Slide Decoration: How Much is too Much?

There is a great conversation taking place right now in the Presentation Designers group at LinkedIn. Someone more LinkedIn savvy than I would have to say how to send you there via link, when membership into the group is required, so instead, I am excerpting a few of the comments here. Bruce Gabrielle of Insights Works in Seattle, asked the following question:

I’m writing a book about use of PowerPoint in business, and one question I have is: how much decoration on a slide is too much? I define decoration as graphic elements that do not convey meaning to the reader.

On one hand, Edward Tufte and other information designers say “design, don’t decorate”. If it doesn’t add meaning, take it off. On the other hand, educators have learned that irrelevant but interesting details can increase emotional interest and make learners more motivated to learn.

What do you think? Is a little decoration on a slide okay (drop shadows, etc). And when does a “little” become “too much”?

That was all that we needed to open up a small floodgate, and I was the first to turn on the water:

…irrelevant but interesting details can increase emotional interest… I disagree with this statement to my very core. Perhaps if you are teaching a group of first graders, but not intelligent adults. Irrelevant is not interesting and it is not emotional. Irrelevant is irrelevant and it has no place in visual communication.”

Next came Adam, a comedian and a man with some stage experience:

“‘Interesting’ is never irrelevant. A detail might not carry any facts, but if it increases engagement, that’s a great thing. You sound a lot like you are saying that emotion is for kids and facts are for adults. I hoped we had moved on from that nonsense.”

Me: “I am not saying that. I am saying that emotion is for everyone but irrelevance is rarely emotional.”

Konrad from Dallas TX: Why would you include elements that convey no meaning? Anything that does not contribute to your message only interferes and distracts. That said, part of your message is your personal or corporate brand. For example, you probably want to convey that you are a trustworthy person worth listening to. This is where overall style, consistency and design come in – not ‘decoration’ as you have defined it.”

Adam: “Because meaning is not everything. I also work on stage. Why do I bother with costume, lights, stage sets? Why do I have background music? Why do I even act? Why not just read the script clearly to the audience, or print it out for them? Because all these ‘irrelevant’ elements can increase engagement, emotion, interest, attention.”

Me: “Adam makes strong points, which I respect on their face. So I had to ask myself: Why do I disagree so fervently with them? Are Adam’s use of costume and stage sets similar to a presenter’s decision to adorm a slide with clipart or to add a boomerang entrance to a title? Does Adam’s use of props speak to his true purpose any different than a presenter’s use of decor?

“In a word, yes.

“However similar they might be on one level, Adam’s role as a stage performer carries important distinctions to a presenter’s role as a presenter. The elements that Adam cites above contribute to his role as an actor: he is adopting a personna, he is playing a role, he is taking on a character that is different than his actual person. It is vital to a presenter’s success that he not do that; that she be utterly genuine. Naked in front of their audiences. Decor does not contribute in any way toward that. And I suspect in a different setting, where we’re not debating as a matter of course, Adam might acknowledge that it is possible for a stage performer to go overboard with decor, as well.

“One of the emotional appeals of stage performers is in their total immersion into a character. Perhaps the most important emotional appeal of presenters is in their avoidance of same — in their absolute authenticity and genuineness.”

Adam: “Great thoughts, thanks. But now I have to jump in with both feet. When I am preaching the application of theatrical thinking and technique to the business world (or to presentations), I often hear the criticism that I ‘want people to be fake, to pretend to be something they are not.’ This criticism is based on a fundamental and massive misconception of theater — the idea that theater is a form of pretense.

“This is manifestly not the case. Great actors do not ADD anything to themselves in acting. Instead, they selectively REVEAL. On stage — whether acting or presenting — I am never someone else. I reveal some aspect of myself to the audience. I reveal my genuine enthusiasm for the theme, or my real worries about the situation. Only thus can I be genuine, be authentic.”

Jon from New York City: “There is obviously a gray area where we can’t pinpoint the exact moment that an aesthetic becomes a distraction. Just as we can’t say when life actually begins or what pornography actually is. It’s more of a ‘you know it when you see it’ feeling.

“When I look at a slide with horrible clipart and meaningless animations, I know that it’s wrong and can easily pinpoint what to remove or change. But I can’t say that the imagery or animation needs to be removed because they are bad. The difference has to do with application, quality, and sensibility among others.

“Of course costumes, props, and set design are important to theater when used effectively. Of course imagery/decoration/aesthetics are important to presentations when used effectively. But I can’t put a clear definition on effective. I just know it when I see it.

“Adam and Rick, you’re both right, because this is an impossible question to answer.”

Me: “Jon’s right — we recognize it when we see it. And because the presentation community has been subject to such a high volume of misuse and abuse, because Death by PowerPoint is practically the norm today, we have become more aware of red flags around gratuitousness. If our trigger finger for decorative baubles is a bit sensitive, there is good cause.”

Angela from the UK: “You have to go back and redefine the term ‘relevant.’ If the graphic or decoration subconsiously leads the audience to a line of thought you wish them to go on, then it has relevance. Personally, I do not add anything which does not have relevance. I might use a picture as a background, but that picture will be part of the message I want to get across, and will convey a theme throughout the presentation.”

At this point, Adam offered up a link to a humorous video in which he shows how to storm a castle with his bare hands. It is fine physical comedy and he makes the point that he is all the decor that is needed in the presentation. No labeling is required to create relevance.

Mike from Florida intervenes to argue that “a lot of presentations are speaker support, not speaker replacement.”

At which point, Adam makes the point on which he and I can find complete agreement:

“What you call a ‘presentation,’ I call a ‘slide deck.’ For me, the word ‘presentation’ refers to the whole thing — presenter, props, script, visuals, sound, handouts. etc. I agree that the slide deck is speaker support, not speaker replacement. It can be valuable, even priceless. But I believe it is seldom essential and it is never the presentation.

“Whatever the situation, whatever the audience, my basic philosophy remains the same: The PRESENTER is the presentation.”

Amen to that…

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