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Grids, The Rule of Thirds, and Rethinking Slide Presentations

'Presentation Zen' by Garr Reynolds

Presentation Zen
by Garr Reynolds

I received my contributor copy of Garr Reynolds's Presentation Zen book last week and proceeded to devour it over the weekend. A fuller review is coming to this space soon, because this is the book about presentations that's needed to be written for years, and it's just fantastic. Best of all it's not another recipe book about "how to make slides" -- this is about re-imagining how your entire presentation will work together as a persuasive and integrated show, from conception through delivery. Awesome.

Anyhow, with my inaugural Macworld talk looming on the horizon (T-minus 16 days, thanks), I've been inspired by Garr's book (and the top-notch site on which it's based) to, among other things, try revamping the approach to how slides fit in to my overall show. As I said on the Twitter, that starts with shit-canning the PowerPoint-y Keynote templates I've previously torn up and pasted together for stuff like Inbox Zero (here's the slides for that one, which Garr was kind enough to feature in his book).

But, now, rather than strictly trying to reinvent the wheel, I have a quest. A quest for a crazy-simple, design-centric Keynote template that's more about composition than gradients and 3-D bullet points. Ever heard of The Rule of Thirds?

Yeah, you probably have. Like the wikipedia article says:

The rule of thirds is a compositional rule of thumb in photography and other visual arts such as painting. The rule states that an image can be divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines. The four points formed by the intersections of these lines can be used to align features in the photograph.

Here's a good example off that wikip page. (image by Moondigger [CC-By-SA-2.5])

And the one-third grid works. So much so that in apps like iPhoto '08, the Crop tool automagically adds a Rule of Thirds overlay grid to help you improve the composition of your cropped image. Go ahead, try it.

The Rule of Thirds (and the related Golden Ratio) have come up on Garr's site before, and on page 151 of his book, he talks about how a grid like this can provide a level of light constraint that makes your layout easier and more harmonious:

Using grids to divide your slide "canvas" into thirds, for example, is an easier way to approach golden-mean proportions, and you can use the grids to align the elements that give the overall design balance, a clear flow and point of focus, and a natural overall cohesiveness and aesthetic quality that is not accidental but is by design.

And, how. So, I want this for Keynote.

I've begun lightly noodling with a new set of Masters that's built around a Rule of Thirds grid (trashing the whole Center MacCentercenter approach), but before I get ahead of myself, I figure why not cast my line towards the more gifted waters of the LazyWeb first...

The Question to You

Have you tried using grids like the Rule of Thirds in your own slide decks? Got a favorite layout or inspiring grid structure that works well for a slide’s aspect ratio? Got great advice on getting out of the stock slide template look? Links to graphical examples welcomed. Winning high-five goes to folks who are willing to share the actual Keynote template they've used.

thannclark's picture

Rule of Thirds...?

As a photographer, I have a love/hate relationship with the rule of thirds, it's not a rule, it's more of a guideline. It should always be presented as "sometimes an image is more interesting when the main subject is placed on one of the grid lines"

In your example, also notice that the photographer is using another compositional "rule" or concept, that is a ratio of 2/3rds sky to 1/3 earth (water in this shot). This gives the sky a nice open feel, with the earth not weighing down the composition too much. Imagine what the image would look like if the tree were positioned in the upper left corner. It would still follow the rule of thirds, but it wouldn't be as strong.

One of the best explanations of when to use and not use the "rule of thirds" comes from an excellent book,"Universal Principles of Design" by
Lidwell, Holden, and Butler where they suggest not to use the rule of thirds when there is a "...strong Primary element that is reinforced by the surrounding space"

Since I believe that presentation slides are read and scanned more like magazine ads with a mixture of text and images, and less like straight photographs I would be more likely to apply the rules of graphic design, and less likely to use the rules of photographic composition.

After all as I photographer I make an assumption that any viewer will be able to see my entire photograph, so I can compose freely. When I construct presentations, I have to assume that the lower portion of my slide may be obstructed in some way. Either the screen is too low for the audience, or someone's head or hat may block part of the slide. In this case I may lose impact if I put valuable information in the lower part of my slide.

I highly recommend the book "Type & Layout: Are you communicating or just making pretty shapes?" For a scientific look on how to create with words and images in ways that get your message across.

In general I don't think the "rule of thirds" is a good concept to use when designing slides, unless you are talking about placing a photo on the upper right intersection of the grid. It would depend on what the goal of any slide is. There may be many examples where it is a good idea. I am guessing we shall see.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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