How to Arrange Elements on Presentation Slides Like a Graphic Designer

Nayomi Chibana

Written by:
Nayomi Chibana

Jul 28, 2015

We’ve all been there. We’ve all been forced to follow a presentation that lost our interest within the first few minutes, maybe even seconds. What was it exactly that triggered the sudden boredom?

It turns out that our brains are incredible machines.

Although we may not be conscious of it, within the first 30 to 60 seconds of a presentation, we’ve already processed millions of stimuli and made judgments about the speaker’s likability and credibility.

While our verdicts are mostly swayed one way or another by a presenter’s body language and what is said, a lot also depends on the visual elements that are used to support the speaker’s message.

Just think back to all the presentations you’ve seen with cluttered slides, distracting clipart and ill-chosen images, and remember how this led you to consider their messages a little less seriously.

To help you avoid this same fate for your future presentations, we’ve created a guide for arranging elements on your slides like a pro designer.

Here are six things you must keep in mind to make sure you communicate the right visual message to your audience:

1 Contrast

To be a good presenter, you must first think like a good designer. To do so, you must use visual elements with a specific purpose in mind.

While many of us have made the mistake of placing as much information as possible into a single slide, this comes across as visual noise to the viewer and detracts from your message. The mark of a good slide, then, is not the amount of information you pack into it, but how clearly it communicates what you want to say.

One of the easiest ways to highlight key points is by creating contrast on your slides. For example, by implementing differences in size, shape, shade, color or proximity, audiences are intuitively led to focus their attention on the contrasting elements, as seen below. Slides with little contrast, however, are not only dull, they can also be confusing for the audience.

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Contrast achieved through color difference


Contrast achieved using bright vs. dark differentiation


Contrast achieved through inversion

Varying text size can also be used to create contrast. The larger text below, for example, is perceived as the most important message, regardless of where it is placed on the slide.


Contrast may also be created by using different colors like in the following example. This is best accomplished by using subtle but effective differences, according to presentation expert Nancy Duarte.


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Since all choices related to color, size, shape, shade and proximity can potentially communicate a difference in importance and urgency, you must be careful to not mislead your audience into decoding a visual message in a way other than what was intended.

2 Flow

As a designer in training, you must also be introduced to the concept of flow, which is the order in which information is processed by your audience.

Readers in the Western world have been taught to process text from left to right and from the top to bottom. This can be altered, however, using different visual elements to signal to your audience that their attention must begin somewhere else and flow in an order other than the typical “typewriter” pattern.

For example, you can use lines, arrows, and contrasting colors and shapes to help guide your readers’ eyes to the most important information and in the order you desire it to be processed, as seen below.

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Also, you want to make sure you place text within slides in a manner that is in sync with the intuitive flow of visual information. One easy way of doing this is to always have images of people looking toward the text or important parts of your slide rather than away from them.

Like arrows, a person’s gaze or the direction of their movement leads the viewer to look in the same direction, as seen in the example below.


3 Hierarchy

The way elements are organized on a slide will also determine the order in which your audience will read and process the information. This prioritization of information through the use of contrasting forms is called visual hierarchy.

According to this principle, higher contrast elements such as bigger text and bold type will draw a reader’s attention first before they go on to read the smaller text.


This concept is particularly useful when designing diagrams and infographics for your presentations. Notice, for instance, how the differences in color and size clearly communicate the order of importance and the relationships between the different elements in the diagram below.


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Your eye goes towards the darkest spot, then outwards to Orange and third to the very outside (teal areas)

4 Unity

There are many ways you can give your presentation a sense of unity, structure and balance. One is by tying different visual elements together with a single graphical style; another is by starting out with a big idea or theme; and a third way is by using grids to place elements on slides.

The first two can be achieved by finding an appropriate theme and carrying it through the entire presentation, as is done in the following example. Although hard to believe, this slide deck was created using only pictures of apples.

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Although the repetitive use of certain design elements is crucial for creating a unified and cohesive presentation, you must also be careful not to overdo it. Many of your viewers may have seen the same templates hundreds of times before, so you want to use subtle repetitive elements that are slightly altered from slide to slide.

The third way to create unity is by using rectangular regions to help place and align your content so that it doesn’t appear as if it were randomly placed or that certain elements bounce around in the case of consecutive slides with graphs or charts.

Use subtle repetitive elements that are slightly altered from slide to slide.

Communication expert Garr Reynolds advises using the “rule of thirds” for arranging elements on your slides, as seen in the following image.



In her book Slide:ology, Nancy Duarte provides four more grid patterns that have been used by leading design companies such as Adobe Systems.


5 Proximity

The distance between the different elements on your slides also sends a message, whether intended or not. For example, objects that are placed closely together are perceived to be related, while those that are far apart from each other are perceived to be unrelated.

It is essential that you place elements on your slides in such a way as to allow the audience to quickly grasp how they are associated to the rest. For example, it should be clear whether a line of text is a subtitle or simply the first line of a separate paragraph.

To avoid this blunder, designer Robin Williams recommends reviewing your slides one by one and stepping back to notice where your eyes go first, second, third and so forth. This way, she writes, you can determine whether they are communicating the message you want to send.

Below are a few more ways proximity can be used to communicate a variety of concepts.


6 Whitespace

Lastly, it is of vital importance that your slides have enough breathing room to ensure that they are visually appealing and communicate a strong message.

While many may be tempted to sacrifice whitespace for a few more informative elements, the truth is that when it comes to presentation creation, less is more. Not only does whitespace allow your audience to quickly and easily grasp the concepts relayed, it also creates a dramatic effect that draws the attention of the viewer.

Whenever possible, you should free up cluttered slides by splitting the same content into two or three slides. Also, be on the lookout for elements that may seem necessary at first but that you can actually do without.

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Did you find this post interesting or useful? We would love to hear your opinions, suggestions and storytelling experiences in the comments section below.

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    About the Author

    Nayomi Chibana is a journalist and writer for Visme’s Visual Learning Center. Besides researching trends in visual communication and next-generation storytelling, she’s passionate about data-driven content.

    6 responses to “How to Arrange Elements on Presentation Slides Like a Graphic Designer”

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