PowerPoint was built so that a completely new users could build a presentation without knowing anything about the program. A quick look at the typical presentations out there will quickly confirm how little most users know about the program. But there is a design, an internal workflow that was built into the software. Creating a file that uses this workflow will make your templates and themes easier to use. Users will be able to build presentations faster and suffer fewer WTF moments. The deck will simply work better when you use these PowerPoint construction best practices.
Your New Mantra: Theme>Master>Layouts>Slides
This is the order in which you should approach PowerPoint construction. The best practice is Theme>Master>Layouts>Slides. First, create a Theme. Then apply that to a Master Slide, then format the Slide Layouts. Then last of all, make the Slides. The best presentations follow this order. The worst decks are created by trying to reverse the order. A surprising number of people start with the Slides, then try and fix the Layouts on which they’re based. Finally they end up at the Master and never quite discover the Theme. These are the problem decks that I get called on to repair, since they just don’t work anymore.
PowerPoint Construction Best Practices: The Theme
The basic design building block of all Office programs is the Theme. Themes nominally have 3 components: the Font theme, the Color theme and the Effects theme. However Effect themes are not editable in the program interface. All a designer can do is choose one of the presets, and the presets available change with each version of Office. Since effects are only used with tacky effects like 3D lozenges and shadows, most designers will simply ignore the Effects theme. If I’m able, I’ll apply the Office 2010 Couture effect theme, which has minimal gimmicks.
That leaves the Font and Color Themes. Color themes in Mac versions of Office are editable in PowerPoint. To create custom Font themes, Mac users must build them manually in a Text Editor. No need to get nervous about coding, they’re very simple files that you can create in TextEdit. I covered the technique in this article: XML Hacking: Font Themes. To create a Color theme that will work the best for your client, please read Office Charts: 6 Colors Maximum! This article is important because the order of colors in a theme determines the automatic color order of charts.
You don’t have to use a custom theme, but you also can’t have a theme-free file. If you don’t customize, your template will use the default Office theme. Then users will start to use the theme fonts and colors, because they’re obvious in the interface. And then your client’s presentations will be off-brand. Is that what you want? I didn’t think so…
A clear advantage of using a theme is that applying a new custom theme instantly updates the appearance of legacy documents. This feature alone takes most of the pain out of brand updates, but the underlying templates must have been built with theme application in mind.
I have Themes in my Theme!?
As usual for Microsoft, they use the same word in two different senses, just to make sure you get confused. In PowerPoint, a Theme and a Template can both contain an entire presentation in addition to the Color, Font and Effects Theme parts. By contrast, if you save a Theme from Word or Excel for Windows, the Theme file contains only the Color, Font and Effects parts, but no content or pages. So when you’re talking Themes with an expert, you need to make it clear whether you’re talking about a Font or Color Theme subfile, a Word or Excel style Theme that combines the Colors, Fonts and Effects, or a PowerPoint theme that includes all of the above plus Masters and Layouts.
PowerPoint Construction Best Practices: The Master
In PowerPoint, when you choose View>Slide Master, you’ll see a list of thumbnails at the side of your screen. The larger thumbnail at the top is the Slide Master (outlined in red):
The slide master never appears in a presentation. For this reason, some designers falsely conclude it is unnecessary and make a mess of it by ignoring it, deleting all placeholders, or otherwise mistreating it. The clients of these designers live in PowerPoint hell, with layouts and slides that just don’t work the way they should. It’s a shame that a designer who doesn’t know what they’re doing can’t spend a few dollars to bring in a professional to assist them.
A critical function in PowerPoint templates and themes is Inheritance. Inheritance is what we use when we create a typestyle, then apply that style to text. The text is said to inherit the characteristics of the style. The style is the parent and the text is the child.
The Slide Master inherits the fonts and colors of the Theme. Then the Slide Layouts inherit their formatting from the Slide Master, and finally the Slide inherit their formatting from the Layouts. The Slide Master is a crucial link in the chain. Ignoring it or formatting it incorrectly will cause inheritance problems in the rest of the presentation.
The correct way to format the Slide Master is to include as much formatting as possible that can carry over to the Layouts. Leave all placeholders in place, do not delete any. Perhaps you don’t think users will need a date or footer field, but deleting them will create problems for the users that actually do need them. You will also create problems in the future, when today’s decks become tomorrow’s legacy presentations that need to be updated with a new theme.
Analyze the design sample slides for where bulleting is needed and where it isn’t. A default Microsoft design uses bullets for every text level, but your template will be more useful if it includes a mix of bulleted and non-bulleted levels. The bullet scheme you apply on the Slide Master is automatically inherited by all the slide layouts.
On most presentations, there is a company logo that appears on most or all slides. Include that logo on the Slide Master (Of course, that logo is an indexed-color PNG right? You’re not still using JPEGs for logos, are you?). Important: Don’t touch a Slide Layout until the Slide Master is complete!
PowerPoint Construction Best Practices: The Layouts
When the Slide Master is complete, then and only then, move on to the Slide Layouts. Why? Because editing the Layouts breaks the inheritance from the Master of the edited feature. As one example, if you create a unique bullet setup on a Layout, then go to the Master and create the same setup, the edited Layout will remain out of sync. Subsequent changes to the bullets on the master will never show on the Layout, because you broke the inheritance. Any changes to the Slide Master also have be duplicated on the Layout. Even though the bullets are identical, you created twice as much work by editing the Layout before the Master.
