With little doubt, the single most significant improvement that came to PowerPoint in version 2007 was the redesigning, revamping, and rebuilding of the slide master/slide layout relationship. An awkward and unintuitive mash-up of functions in prior version, now the engine is easier to use and much more powerful.

While there are various idiosyncrasies with the slide master engine, and as with all current software, it remains a work in progress, there is one pet peeve that has especially annoyed me. I routinely caution my clients and workshop audiences against “thinking like a version 2003 user” — in other words, not taking advantage of the power of multiple layouts and custom placeholders. How ironic that Microsoft itself is guilty of old-style thinking with its UI design.

Enter Exhibit A, the version 2010 interface with a standard slide deck open. Note the yellow arrow pointing to a decades-old part of the Status bar. It is telling you which Slide Master is in use, in this case the one designed for the 2013 Presentation Summit.

Just what layout is this? It's not so easy to tell because Microsoft seemed to forget about this UI relic.
Just what layout is this? It’s not so easy to tell
because Microsoft seemed to forget about this UI relic.

That was once a valuable piece of information; today, it is nearly useless. In the days of old, the only way to craft different slide designs was to create second, third, and fourth slide masters.While a bit awkward to implement, we were grateful for any way to create design modifications to a template. In those instances, it was tremendously helpful, perhaps imperative, to have immediate visual confirmation of the slide master being applied to the current slide.

But today, 95% of the decks we create contain just one slide master, and most of the time, we don’t even bother to change its name from the clunky “Office Theme” default. Seasoned users know that the real power lies with the layouts; they are how we create the actual look and feel of our presentation work.  We don’t care which slide master is in use by a slide; we want to know which layout has been applied.

But this artifact on the Status Bar was never updated from version 2003 — it continues to provide us with information about which we could hardly care less. At a minimum, I expected to be able to right-click it and direct it to show us something else, but it ignores all mouse clicks, left or right. The only way to find the name of the current layout is to right-click on the slide or the slide thumbnail, choose Layout, and then look for the layout thumbnail with orange highlighting. That fails my litmus test for ready access to important information.

The only evolution that this Status Bar component has seen is that version 2013 removed it entirely. That is both ironic and depressing, as keeping users informed about which layouts are used by which slides is valuable and helpful.

So you need to solve this problem yourself, and here’s how:

1. Enter Slide Master view and select the first layout, probably your title layout.

2. Select the Text tool and create a text box that is off the slide. The text need not be larger than about 12pt, any typeface, and black is probably fine.

3. Whatever name you assigned to the layout, type into this text box.

4. Copy that box to the Clipboard, move to the next layout, and paste.

5. Change the name to match the current layout. Shown below is my “alternate” layout, which I use when I want to place title and content on the same horizontal position. Without any text, it might look the same as my standard layout or one with just a title, so knowing which layout is current is vital.

With a simple text box, you can create your own Layout indicator.
With a simple text box, you can create your own Layout indicator.

As it is off the slide, your little text box will never appear when you are running a slide show; you will only see it when working on the slide. Not only have you solved a dilemma, you have actually built a better mousetrap. With this little text box, you have created a better display than the one in the Status Bar, because it is right at eye level and in line with your active focus.

No template leaves our offices these days without this little addition to the layouts and when I show this tiplet at the annual conference, it regularly gets oohs and ahhs, even though it’s the dumbest little thing.

This workaround shouldn’t be necessary — the PowerPoint development team should have thought this through and realized that knowing the current layout is more important than knowing the current slide master. That said, I am grateful that the solution is relatively painless.

2 Responses

  1. That sounds like a neat workaround. One thing though: I’m missing something, because I don’t understand how knowing the name of the current layout helps!

    I argue that presenters should use contrasting layouts because that helps the audience quickly recognise and group your slide types (e.g. section headings) and thereby “get” your talk (and varied slides help to engage people too).

    So if you use contrasting layouts, you can also easily recognise them yourself. And even if a couple of them are similar enough to mix up — which I’d have expected to be rare — what problem does that cause?

    (Given that layouts are a relatively recent feature, I’m sure I can’t be the only reader who doesn’t understand.)

  2. Craig: We are in agreement about the value of contrasting layouts, but there are plenty of times in which slide treatment doesn’t merit contrast, but you still might need to choose a particular layout to facilitate development. Here is a simple example: You are creating a slide with all free-form elements on it (so you choose the Blank layout) and you decide that your slide needs a title. You wouldn’t want to just drop some text on the slide; you would want to switch to the Title Only layout, to assure consistency of formatting. Multiply this scenario by 10 and you have a typical slide-building session, where it becomes tremendously helpful to identify the layout in use from a quick glance.

Now that you have made it most of the way through this article, might you like to join our mailing list? We only send it out about once a month, it’s usually thought-provoking articles (occasionally thoughtless, so say our critics), and it’s never spammy.