Design for Educators: Your First Slide


  1. Introduction


Your first slide is crucial. Cru. cial.

Your first slide establishes your presentation’s identity and even if you only fire up a projector three times a semester or present at only one conference, your presentation needs an identity. If you plan on presenting your lessons every day for a year (as has been my m.o.) this is quintuply important.

The reason is simply this: you don’t want your audience distracted by what your presentation looks like at the expense of what it’s about. No matter what my slides are about, they share a similar look.

This is priceless. In a matter of days, my students forget that the body text (Tahoma) looks different from problem information text (Gill Sans). They could tell you that the slide backgrounds are light blue but they forget that I use a gradient. I set problem answers to a darker shade of the background blue, but after a week, the look of the slide becomes so transparent, half the class would tell you it’s black. They never noticed the line breaks (always 10 points) or the reliable indentation (headers always 12% off the side; body text 3% more) or a dozen other elements I painstakingly built into the template with the express intention of rendering them totally, and completely, invisible.

All that work on the front-end has no immediate benefit. In fact, it makes things harder. Once your look becomes transparent, you’ve got a problem, because, see, then your presentation had better be about something. After your style fully recedes into the projector screen, you’d better have substance in spades. By example, it is much harder to create engaging content than it is to throw a sound effect or a spinning transition into your slide design. It’s also a helluva more satisfying for the designer and the audience.

A visual description of the difference:

The term here is signal-to-noise ratio. These slide decks had the exact same signal, but which was noisier?Some of the best advertising nowadays builds as much staticky noise into an ad as it can stand. (It should go without saying that education and advertising are rather different animals.)

And I was pretty fair to the noisier slides. I only kept the background gradient shifting but if I did justice to the majority of classroom PowerPoint lessons I would’ve had the text shifting font, color, and position. I would’ve switched between one- and two-column layouts at will. I would’ve inserted clip art. I would’ve used a wacky twirl to usher in new bullet points and move between slides.

I realize that those PowerPoint gewgaws seem cute and that the students seem to enjoy them. They are and they do. But cute wears off within a month and then any effort you put into the look of your slides is effort siphoned away from what your slides are about.This tutorial isn’t about that. We’re basically making this Very Special Edition of dy/dan up as we go along but perhaps we’ll address content later.

All this is to say that as you develop your template keep a close eye on consistency.

Your Template

  1. Choose a background. Gradients are hot right now. Light ones. Dark ones.

    With my next presentation I want to play around with some of Squidfingers’ patterns.

    Just don’t let your background call attention to itself, a là 90% of PowerPoint’s prepackaged offerings. For this reason, and for some contrast issues, photo backgrounds are a no-no. (Unless you’re willing to play hardball with the negative space, which is a different tutorial.)

  2. Choose your fonts. Run back to your blog first and perform a quick font count. Two? Three of them tops, right? They’re onto something. Do not get all fontacular here. Choose sans serif. Those tiny Curlz don’t show up well in screen pixels. Choose contrast. Choose 18 points or higher.If you ever have to drop below 18 points, odds are good that your point could be more concisely written or that you should speak more, forcing your audience to read less. Do not choose Comic Sans. Please do not ask why. Any explanation past “it’s overused by teachers” gets annoyingly technical and kind of arbitrary.
  3. Choose your colors. Dark colors for a light background. Light for dark. Mid-range colors are tough on the eyes but a lot of designers are throwing 5% gray on a black background rather than pure white. Choose a second color for special occasions. A slightly more saturated (purer) version of your background color.
  4. Choose your transitions. Or better yet, don’t. Mosaics, spinning cubes, etc., artifically inflate visual interest, which is a bubble that’s bound to burst. (see previous post on wipes)
  5. Choose your sound effects. See “Choose your transitions.”

At some point halfway through these guidelines, you may lose the point, chalk this up as too picky, and move along. So if the purpose of sturdy, unfussy design has become wobbly and fussy, then once again:

Good design decreases conceptual resistance in the same way that clear speech is preferable to slurry, drunken rambling and, like an earthmover, good design collapses the distance between Knowing and Not Knowing. Good design is good for anyone but it’s particularly good for educators.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. More here.


  1. As always, great ideas. I agree that the content should be the focus of the presentation – not the “noise”. Thanks for the reminder. Now I have to go change my font on my handouts… everything is in Comic Sans.

  2. I’ve seen some prints, haven’t read anything, though. You got something I should add to my summer reading list?

    Jackie, 97% of teachers aren’t going to notice the difference or care, but I’ll be applauding wildly from the back.

