Using PowerPoint as a design tool

If you're a graphic designer you probably use a professional tool like Adobe InDesign or Photoshop to make leaflets, posters, infographics and other digital images. If, like me, you're not, and those tools are beyond both your budget and capacity to learn complicated programmes you're not going to use that often, you need an alternative.

I've written on here before about Canva, which is excellent for more than just presentations, and I like Phoster in the iOS app store for designing digital posters. But an under-rated tool for Design is PowerPoint. The main reasons are it's a lot more flexible than it's often given credit for, and it's incredibly easy to layer content (to put text over images, etc) - something which is maddeningly difficult to do in Word, for example.

So here are the key aspects to using PowerPoint for design.

1) You can make a slide ANY size, and save it as a JPG or PNG file

Go to Design, Slide Size then Custom Slide Size to get to this menu

Go to Design, Slide Size then Custom Slide Size to get to this menu

PowerPoint defaults to a 4:3 or 16:9 slide - but you can edit the slide to be any shape, size and proportions. Open a new presentation and go to Design then Slide Size and choose Custom Slide Size you can bring up this drop-down menu, or just put in the custom dimensions of your choice.

Everything becomes easier with design when your canvas is the perfect dimensions to start off with. Sizes like A3 and A4 are self-explanatory if you're designing flyers or posters, but also think about digital image sizes. For example:

  • A Twitter image (which is to say a perfectly sized image which doesn't require users to click to expand when viewing it's tweeted) is W: 116 mm x H 232mm
  • An Instagram image can be any square, but optimally is 134mm x 134mm
  • A Facebook image is 317mm x 317mm
  • A YouTube custom video thumbnail is H: 190mm x W: 338mm

(You can work out any pixels to mm dimensions using an online converter: I used this one for the above.)

Once you've created blank slides in a variety of useful sizes, save them to use as a template more quickly in the future.

2) You can install fantastic typography

As anyone who has attended my presentation skills training will attest, I'm always banging on about how Typography is a hugely underrated part of design. Fonts matter a lot, and can make the difference between something looking and the same thing looking really professional.

As always, I'd highly reccomend fontsquirrel as a souce of fantastic (and free to use) fonts - and see the previous post for more info on font-pairings.

Click to go to the font-pairing post

Click to go to the font-pairing post

3) It's easy to manipulate images in useful ways

You can find the ideal image from a CC0 site like Pexels, and make it easier to use - to layer text on top of, for example - using PPTs editing tools. They're nowhere near as sophisticated as those in Photoshop, but it's still really useful. Particularly darkening images using the Brightness slider so that white text clearly shows up on it, or blurring images. Both of these techniques are explained in more detail here.

You can also Crop images to specific shapes, circles for example, which can help with really striking design.

4) You can follow the basic principles of good design, and that's more important than the tool

I've found that I really like design without truly understanding it like a proper designer would, but certain rules apply across the board and help me with whatever I'm doing:

  1. Images AS the background most often works better than images against a background (unless you're using icons).
  2. Space is good. Leave space.
  3. No more than three fonts per design. And use fonts that help you communicate your message - or, to use a phrase I'm not altogether comfortable with for some reason, but it seems to apply here: use fonts intentionally.
  4. The most important thing about text is legibility. Make sure text is large, and the contrast is high between the text and the background.
  5. Left-align text unless there's a specific reason to Centre-align it (or very occasionally right-align or justify).
  6. Avoid orphan or widow words. Just stretch your text box a little more, or narrow it, so words aren't left on a line of their own. Canva's helpful design rules also have this to say on line length:

5) Save slides as images

You can save your PowerPoint as a PPTX to come back to the design later, but you can also save a slide as an image, or a whole bunch of slides as seperate images.

When you go to Save As, choose JPEG or PNG from the drop-down menu - it will then give you the choice of saving just the slide you're on at the moment as an image, or to create a folder into which it will save all the slides in the presentation as individual images.

Saving slides as JPEGs

Saving slides as JPEGs

And finally, while we're on the Save As function, here's a brief guide to which format to save regular presentations in depending on your situation...

NLPN's Useful Resources

Just a very brief post to say check out the fabulous NLPN's Useful Resources page. They've brought together a list of professional library bodies, groups and networks, blogs, job sites, journals and databases and even institutional repositories. 

