Design can make the difference between an impactful message and a forgotten claim. Design is not decoration, but rather plays a functional and organizational role in delivering a message. As David McCandless points out in his TED talk “The Beauty of Data Visualization,” design is the language of the eye. Given this potential, it is surprising how often the opportunities to create this impact are lost in academic presentations and figures in publications.
My mother exposed me to design when I was a child with a color wheel, tutoring me on the differences between hue, tint, and the importance of contrast… and painting our house a new color almost every year. She taught me calligraphy when I was 10, creating the opportunity to learn about font, serif, and the flow of text. This outlook helped me to see the world differently, but I can’t say it impacted my career until recently. It was hard to see how design could be applied to communication when the recipe for presentations at academic conferences is set (and veering from this can have negative consequences). This changed after I stumbled across Jon Swabish‘s article “An Economist’s Guide to Visualizing Data.” Combining this with the long list of resources I had only just begun to review opened me up to the profound impact of design in communication.
To make images more impactful, it is important to understand the golden rules of design. First, one of the simplest ways to make a composition visually appealing is to work in odd numbers. One, three and five are more interesting than two, four, or six. This is because even numbers allow the brain to group more easily, making them less memorable and appealing than their odd cousins. Designers also use the rule of thirds to guide placement (see Ang Tian Teck’s Sticky Presentations for a great visual on this concept). In this context, the subject is located along one of the 3 x 3 grid intersects of the image.
These rules are just the start. I have found the following elements of impactful design to be most useful in communicating research findings:
1. Test Your Design Knowledge. Learn what you know (and don’t know) about design solutions by testing your knowledge with the “Graph Design IQ Test” on the Perceptual Edge Web site www.perceptualedge.com.
2. Keep It Simple. Whether you’re preparing slides for a presentation or a figure for an article, you want to reduce clutter and focus on one point. Forget about slide limits. They are free. Use as many as you need (keeping to only one point per slide). In figures emphasize the main point with color and focus. Delete extraneous information and detail. Embrace white space. This creates natural contrast, allows the brain to “breathe” and provides focus where you want it.
3. Make It Big. Your audience should be able to read your text from the back of the room during a presentation. Your reader should be able to understand your figures without squinting. As Nancy Duarte notes in Resonate, your slides should have more in common with billboards or road signs than the images you see elsewhere. In other words, they should be understood quickly and seen from great distances. To gain a perspective on the right size, Garr Reynolds suggests in his book Presentation Zen Design that you view your slides in the slide-sorter. If you can’t understand or read them in this view, your text or image is probably too small for those in the back of the room.
4. Know Your Fonts. Most experts in design recommend the use of one, or at most two, different fonts in a presentation. As Akash Karia recommends (How to Design TED Worthy Presentation Slides), you should use size (and not various fonts) to depict importance and create emphasis. Serif fonts aid readability for longer sections of text because the serifs (or the end strokes) lead your eye from one word to the next. On the other hand, sans serif fonts are often preferred for figures and slides since the lack of end strokes makes each individual letter easier to distinguish.
5. Seek Asymmetrical Balance. Asymmetrical balance is achieved when both sides of an image are not identical, yet appear to have the same visual weight. On the other hand, symmetrical (or formal) balance is achieved by creating the reverse of a design on the opposite side of a vertical or horizontal axis. While symmetry achieves balance through repetition, asymmetry achieves balance through contrast. Similar to the use of odds and the rule of threes, asymmetrical balance results in beautiful and impactful images because of the work the brain has to perform to recognize the visual weight.
In my next blog I’ll share examples using these essential elements. What helps you most to design impactful presentations and figures? Leave a comment.
Jill Caviglia-Harris, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of economics at Salisbury University. Follow her on Twitter (@JCavigliaHarris) see her additional entries on storytelling and presenting and read more about her work on deforestation and poverty.