  3. He has a few books. I think the most important is called “The visual display of data” and is pricey, but very good on things such as reducing visual clutter. Very very good.

  4. Yup, yup, and yup. You’ve reminded me that I need to get rid of transitions other than fades. Transitions get in the way of information just like those obnoxious backgrounds (I went with a default one today in a pinch, but that was just lousy planning on my part; I’ve changed it now). Good luck with patterned backgrounds. Squidfingers is a cool resource, but I don’t see that happening in presentations like these we’re talking about. Maybe as an accent somewhere on the side? Hrm…

    I’d say that the inclusion of images is key to successful presentations. It probably shouldn’t be just text, no matter how concise. In fact, more images and fewer words should be at least *a* goal. This is all about using the presentation method as a way to augment the speech already prepared. I mean, yeah, not clip art ’cause that’s crap every bit as much as Comic Sans (don’t get me started), but photos or other Google findings come in handy to provide a graphic explanation of concepts. A blog post is in the works, but I just did a presentation today on the UC personal statement and several images helped convey my point better than words. Those also allowed for audience participation. I took a presentation emailed around the school (the worst thing possible: the entire script on each slide) and got it down to an average of 7.5 words per slide, including each slide’s title. Images made that possible.

    Education and advertising are different animals, though? Really? I’d say that this entire post is a strong case for the striking similarities between the two, not differences. We’re selling a product and discussing ways to hawk our wares more effectively. We are advertising to our students, just not for financial gain.

    And I use Georgia for headings almost everywhere, presentation slides included. I do wish I could expand the text a bit more than PP allows for, but I like the contrast of a serif in the heading and sans serif as body text. Yeah, Tahoma for body. Sometimes the default setting isn’t a bad thing.

  5. Georgia, huh? I mean, if you’ve seen any of my handouts you know I’m a freak for Georgia but only ’cause it looks foxy in print. Dunno about screen and particularly with PowerPoint on a PC which doesn’t have Apple’s badass Quartz graphic engine. What I don’t know and haven’t seen could fill books, of course. Same goes for you and squidfingers, which is gonna happen.

    I’m not sure how to phrase an agreement of your image inclusion paragraph. I agree that image-heavy presentations make the best slideshows but only if you know what you’re doing. Several image-heavy slideshows which have been making the rounds in the blogsphere these days are like these mutant pastiches, Flickr photosets collaged together by only the thinnest connecting thread. It can get messy.

    Re: education & advertising, my only point w/ that footnote, which I think I stepped too far past, was that with advertising, an intentionally low signal-to-noise ratio can make for effective advertising while I’m hard-pressed to think of times in my classroom when the same tactic would’ve yielded anything but frustration.

  6. Yeah, Georgia tends to look better on a Mac screen than a PC. Still, more control over the kerning inside PP would make it look much better on both. And I thought you are on a Mac. Don’t you use Keynote?

    Images augment the content. They aren’t content in and of themselves. I know what you mean and those “mutant pastiches” are as awful as anything else we’re talking about here. That golden thread, the main idea that connects everything together, needs to be strong in any presentation. If it’s not, I don’t even want to see the smallest image in place.

    Anyhow, let me know when you get a successful presentation together using a Squidfinger background.

  7. Ah, see, I thought you were running PowerPoint on a PC. My point was that PowerPoint already has some weird aliasing issues, rendering those tiny serifs chunky and indistinct. Pity the poor folks then consigned to PowerPoint on a PC where they don’t have Apple’s nifty Quartz engine to resize and rotate things smoothly. PowerPoint on a PC: worst of both design worlds, unfortunately.

  8. Really, Georgia on a PC isn’t that sexy on screen. It’s not just PP’s fault, even Web pages that use it don’t look so good (my site included). Does Keynote allow for more control over font spacing (kerning and leading)? That could convince me to buy it. Or maybe I’ll just start making “slides” in Word.

  9. Yes, absolutely, beautiful. I’m still bitter for being docked points for “not adding enough colors and transitions” to a presentation for grad school.

  10. Agh, makes me sweat reading that. Makes me also wonder whether the teachers assigning PowerPoint presentations here at the end of the year aren’t also grading on a garbage-y rubric. Yikes yikes yikes.

    Eric, thanks for narrowing Tufte down for me. Just ordered it.

  11. Is there not a difference between script and serif fonts? Other than that – gracious, I wish this sort of thing were common knowledge. I remember when the blink tag first became available in html. *wince*

  12. There’s serif and sans serif fonts. One has the thin tails, one doesn’t. I have yet to find a script font that isn’t serif though maybe an actual designer can correct me there.

    Still faking.