I asked a number of number of experts on powerpoint slide design for their thoughts on whether design matters. There were definite opposing view points.

PowerPoint slide design doesn’t matter

Andrew Lightheart:

In terms of impact, slides have as much impact as the the fonts and the layout of a document.

Dave Paradi believes that the vast majority of people who deliver presentations “don’t have time for elaborate design”:

They look at the design folks and conclude correctly that a design-focused approach just won’t work in their world.

Joey Asher

[Powerpoint] is largely irrelevant to whether you accomplish your goals. That’s because PowerPoint and other visuals, now matter how graphically pleasing, don’t inspire audiences, sell ideas, or win business….slides don’t grow businesses. Connecting with audiences and colleagues and business partners and customers is what grows businesses.

PowerPoint slide design does matter

In the other camp are Ellen Finkelstein:

I’d like presenters in 2009 to know that design is important. Good design provides a professional, custom look that says that the presenter cared enough about the audience to do more than slap on a default background.

Julie Terberg (email contribution):

I’d like to see many more companies give presentations as much effort and consideration as they do their annual reports, corporate web sites, and other marketing materials.

Nancy Duarte (email contribution):

Corporations that flush bad PowerPoint and design their stories well will see their stock price increase.

My view is that we need to make a distinction between two different types of design and two different presentation situations.

Two different types of design

The first type is generally called instructional design. Instructional design follows the principles that have been proven to contribute to effective learning.

The second type is graphic design.

venn3Most of the time effective instructional design and pleasing graphic design will overlap – but not always. You can have ugly but effective slides. And you can have stunning slides with zero value for learning. I believe that instructional design matters all of the time. PowerPoint presentations will only be effective if they are designed according to learning principles. 

Jennifer Kammeyer says:

My recently completed thesis research showed that audiences learn more when presented with multimedia PowerPoint that follows Dr. Mayer’s multimedia learning principles.

Check out Jennifer’s post for an excellent summary of the learning research that can be applied to PowerPoint.

This is good news for those of us who are less aesthetically-gifted. You can produce effective PowerPoint slides by following the learning principles proven by research. I’ll expand on these principles in the third post in this series.

But I think the debate that I outlined above is about the importance of graphic design. I don’t think that Andrew Lightheart, Dave Paradi or Joey Asher would dispute that learning principles are important.

Two different presenting situations

In my view, the importance of graphic design depends on the presenting situation.

For internal presentations  – within your own team or your own organization –  graphic design is a luxury, not a necessity.

But for external presentations, I agree with the graphic design advocates. Look and feel matters when you’re presenting externally whether you’re pitching or speaking at a conference. People make it mean something about you and your organization. I agree with Joey Asher that the personal connection is what wins business. But if you’ve got two companies pitching – and they both meet all the criteria, both connect with the client, the one with the superior look and feel will prevail.

What are your thoughts? Continue the debate in the comments.


This post is part of a group writing project I ran in 2009. Here are all the contributions:

  1. A list of all the blogposts  with a one or two sentence summary of each post.
  2. A list of all the blogposts with quotes from each post.
  3. The e-mail contributions that I received quoted in full. These are from Cliff Atkinson, Guy Kawasaki, Julie Terberg, Michael Alley, Nancy Duarte, Richard Mayer and Seth Godin.

And here are the other posts:

  1. Simplicity versus detail in powerpoint slide design.
  2. The design and presentation issues that virtually everyone agreed on.
  3. The most promising slide technology for 2009.

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