It's aimed primarily at New Profs but it's useful for everyone in interested in the wider profession. If I'd had this kind of curated list of useful stuff when I came into the profession I would have found it so much easier to understand the wider context and become part of a bigger conversation. You really could get through years of librarianship before you needed more than what NLPN've put together on this list. Get to it!

Click the pic to go to NLPN's site

Click the pic to go to NLPN's site

Creating images with copy-space for text

This post originally appeared on the Lib-Innovation blog.

As always things have changed in my library over the summer, and we needed some new images to reflect our reconfigured rooms, new signage and new services. We're very fortunate to have easy access to the University photographer Paul Sheilds, who is based in our Morrell Library building, so we booked a morning with him.

We had very specific needs in mind, based on a list we'd drawn up to suit what I wanted for our Induction Project, what my Academic Liaison colleague David Brown wanted for the new LibGuides and what the Comms Team needed. In particular I was really keen to get photos with copy-space.

Copy-space literally means a space to write 'copy' in the newspaper meaning of the word - in other words an area of the image which is less busy and which could be written upon without obscuring a key part of the picture.

In essence I wanted to be able to write directly onto the images (for use in slides, posters, digital screens and social media) without having either a separate area for text, or a back-filled text box - because I think it looks smarter that way and because it allows the images to be full screen at all times. It's a lot easier to do this when the images are captured with that in mind from the outset.

Here are some examples - these are works-in-progress that I'm playing around with for the forthcoming #UoYTips Induction campaign for 2016/17 at my institution. They won't look exactly like this in the final versions but the copy-text principle will remain.

We have borrowable laptops which I wanted to showcase. I've added a piece of text to the copy-space:

Here's an example of an image of the same lockers which is a great pic but which doesn't have copy-space built in (making it a little less flexible to work with in marketing):

It would be possible to write on this of course, but you'd need to manipulate the image to ensure the text was legible, or used a back-filled text box.

Next up is a picture of the copy-print-scan machines - the copy-space in this case being the underside of the lid. I did experiment with having the text at an angle to match it but it looked a little clunky so I went with good old fashioned horizontal text for this one...

Here's a picture of a student - by not putting her centre of the frame (and by conforming to the rule of thirds) we've made space for the text.

Finally here's an example where despite leaving copy-space the background is too busy to write directly onto - the text wouldn't be clear enough. There's a neat divide where the wall ends, so I've inserted a shape over everything to the left of the wall, to make the copy-space more clearly defined. I did this in PowerPoint - inserting the rectangle, filling it black, then making the fill 19% transparent. The white text is clearly visible against it, and the focus of the image (the walls you can write on) is still clear and uncluttered.

Type Genius: the joys of font-pairing

I'm a little bit obsessed with nice fonts - I love how they can impact on design and help tell your story. An aspect of design which is often undervalued is the combinations of fonts: pairing up fonts (or sometimes mixing groups of three fonts, ideally not more than three in one design) for posters, or social media campaigns, or PowerPoint presentations.

I've just found a great site called Type Genius that helps out with choosing fonts, more on which below.

Here are four font combinations I like, three of which I've used, and all the fonts for which can be downloaded individually from Fontsquirrel:


The first combination is what is used for the blog and much of the rest of site. The blog title is Bebas Nueue and the body text is Monstserrat. (Whenever I use Heading 2 in the formatting that's also Montserrat, but in all-caps - the Heading 3 used in this post os back to Bebas Nueue again). I chose them mainly because when I rejigged the design of the site recently I wanted a thicker body text font, so chose Montserrat which I've been using since I saw Matthew Reidsma use it for his UXLibs I keynote. Bebas compliments it for titles because it a tall and narrow font in contrast with Montserrat being thick and more rounded.


The second combination I've not used at the time of writing, but got from Type Genius - which you can find at You tell it what font you want to use, and it gives you a number of potential companions to pair with it (as it happens when you put in Montserrat it suggests Bebas Nueue, as used on this site).

In the case of Lato and Roboto Slab, I've actually not used the Regular Lato in the example above at all - I used Lato Thin for the first part and Lato Heavy for 'titles'. I do like the contrast of light and heavy.


