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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.

Joe's picture

You shouldn't (or can't?) template art

As a photographer who dabbles in layout also, I could say a lot, I suppose, about the applicability of the rule of thirds to design. But others already have, and made good points.

My $0.02 falls into the camp of not constraining presentations. When I design sets of slides for seminars I give, I don't stick to a template. Maybe it depends on what the content of your slides is - in genetics (academia - my "true" profession), the content varies a lot, and so do my slides. I racked my brain over whether any of my slides follow any sort of predictable pattern that would lend itself to being templated, and the answer was a resounding "no". I design each slide to be visually pleasing (with layout and amount and location of white space dependent on the content of the slide). In this sense, each slide is unique - each is a piece of art. Sure, some things stay the same - font, size, color, background; my belief is that there is no a priori reason to demand that the layout of objects on the slide be consistent.

Do I think this thread is misguided? Not at all - I think it is a great question to tackle, and I look forward to mulling over more of your opinions. Perhaps I'll sign off by adding a fresh spin to the question: if you believe that white space is vital in good design (and I hope you do), how do you template white space into a slide?




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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