Visualizations and digital displays: 10 Rules

My post about using visualizations and presentations as ways into writing has prompted a flurry of e-mails, so here are my ten ‘rules’ for using images in presentations (and storyboards).  I use Mac’s Keynote so, being a fanboy, Rule No. 1 should probably be ‘Don’t use PowerPoint’ – I find Keynote more user-friendly and more cinematic – but these precepts apply to most presentation software.  And to try to forestall a firestorm of comment, I have read Edward Tufte on visual displays, but most of the (Power)points he makes apply to the use of any images:  I’m not convinced that these digital technologies necessarily lead to a dumbing down of argument or a dulling of presentations.  I’ve also worked my way through endless PowerPoint displays from the US military as part of my research – see, for example, ‘Seeing Red’ in the Downloads section – and, for that matter, sat (and slept) through endless seminar and conference presentations, so I do know how bad things can get.

It was my dear friend Allan Pred who taught me to think visually; one of his favourite quotations was Walter Benjamin’s “I have nothing to say.  Only to show.”  I emphasise this because I hope it will be clear that none of this implies that visualization is a transparent medium.  The contemporary interrogation of visual art, of visuality and scopic regimes surely makes that – er – clear.  But being able to provide a critique of particular images doesn’t mean that we can afford not to use them.

1       Do not use standard templates (unless you want your presentation to be indistinguishable from everybody else’s): start with a completely blank screen for each slide.

2       Plain white backgrounds are rarely a good idea – though used highly selectively they can be devastatingly effective.  I usually find a background image (sometimes tiled) and fade its opacity down so that I can layer other images and text-boxes over the top.  But don’t get carried away: there are always times when a single image (no background) is the most dramatic way of making your point.

3       When you layer in other images, it’s usually a good idea to put a frame round them and use shadow to make them stand out.

4       Textboxes:  do not use Times New Roman (which doesn’t mean use goofy typefaces, unless that’s somehow your point): this is supposed to be a contemporary technology.  Do not mix typefaces on the same slide – I don’t think it’s a particularly good idea to change them throughout the presentation either – but do play with different sizes (and makes sure your audience can read them).  Remember you can change text colours – but don’t produce a variation of an Ishihara chart.  Experiment with where best to put the text boxes on the page, and think whether you want them to be ready and waiting when the slide appears or whether you want a series of ‘appearances’ as your argument develops.

5       If your presentation involves a critical reading of quotations then the key ones need to be on the screen – but don’t make them too long, and put the key phrases in bold (the bolding can be made to appear one click at a time as you work through the quotation).  Always include the source – it often helps to add a small image of the author to remind everyone that this isn’t a disembodied text.

      Do not use bullet points.

7       See (6)

      Most programs will allow you to incorporate all sorts of ‘special effects’ but use these sparingly (don’t make your audience’s heads spin with dazzle and display) and – crucially – with purpose.  If your presentation is divided into four sections, for example, then you can mark the transition to each section not only with a title slide – and perhaps a common background colour for the section – but with a characteristic transition that you only use for this purpose.

      Images: use search engines diligently not lazily; the best images – and certainly the least hackneyed – are unlikely to be on the first page.  In fact, used carefully visual searches can take you to places you would never otherwise find and can open you up to ideas and considerations you’ve never thought of.  Size matters, and Google allows you to search for different sizes of the same image.  Remember that images can be cropped (so find out how to do it), and always credit the artist/photographer in small print by the image (this goes for background images too).  That’s not just a courtesy – it will help you locate the source again should you need it.

10      Make sure you run through your presentation using a projector – slides that look wonderful on your laptop or tablet may well not work so well in the wild….  The first time you see your presentation should not be when you deliver it — so rehearse!  And you really shouldn’t have to read from a script; you can add ‘Presenter Notes’ to help you, of course, but I find these more useful when I come to convert the presentation into written form than I do for its live performance.

7 thoughts on “Visualizations and digital displays: 10 Rules

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  5. This is fantastic! Thank you for posting – as the creator of too many bland presentations, I feel I’ve finally being given practical advice!

  6. Pingback: Derek Gregory’s Ten Rules for Presentations | Progressive Geographies

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