graphics software

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...

Just Do It (yourself)... free tools to empower

The Internet has bought much darkness and much light to the world, but one of things I really like about it is how it can increasingly empower you to make things happen for yourself. Whereas previously you had to wait for other people to create stuff, either because they were more qualified or had purchased expensive software and hardware, nowadays you can get access to a whole host of free programmes which require very little expertise, and allow you to take the initiative. Here's some of them that I've used.

I want to create a network

There are various ways to share space online. Creating a wiki or a network is so quick now, you can do one for any occasion, even if it is merely disposable (just be sure to delete it if you've taken a decent name, so someone else can have it!). As most people know, NING used to the king of free networks and has now started to charge. There are a lot of comparisons available online (just search for 'NING alternatives' - or this is a good roundup) and I've sifted through most of them - in the end, the site I've found which most closely recreates NING's best features and which appears to have a sustainable free model is SPRUZ.

Networks are so easy to create, you can make one for a one-off event and use it as a way of keeping (and disseminating) all the information about the day together, of communicating with attendees, and of following up and interacting afterwards.

I want to make a video

Have you ever tried using Windows Movie Maker, the thing that comes free with your PC? It's ridiculously easy to use, and you can get surprisingly good results with it and just your camera (assuming it has video built in) or even your phone. [Sorry Mac users, I've never tried your equivalent so can't vouch for its simplicity...] Or why not use the also-ridiculously-easy-to-use text to movie animation tool, Xtranormal?

Youtube Search Stories is really good as an educational or presentation tool, too - this one took me literally 3 minutes from start to upload:

I want to make a poster

If you want to create graphic design stuff from scratch, then download GIMP - it's a free art programme which is crammed full of features and doesn't have a learning curve of two years like Photoshop does. Or you can use a free online programme to make the job easier for you, such as Glogster. All their featured examples seem to be expressions of teen angst (or romance, in the loosest possible sense of the word) but it's very easy to use to create much more professional looking online, interactive displays. Also don't forget Photofunia, which I use a lot - it takes your pictures and crops/fits them into all sorts of real-world settings - fun for putting your head on others' bodies, but there's all sorts of potential for re-contextualising your logo or avatar in an arresting way:

thewikiman logo as pavement art

I want to create a presentation

Having been massively off PowerPoint I'm now coming round to it again because of the joys of zen-style slide decks; however, many free online options allow you to do something completely different and arguably more interesting. Check out Prezi, or Vuvox. I reckon Ahead has perhaps the most potential out of all of them.

I want to create a magazine or journal

Issuu is a great place to start with this - it takes your documents and turns them into 3D page-turning online magazines. Check out this Seattle Library related example. Imagine the difference in time, effort and resources between creating a regular magazine using old media, and creating one using issuu!

I want to create a podcast

Recording audio really doesn't have to be complicated - it is within the grasp of all Information Professionals. Audacity is a free programme which has all sorts of features you can add if you want to but, equally, will just record you speaking into your laptop's inbuilt mic if that's all you want to do. (I know of at least one successful podcast that began using an in-built mic...) You don't need expensive microphones, or expensive software, or sound-technician expertise to make your own podcasts, and registering them with iTunes is pretty simple too.

I've only written here about tools I've got some experience with - for a more comprehensive list of, effectively, everything you could ever need, see The Open Thinking Wiki (cheers for the link Bobbi!) or Phil Bradley's absolutely awesome list of web 2.0 tools, arranged by category.

That's it for now. I've got less and less time in the evenings to write these but will try and keep a trickle going until I get a little bit more control over my time management and can start producing them more regularly again!

- thewikiman

p.s I feel very patronising trying to offer people advice about stuff. What tools to use is one thing, but how to approach your profession is quite another... that said, I've had a lot of really great things by just doing them myself. What is remarkable is how much making things happen facilitates more things happening to you! If you see what I mean. So the other point of this post, apart from listing the free tools, is to say this: if you find yourself in two minds as to whether the useful thing you've just thought of is something you could attempt to do yourself, or leave for someone else to do - choose doing it yourself! It's more fun, and more rewarding, and often fairly simple to achieve.