was designed as a standalone design on a large piece of paper. It had to be proofread and checked for errors until it was just right.

When the large slide designs on paper were ready, they were photographed professionally one by one. The negative filmstrip was then cut slide by slide and framed on the plastic casings.

Designing the slides took many hours of work, which is why slide designers focused mainly on that task. Creative agencies were hired to create slide decks days or weeks ahead of time for a meeting or presentation.

Below is a slide deck for a sales pitch by GE from the 1950s, designed in the way described above:

 

Advancement of Technology

As technology advanced, so did the evolution of presentations. Slide designers moved from creating slides by hand to creating them on computers with early design programs.

In 1987, when PowerPoint was released, slide designers quickly jumped on board to learn the program and get presentations done faster.

The design style of the first presentations created in PowerPoint was limited by what PowerPoint had to offer. The first ever PowerPoint version was launched for Apple computers in black and white.

Here's what the first ever PowerPoint presentations used to look like:

 
When Microsoft acquired PowerPoint, they relaunched it with colors. There was a number of “slide masters”, which we now call templates.

Users could also change the colors with the help of pre-designed color schemes available in the program.

When PowerPoint first came into the scene, it was only available to those with computers, like advertising and creative agencies.

Even though a finished presentation could be looked at on the computer screen, the designs were still turned into slides for a carousel, transparencies for an overhead, or printed as flip charts.

Computer screens were quite small, so projected slides looked a lot better. In the video below, Microsoft is explaining how PowerPoint worked with the color and storyboard settings:

 

All About Clip Art

By the mid-90s, computers were well on their way to invading every family home. PowerPoint was the go-to program for making presentations.

Everyone used it — teachers, students, and of course, every company meeting had a PowerPoint presentation.

Back in the 90s, every presentation needed visuals — just like they do now. If the person creating the presentation had some design skills, they could create digital images on Paint and copy them into their PowerPoint slides.

But what most people did was resort to Clip Art for their visuals.

evolution of presentations before powerpoint history of presentations clip art microsoft gallery

Microsoft's clip art gallery

Clip Art was a bunch of colorful images that came in sets and could be used for any type of digital project.

The first Clip Art collections came in floppy disks and then on CD-ROMs. With the rise of the internet, Clip Art was eventually available online.

In 2014, Microsoft announced that there would be no more Clip Art included in Office software, since most are available online anyway.

evolution of presentations before powerpoint history of presentations clip art powerpoint 2000 slides

Clip art used in Microsoft PowerPoint 2000

 

Death by PowerPoint

With so many people creating PowerPoint presentations, it wasn’t long before the term “Death by PowerPoint” was coined.

Death by PowerPoint means that a presentation is so boring and poorly designed, the audience has essentially “died” in their seats and aren’t paying attention, much less enjoying themselves.

Much was said about Death by PowerPoint in the early 2000s. It’s still the go-to term when teaching people what NOT to do when creating a PowrPoint presentation.

Not much later, other presentation software started popping up, including Keynote by Apple, Prezi, and Google Slides.

But no matter what software a presenter used, they still had to do their best to avoid “Death by PowerPoint.”

Check out this video by Don McMillan where he gives a humorous talk about Death by PowerPoint and tips on how to avoid it:

 

Evolution of Presentations: Today and Beyond

With all the presentation software available now, the actual design style of the slides depends greatly on the creator of the presentation.

Presentations made with Prezi, for example, are easy to spot. The zoom in and out animation effect is their visual characteristic.

In the same way, other presentation software has its own unique aspects, making their slides just a little different from the rest.

Not only are there tons of different types of software, there are also thousands of templates available for all platforms.

There are so many different options now that we can’t really point to a single design style. But there are some trends that float to the top every year, which we use as a source of inspiration for our presentations.

At Visme, we make it really easy for you to create presentations that are timeless. With the slide library, you get a good base to work with and it's easy to add your own style.

We also have a great collection of simple background templates, which can be a lifesaver if your creative streak is running low.

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As for the future of presentation design, we are sure to see more interactivity and seamless non-intrusive animations.

We are already starting to see that trend, like in Prezi’s unique “conversational” approach to animated transitions.

Another innovative feature worth mentioning here is Visme’s integrated slide transitions, which all of our presentations include out of the box.

As a result, completed Visme presentations feel more like smooth videos instead of clunky slide decks.

Future trends in presentation design will come and go but what will always stay as a rule is to steer clear of “death by PowerPoint.”

 

Your Turn

Did you like this brief recap on the evolution of presentations? Let us know your questions, comments and feedback below!

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About the Author

Orana is an artist of many trades, currently working as a graphic designer for bloggers and small businesses. Her love of art and travel create the perfect artist-nomad combination. She founded Orana Creative to help freelancers, solopreneurs and bloggers master a better visual strategy. She is passionate about eye happiness and loves constructive criticism.

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