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11 Tips for Better Slides: Combining Text and Image

How do you create presentation slides that keep the audience captivated while helping you focus on the key points of your presentation?

While tips on how to create better PowerPoint slides abound, they tend to repeat the same set of vague instructions:

  • cut down your written content to one point per slide
  • create consistency by using the same sans serif fonts and colours throughout
  • use high-quality images
  • size text for viewing at a distance
  • limit the use of colours to ones that create contrast and emphasis

These, while useful, don’t address many of the roadblocks of designing with both text and images—a task that can be challenging even to the pros. The result: slide presentations continue to frustrate (suck) on both the making and the viewing ends.

Beautiful content (textual and graphical), put together in a way that doesn’t distract from either, but showcases both is what differentiates good slides from terrible ones. No matter what software you’re using, these 11 tips will help you combine text and images to create slides that are visually-striking and functional.

First, let’s review 2 core principles:

  1. You are your presentation. Slides are for your audience, but they aren’t your presentation. Good presentations are about personality (yours), great content (that’s you having something interesting to say), given in the right place and time, and to the right people.
  2. Less is more. That goes for how much text and how many images you have on your slides. Go for one, poignant textual point per slide, and one high-quality image.

Now, here are 11 tips and tricks that will help you get the most out of your slide image-text combinations.

1. Use one, gorgeous and meaningful image per slide.

Great images are both beautiful and smart. For the beauty part, choose images that are large enough in size to not appear pixelated when made to fit a slide. Check out Pexels for some pretty decent, free imagery. For meaning, studying up on rhetorical devices can really help. A rhetorical device is a stylistic technique that’s used to convey meaning in order to persuade the audience to consider a topic from a different perspective. Often though not always, rhetorical devices are used to evoke an emotional response. Most common rhetorical devices are metaphor, simile, and irony. Go beyond the obvious, cliche subject matter, and try using association instead.

2. When deciding where to place your text, look for white space.

Images are made up of lines, shapes, and colours creating patterns that we then interpret (this line-shape-colour combo is a cat, while this one is a face). Text is also a series of lines and shapes. When text sits on top of an image the two interact. Often, the patterns of the image obscure or interfere with our reading of the text, making the combination look messy and frustrating to read.

But text and image together—when done right— can be beautiful and striking. Doing it right means maintaining the integrity of the image and the text, while helping them appear as a unified composition. Choose images that have a low-pattern area. That’s where you will want to place your text in a colour that contrasts against the image.

3. Use the eye dropper to pick colors from the image.

Keeping within the same type family throughout your presentation will help create a sense of unity to the whole. You can add some meaningful variety to your slides (from slide to slide) by choosing the colours for your text from the images that the text has been paired with. In the image below, for example, I pulled the colour for the text directly from Brene Brown’s face. This trick helps to create a sense of unity between the text and the image.

Sometimes (as in the Trump slide example below) you might want to choose a contrasting colour for your text in order to bring it extra attention.

4. Re-create charts and graphs (that should be its own tip list).

Here is another example of choosing an image that offers ample “white” space for textual (in this case a graph) content. I also pulled the orange for the bar graph from the cactus flower.

Make sure to re-create your charts and graphs as often as possible so that they, too, can be combined with your images and reflect your particular look and feel.

5. Use masking to create focal points.

Sometimes you might want to add extra emphasis to your text and give it some separation from the image. A shape or frame could help here; however, this trick can be easily over done, so handle it with care. Consider making the shape slightly transparent to the background image—this might help unify the two.

6. Treat each slide as a special visual object.

If you choose one font (typeface) family, create a system for how the different font weights are used, and use consistently-high quality images, you can let yourself play with text placement without sacrificing unity and cohesion. In fact, changing up where text has been placed can help keep viewers’ interest.

7. Respect the most meaningful parts of your image.

You are choosing specific images for a reason—because they are beautiful and meaningful. Not every part of your image will hold the same value. Make sure to respect the parts that do, and avoid placing text over top of them.

8. Avoid thin, delicate typefaces at a small size.

Choose a typeface that has little to no difference between its thin and thick strokes—the strokes are relatively the same thickness throughout. While a thin Helvetica can sometimes work against a high-contrast background at a substantial size, you’re still risking it appearing patchy under poor slide viewing conditions.

9. Avoid graphically modifying the text.

Drop shadow, bevel, emboss, and outline can be applied to text, but really shouldn’t. Each of these disintegrates type’s integrity while adding messy visual information to the composition. They also tend to appear dated, since their hay day passed around 1998.

10. Avoid images as texture.

Some images will be very hard to work with because they have too much variety in contrast and colour. Use those sparingly and, if you must, try a masking technique as described in #5.

11. Establish a cadence or pattern.

Don’t be afraid to give your viewers a break from emotionally-charged visual content. Establish a pattern of slide types. Perhaps we see a beautiful image-text combo every third slide and, in between, we see data or text on a solid background.

Take the time to build a library of beautiful images you can use in your presentations. Don’t be afraid to take some chances by going beyond the obvious. If your company has a marketing department, they should have an image library that aligns with the corporate brand. Go there first.

Lastly, consider reading Resonate and Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte to improve the overall quality of your presentation, and get into the habit of watching TED Talks for inspiration.

Still Curious?

I teach, design, and research as a feminist scholar, usually located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. You can see some of my work or find out more about me at http://milenaradzikowska.com, about my company at http://www.twohotsoups.ca, and about my program at http://mtroyalinfodesign.ca. I am on twitter as @candesignlove.