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Academic presentations: Presentation Design

Good practice in presentations including design and structure. Covers group and poster presentations

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Our 5 top tips

“If your ideas matter—if your business plans, your research results or your cause are worth spreading—then design and presentation matter.”

Garr Reynolds, Presentation Zen Design

The overall design of your presentation can either help or hinder your audience's understanding. Unnecessary and distracting elements can draw their attention away from what is important. Poor colour and font choices can make text unreadable. Here we give our 5 top tips for ensuring your design works for you and your audience

1. Don't use one of the themes that comes with PowerPoint


The PowerPoint themes gallery

Don't be tempted to use one of these built in themes

At best they are overused so that your presentation does not stand out, at worse they contain distracting elements and bad colour choices.

It is a better idea to use a simple coloured background.  Right-click on your slide background (away from any text boxes) and select format background.  In the pane that appears, keep it set to Solid fill and choose a different colour from the 'Color' box.  Keep it pale with black text or dark and change to white text.  Avoid medium shades as you will not get enough contrast between background and text.

Alternatively - leave the background white and change your font colour to add interest instead.

If you do want to use something else, stick with a simple texture or gradient (using colours that are not too dissimilar):


Unfussy texture example Good gradient example Bad gradient example


2. Make sure there is sufficient contrast between the background and text on the slide

As a general guideline, using coloured text on a coloured background is rarely necessary. Also, try to avoid black text on a white background as this is acknowledged as particularly troublesome for dyslexics in your audience. If you stick to the basic rules below you cannot go wrong.

Black text on a pale colour background; White text on a dark colour background; Dark colour on a white background; Pale colour on a black background
A second colour can and should be used for emphasis only

3. Avoid unnecessary clutter

  • Don't put a logo or image on every slide - if you need to use a logo, just put it on the first slide and the last slide (and on your handouts)
  • Don't use clip art or lots of different images unless they are in a grid format
  • Simplify charts


4. Keep fonts simple and large

Don't use fancy fonts for the main text in your presentation. You should also avoid WordArt for the main text too. It is OK to use a fancy font if you are making a point with it, but otherwise stick to the simple ones. Oh, and NEVER use Comic Sans unless you are presenting to primary-school children!

Some writers say it is wrong to use the default fonts (usually Calibri or Cambria) as they indicate you are being lazy. However, these are perfectly serviceable fonts for academic presentations. If you want to change to something else, just to show you are not boring, consider one of the fonts below which are still easily readable and yet have a bit of extra character (and are all standard in MS Office).

  • Abadi
  • Candara
  • Eras
  • Georgia
  • Segoe UI
  • Tahoma
  • ‚ÄčTrebuchet
  • Verdana

Same font list displaying what they look like

If you decide to download a font from elsewhere (there a several excellent and free fonts on and remember to change your Save options to 'Embed fonts in the file' so that you can still use them on other machines. (Click on Tools next to the Save button in your Save As dialog box to access your Save options).

As a general rule, all fonts should be a minimum of 24 points in size though some will need to be larger.

5. Keep animation to a minimum

Don't use presentation-wide animations (like animating all titles to fly in or all text to build a point at a time). You should only use animation when it is absolutely necessary - to make it easier for the audience to understand or visualise something. If you apply it to all slides, this thought process is clearly not being followed.