Which brings us to the third combination, which isn't technically a pair as it's just Raleway used in three different ways. I love Raleway beyond all other fonts. As long as you have both Raleway Regular and Raleway Bold installed (although PowerPoint will try and Bold non-standard fonts when you highlight them and click the Bold button, it's not the same as actually installing the Bold version that the typographers intended) they work so beautifully together, especially in all caps. The intro to UX presentation I blogged about recently used Raleway in all possible combinations (Regular and Bold in both lower and upper case) with no other fonts involved:

The other joy of Raleway is it renders perfectly on Slideshare. Some other fonts, even when you save and upload your presentations as a PDF, go a bit blocky on Slideshare, for example my LIANZA Marketing Manifesto slides, which use Raleway along with ChunkFive Roman - the latter looked great at the conference but not so good on Slideshare, but Raleway was perfect in both situations.


I used this combination for my Tuning Out The White Noise presentation which became the most popular thing I've ever put on Slideshare (despite Mathlete Bulky not rendering properely on the site) and I use it in some of my training materials, so I've become slightly bored with it due to over-exposure! I also over-used Mathlete and have since changed it round so it gets much less use in my slides, because it's a little too quirky for any kind of long-term reading. I like the way it looks but usability has to come first.

Further reading

For more info and guidance on font-pairing, check out this article from CreativeBloq, and Canva's Ultimate Guide to font-pairing.

If you have a particular pairing you'd recommend I'd love to hear it in a comment below.

4 questions to ask to help you simplify your comms

Simplification is often useful to raise engagement with an audience. Not always, but often.

It's not about dumbing down, or making things superficial, or losing the nuance. The aim is simply to take away anything that isn't essential for the message. Get rid of the extraneous. Be brutal. It's like tuning out the white noise so you're left with a perfect signal; there's less to distract your audience, and a greater chance they'll understand the message and respond do it. Everyone is overwhelmed with information so anything to cut through that and make it easier for your audience is worth doing.

There is a check list of four questions you can ask yourself (in descending order or severity!) which can help to simplify your comms and your key marketing messages. I do this all the time in my day-job and I absolutely guarentee it makes a difference in the level of engagement I get from my audience.

1) Do we need to send this at all?

If we over-saturate our audience then our communications begin to loose value over time. So we have to be careful to only communicate when we have enough of important to that particular audience. The first way to simplify, then, is the most extreme: do I really need to send this? Most of the time the answer is yes, but occasionally opportunities to hold back arise, and those opportunities need to be taken.

Think of it from your audience's point of view. Would you want this if you were them?

2) Can we get rid of anything extraneous?

Again, it's not about making it TOO short. It's not about superficiality. It's about making it as short as possible whilst maintaining the meaning and the nuance of the message. Every sentance or element should be scrutinised - if it doesn't NEED to be there, get rid of it.

Some elements of your message can be present for the user at the next stage, rather than this initial contact - so for example, if the comms is to ask users to go to a website, some of the key information can be on the website without needing to also be included in the comms themselves.

For the user, a long message is a) more likely to make them not even read / watch at all, b) more likely to make them stop reading / watching before the end and c) make them less likely to retain the key information in their head afterwards.

3) Can we cascade this over more than one message?

Sometimes once you've got rid of what's extraneous you're still left with a LOT. To cut it further would be to leave out essential information. From a marketing point of view, it can be worth marketing one big thing at a time rather than trying to market everything at once - allowing your audience a chance to lock in on one key theme at a time, reducing the risk of getting lost in the detail. This is risky, because it can lead to over-communication (which goes against the first principle above) so you have to make a judgement call. But with something like academic induction, for example, telling everyone everything simply doesn't work. We KNOW people can't remember all that. So in that scenario it can be worth trying to cascasde one large message into two or three smaller ones.

4) Can the language be made clearer?

So you've done 1 - 3: yes it's essential and needs to go out; it's as short as it can be without losing nuance; it needs to be just one message. So can anything be done with the language and tone to make it clear and simple to follow? Can it be less formal without losing credibility? Is there any obscure terminology that your users won't all be familiar with? Are there acronyms that need replacing or explaining?

You can't always simplify comms, and it's not always desirable to do so. But if you ask yourself these four questions before disseminating key messages, the chances are you'll get a higher level of engagement from your audience.

BONUS QUESTION: Can we segment our audience?

Segmentation is too complex to get into detail here, but the basic principle is to divide your audience up into smaller groups and tailor the communication to each one. This often presents opportunities for simplification, because you're not having to include all of the information all of the time - you can pick and choose the parts that matter most to each segment.