PowerPoint 1: Pick Your Design Theme First

Tomorrow I will have the opportunity of conducting a workshop I present each semester.  It is titled PowerPoint 1: Creating Basic Presentations with PowerPoint 2010.  This workshop is intended for PowerPoint beginners, so we spend some time discussing how to start a new presentation.  My own advice, which varies from some of the PowerPoint books I have read, is to pick your design theme first, rather than later, and then enter the information on slides as you develop the presentation using the features of the theme to enhance your message.  The reason for this is simple:  When you change themes, font sizes and families, container locations, background elements, color contrast features, and theme effects can change radically, often distorting your work and forcing you into time wasting edits.  To save yourself time in the long run, know your theme and stick with it.  I’ll show you what I mean.

Here is a typical slide, and one we use in the PowerPoint 1 workshop.  It shows a bar chart created in Excel and pasted into PowerPoint.  The Excel chart uses the standard Office theme, and the PowerPoint slide uses the standard “Trek” design theme.  Notice the slide title font, case, and effects, the background art (the line under the title), the slide background itself, the coordinated colors of the bars in the chart, the location, font and font size of the chart title, and the font size of the axis labels.  (All illustrations in this post have been reduced to 65% size so they will fit in the blog post column).


Looks pretty good, right?  The axis labels text is probably too small to use if this slide were presented in a large lecture room, but other than that it’s OK.  Now watch what happens when we start experimenting with other standard PowerPoint themes.  Here is the same slide using the Angles theme.

The Y-axis text at the bottom of the chart is completely lost in the contrasting color effect used by the background graphics of this theme.  The same is true of the chart drop lines.  You can always turn off background art on this particular slide, of course, but my point is that you don’t want to end up making a lot of fine-tuning adjustments after you think your are finished with a presentation.

Now let’s take a look at some more drastic changes using some of the other standard themes.  Here is Austin, which relocates the slide title container location.

chart 3 - Austin

Here is Black Tie, which obscures the chart title by relocating the slide title, makes the bottom bar on the chart the same color as the background, rendering it invisible, and uses a font family which is virtually unreadable by anyone over 40.

chart 4 - Black Tie

I could go on and on with the illustrations, but finally here is the same slide using the NewsPrint theme.

chart 5 - NewsPrint

As you can see, the title is once again place in an inappropriate place, the red line of background art obscures the X-axis labels, and the serifed font is difficult to read.

Enough examples.  I think the point has been made.  One of the exercises we do in our workshop is to open up a finished presentation and try out the different themes on it.  At first the attendees ooh and aah, dazzled by how easy it is to totally change the look of the slides with a single click of the mouse.  But then they start looking more closely, and realize that if you change theme you are going to end up doing a lot of extra editing on each slide to make things look good.  The moral of the story is, know your themes, pick one you want to use, and stick with it from the start.

A useful technique

Another thing I like to pass along to PowerPoint beginners is the ease with which complex edits can be made.  I mentioned above that the X and Y axis labels once pasted in from Excel were too small to easily read.  They are, in fact in 10-point Franklin Gothic Book font, because that is the secondary theme font used by the Trek theme.  (By the way, to know which theme you are using, look in the left of the status bar in PowerPoint and it will tell you).  To enlarge the size of our Y-axis labels, simply click on one of the labels and the entire label container will be selected with a solid line.  Now go to the Home tab and enlarge the font size.  All of the Y-axis legends will be increased and the bars in the bar chart will automatically re-size to accommodate the new font size.  Do the same for the X-axis labels and you are finished.  Here I have re sized the X- and Y-axis labels and bolded them with just a couple of clicks.

chart 6 - Labels Resized

Here is another little warning, however.  Once you start editing things, you may be tempted to over-ride some of the theme conventions.  Let’s say, for example, that in this chart I want to really emphasize the earnings differences between Associate and Bachelor degrees, so I recolor these data points using non-theme colors.  To do this, select the data point, then right-click it, then choose Format Data Point from the context menu.  Choose Fill from the Format Data Point dialog box and you will see a color chart on the Fill Color drop-down.Make a selection from the non-theme colors:

Fill Dialog

I chose dark red and purple to emphasize these data points:

chart7 - Theme Override

Once you “over-ride” a theme setting by selecting a non-theme color, you will not be able to change it by changing to another theme.  Regardless of the theme you now choose, those two data points will remain dark red and purple.  So my final advice is, know your theme, stick with it, and don’t stray outside the theme standards without a really good reason.