I’ve seen some designers who delete everything on the Master so they can create Layouts that differ from each other. This, too, is a mistake. The Slide Master should be formatted to look like a typical or common slide in the presentation. Then, for any layout that has different graphics or background color, right-click on the Layout, choose Format Background and turn off the background graphics with the Hide background graphics option. This leaves the placeholders in place and they still get their formatting from the Master. Then create a different color background and/or include different graphics. Presto, a different appearance, while maintaining inheritance from the Master.
I really don’t like the Layout titles that Microsoft has assigned. First, there is the Title slide, then you have Title and Content. Except the word Title refers to 2 different things. The first layout is for the title of the presentation, which could just as easily be called the Cover slide, while the second refers to the Title placeholder on the slide layout. Most of the layouts have titles, why do only some include Title in the layout name?. I’d love to fix this, but then I would create another problem:
People will make presentations with your template. Someday those decks will be “legacy content” that needs to be updated with the next template that will inevitable follow yours. When those presentations are updated, PowerPoint will find a Cover layout in the old file and a Title layout in the new one. PowerPoint doesn’t know these are intended to be the same layout. So instead of replaced Cover with Title, it keeps both. The old deck now has a new Title layout, but it doesn’t get applied to the title slide, because that is linked to the Cover layout. The user screams. Why didn’t all the slides update with the new theme? Well, it’s your fault, because you thought you were more clever than Microsoft and you changed the layout name.
Deleting layouts isn’t so much of a sin. The Two Content and Comparison layouts are mostly redundant, your client may need one or the other, but not both. The Content with Caption and Picture with Caption layouts are fairly useless in their default form, but they’re worth reformatting if your client’s content requires something similar. Someone connected with Microsoft told me that the last 2 layouts with rotated text (Title and Vertical Text and Vertical Title and Text) were intended for use with Asian languages. Could be, so I leave them in for world-wide companies that might need Far Eastern text but delete them for smaller and local clients. Just remember: if you keep the layout, keep the name. New titles for new layouts only!
Custom Slide Layouts
I assumed everyone already knew this, but you can also create custom layouts in Slide Master view. Start by duplicating an existing Layout or creating a new one. Then choose the Insert Placeholder command to add an all-purpose Content placeholder, or one of several types of content-specific placeholders. You can add many placeholders to a layout, it’s a very flexible system.
A question that comes up frequently is whether to use Picture or Content placeholders for a photo slide layout. These 2 types of placeholders act differently, so the choice depends on what kind of action is most suitable. When you insert a picture into a content placeholder, the placeholder fits itself to the photo proportions. If the photo has a small physical size, the Content placeholder shrinks to fit the photo. The photo’s aspect ratio is always preserved.
By contrast, a Picture placeholder stays the same size. Placed photos are enlarged or reduced to fit the placeholder, and are automatically cropped to make the photo fit the aspect ratio of the placeholder. Knowing this, we can state that where a particular layout is locked down, you should use a Picture placeholder. An example might be a photo page where there is an exact 1/4″ gap between photos on all 4 sides. A Picture placeholder will maintain this layout:
If the slide contains a single picture and the entire picture must show in its original proportions, a Content placeholder is more suitable:
Lazy Designer Syndrome and How to Avoid It
I’ve repaired lots of presentation that show these symptoms: in a series of placeholders on a custom layout, you’ll enter text or content. You switch to a different layout, then switch back, but now the content is in different placeholders than you used originally. What’s happening? Usually, there was a lazy designer who, while editing a layout, copied and pasted formatted placeholders rather than using Slide Master>Insert Placeholder. While they were saving themselves a few minutes, they were sentencing their users to much more time rearranging slides after switching layouts.
The reason is that PowerPoint keeps track of each placeholder by its ID number in the XML. But when you copy and paste placeholders on a layout, PowerPoint does not assign a new ID number. It only does that when you choose Insert Placeholder. The result is a slide with placeholders that PowerPoint can’t tell apart. When it has to assign a piece of content to the duplicated placeholders, the result is random placement of the graphic or text.
To be fair, you can also get a similar effect when switching between layouts that have different numbers of placeholders. If the first layout has 10 placeholders and the second has only 2, PowerPoint will place the first 2 items in the right place. The remaining 8 items will still be in placeholders, but since there is no layout information, they’re plunked wherever PowerPoint wants to put them. When you reapply the original layout, all placeholders will pop back into place, with each kind of placeholder going where that type is on the layout. Unfortunately, during this process, PowerPoint re-writes the ID numbers and some pieces end up in a different order. The effect is less chaotic than lazy designer syndrome. This is also a bug you can help fix! I’ve created a suggestion at Microsoft’s PowerPoint User Voice forum explaining the issue. Please take a look and add your vote: Microsoft uses this feedback to prioritize their programming.
PowerPoint Construction Best Practices: The Slides
Now you’re finally ready to make slides, or hand the template off to your users so they can get creative. And this is the place where a well-constructed template or theme can either save your users time, while a sloppy one will keep them working ’til midnight. Do it right and the slides will be easy to produce, and they’ll work the way they’re supposed to. Just follow your mantra: Theme>Master>Layouts>Slides and all else will be bliss!