Make It Better pt. one

One challenge, in particular, stood between our contestants and good design. Guesses?

The most sophisticated (and highest ranking) designs used a single large image on each slide. Whether that image was a photo or even a lot of empty space (an image of nothingness) didn’t matter. A good image triggers reactions which profit the designer.

The problem then is how to fuse text to the images.

You all had plenty of solutions, some more successful than others:

Use a solid color field.

Use a semi-solid color field.

Use high-contrast areas of your photo.

Outline the text.

Drop shadow the text.

On his respectable third place finish, Jeffrey demures:

when you look at [my design] after seeing neil’s (or paul’s or ethan’s), it’s as if i did my design by mashing my fingers on the keyboard. just no finesse compared to his.

Jeffrey’s self-assessment is overly modest but I think he accurately surveys his wild successes and flopped ambitions. His running visual gag was my favorite. His was also far and away the funniest entry (though Paulo’s wins for glibness). In a field crowded with inspiration and feelgoodery, I appreciated the moxy it took to put Cambridge on a slide and ignore it for the sake of bridge jumping. If I were Chicago GSB, I’d stage Jeffrey’s interview at a downtown pub.

Two problems.

Anyway, sense of humor, sense of story, visual sense, all very much intact here. Fusing text to image, though, seems to overwhelm him.

In all fairness, his images – colorful pictures of Earth with varying contrast on hills, streets, oceans – are some of the most difficult to play with. He hedges his bets across drop shadows and outlines, spreading his losses evenly over the two of them.

The text also varies in location which means the audience has to process factors which don’t matter to Jeffrey.

Confronted with a new slide, we, the audience, have to process:

  1. the geographic location (Colombus, Cambridge, etc.)
  2. the number of times Jeffrey has done something (1 time, 2 times, etc.)
  3. what that thing is (backing into a garage, etc.)

Which is pretty ambitious. Information density is high. Jeffrey helps us out by keeping a steady hierarchy: the cities are in one font style (white text, black outline), the number of times in another, and the activities in another.

He could’ve made life even easier for us, though, by orienting each of those elements consistently on each new slideConsider the easy readability of Neil’s slides, how they eliminate irrelevant factors by keeping all the important information in the same place every time.. Because, as is, we also have to process:

  1. where the locations are oriented in the slides
  2. where the quantities are oriented in the slides
  3. where the activities are oriented in the slides

Jeffrey was a good enough sport to let me have a run at his project. Here are a couple solutions for his first three slides.

Use a solid color field.

Use a semi-solid color field.

Drop the color field but add a dark vignette for contrast.

There are other options, certainly, but we’ve made a good-faith attempt to solve two serious issues:

  1. readability (the drop shadow / outline problem)
  2. noise (the scattered placement of elements)

Along the way I think we’ve also enhanced Jeffrey’s “one, two, three” sequence, which wasn’t immediately obvious to me with the original.

I welcome other suggestions, a rebuttal from Jeffrey perhaps, and, especially, commentary from teachers uncertain how this relates at all to teaching. Odds are good, unfortunately, that they haven’t made it this far.

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


  1. Love the contest and the improvements discussed here.
    Definitely relates to education – visual literacy and graphic design are essential elements to teach across all academic areas as they relate to presentations.
    Great deal of learning encompasses ability to visually present information.
    Are you a graphic designer in your second life?

  2. Visual literacy. Hadn’t thought of that.

    Us math teachers get bummed at professional development seminars discussing the importance of literacy across all content areas. We give the notion our grudging respect but find it trickier to implement than do the plucky keynote speakers.

    But visual literacy, there’s somethin’ I can rally behind, no matter the context.

    Expressing statistics through visuals in math & statistics & history.
    Expressing emotions and ideas through visuals in literature & language.
    Expressing relationships visually in science.

    I do video work when I don’t teach. I’ve found the overlap between structuring a good video and structuring a good lesson to be vast. Last year was the clearest I’ve ever taught and, not uncoincidentally, two nights ago I debuted a video which was my clearest self-expression. Exciting times to have irrelevant interests.

  3. hey dan –

    rebuttal? no, no place for that. i’m a keyboard masher compared to you, dan.

    i think you hit the nail on the head with the two major difficulties caused by my ambitious attempt.

    1. “images = some of the most difficult to play with.” i did what i could with google earth, to find images that reduced the contrast, but the difference in colors between each slide was just so great that i couldn’t easily find one consistent text color. thus the hedging of bets.

    2. “information density is pretty high.” yeah, i know that, but that was kind of part of the complicated story i was trying to tell. i tried my best to group the text for each slide in a similar spot, but due to item 1 – the widely varying colors in each slide – that was too hard to do.

    dan, i think what you did on the final example, the dark vignette, does an excellent job of reducing the first problem. also creates more consistency between each visual image, while making it easier to organize the visual information.

    the fourth slide – hmm, what could come next. i’ll play around with it.

    thanks thanks thanks dan for this. i learned a lot!


    Postscript1: “moxy”? “moxy” sounds like something people were vaccinated for in the 1930s. think my grandpa would’ve called it gumption. (my grandma just calls me a smarta$$.)

    Postscript2: why would teachers NOT read down this far? visual literacy is crucial for teaching ANY subject. are students being taught visual literacy in classes other than technology and/or the occasional forward-thinking teacher? are TEACHERS being taught about this?

  4. Jeffrey, high information density isn’t derogatory. It’s desirable, in fact. The only liability is that the more info you pack into a slide, the faster it becomes noisy.

    As for your second postscript, that question came up in some other comment thread awhile back. Maybe yours again but I think it was one of my x-chromosome readers.

    It freaks me way out, though, that visual literacy isn’t taught. No one even broached it in my otherwise exceptional teacher ed program. It freaks me out because this year I’ve seen the difference it makes. It won’t break a good teacher but it’ll ruin a bad one and it can propel a good one to greatness. I swear.

  5. Visual literacy fused with basics of good design – now that’s a practical combo that any good teacher should be signing up for. Basically, when I read your critiques and ideas here, I’m getting my own free PD in this area. The one thing I found from my own foray into this was that good quality images of oneself in professional action are something that usually only occur by accident. Keep it coming, Dan.