Rethinking PowerPoint – Part 2

What does the design of a PowerPoint slide for learner engagement look like?

The introduction of computer (presentation) software to design and produce computer generated slides has had an influence on the way information is presented both visually and orally. Its application has even extended to being a tool used in face-to-face classroom based teaching and training. Original intentions for software (such as Microsoft PowerPoint) were for it to be utilised as a presentation program to communicate concepts and ideas particularly in the business sector; it has now been transformed into a package of standardised templates designed for a multitude of purposes – a one size fits all approach. We started to explore this in Rethinking PowerPoint – Part 1. In this installment, we’ll look at some critiques of slide use and the design principles that can be applied. These principles are (of course) learner focused, rather than trainer/facilitator led.

Critique of Slide Use

In 2011, I first started looking at how slides are being used and the research that existed at the time. Most of the research then focused on its use in education rather than a training setting, particularly competency-based training. Simons (2004) pointed out that a reason PowerPoint was getting so much critique is that is had ‘transcended mere software status to become a cultural icon of contemporary communication’.  Slide use in classrooms has become an approach used by many; some researchers would suggest that it’s a lazy option to use slides for teaching. There is also evidence to suggest that it is only useful if well developed and not relied upon too heavily by teachers (Rickman and Grudzinski, 2000).

PowerPoint may be well received as a tool for classroom lectures as it is a means of organising notes and information (Rickman & Grudzinski, 2000).

A bold statement was made by Tufte (2003) who suggested that the only fans of PowerPoint are in fact the presenters using it and rarely the audience. If we’re thinking about the audience – the learner- then what do they need to enable them to achieve maximum benefit and engagement from a presentation.

There is little evidence to demonstrate that PowerPoint leads to better learning and results (Craig & Amernic, 2006; Levasseur & Sawyer, 2006) and there is little evidence to suggest that their use, when compared to more traditional methods (such as whiteboards, overhead projectors or blackboards) produces a significant differences in learning in contrast to these methods (Levasseur & Sawyer, 2006). With an expectation of PowerPoint slides being available as a tool for trainers in the delivery of competency-based training, then the format, look and feel of these slides is of importance.

An interesting paper against the use of PowerPoint comes from Tufte (2003) who suggests that its use has resulted in ‘PowerPointPhluff’, the notion of over-produced layouts, logos and branding and useless inclusion of clip-art.

Design and Layout Features

The features and principles described here have been developed as a result of an extensive literature review. Whilst this post includes some background and thoughts provoked from the work of others, there’s more information I haven’t included in the interest of getting straight to the point. More than happy to share the background research.

There are conflicting points of view on the application of design principles, however consistency in opinion is found with regard to slide layout, text and use of images. As outlined by Alley & Neeley (2005) a presentation consisting of title, mapping, content (with only one concept or idea per slide) and conclusion (summary) slides can be most effective as the base format. A title slide should have text informing the learner of the discussion topic and an image representing this topic; however literature clearly articulates that use of clip-art or simplistic images to illustrate concepts is ineffective and disliked by audiences. The image used for the title slide should be repeated on the conclusion slide, along with a second key image from the training session. Any image used should not be purely decorative as these images ‘actually reduce audience recall’ (Alley & Neeley, 2005. p.421). A recommended layout for a content slide with feature descriptions and an example is included below

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Results suggest slide backgrounds no longer need to be mandated as monochrome colours such as grey or black. Previous research has focused solely on the lecture theatre environment where there is likely to be a significant distance between learner and projected slide. In training classrooms, a white background in a well lit room may not be offensive to the learner; it may in fact be easier to focus on in rooms with plenty of light. Colours used to complement the background should be easily visible and of a darker nature or contrast.

Slide design should also make the most of white space between text and images. Border width is irrelevant, however the ratio of text to background is; learners consider cluttered slides with too much text difficult to read (Mackiewicz, Mastarone & Lee-Kim, 2006).


  • Alley, M. & Neeley, K. (2005). Rethinking the Design of Presentation Slides: A Case for Sentence Headlines and Visual Evidence. Technical Communication. Vol. 52, Number 4. 417-426.
  • Craig, R. & Amernic, J. (2006). PowerPoint Presentation Technology and the Dynamics of Teaching. Innovative Higher Education, 31, 147-160. Retrieved 9 May 2011 from
  • Levasseur, D. and Sawyer, J. (2006). ‘Pedagogy Meets PowerPoint: A Research Review of the Effects of Computer-Generated Slides in the Classroom’, Review of Communication. 6:1, pages 101 – 123.
  • Mackiewicz, J., Mastarone, G. and Lee-Kim, J. (2006). What’s Not to Like? Business Students’ Opinions about PowerPoint Slide Design. Proceedings of the 2006 Association for Business Communication Annual Convention, 2006.
  • Rickman, J. & Grudzinski, M. (2000). Student Expectations of Information Technology Use in the Classroom. Educause Quarterly. Number 1. 24-30.
  • Simons, T. (2004). Does PowerPoint make you stupid? Retrieved from
  • Tufte, E. R. (2003). The cognitive style of PowerPoint. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.

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