How I make slides

“Wow, those are great slides!” I do hear that with some frequency. I’m not sure, myself, that the visual vocabulary I’ve settled on is all that, because I have the visual sense of a drowned rat and the graphic-design training of a three-year-old, but… that just means that if I can make pretty slides, anybody can, right?

So here’s how I do it. How I currently do it, I should say; if you look at my SlideShare you can pretty clearly see my slide-design sense developing, and… it’s still developing.

I start with a flat black background. I used to do gradients, and even further back I used to do those template things, but even in Keynote, templates take up space and—well, to me they just clutter things for not very much return by way of visual impact. In fact, return decreases over time during the talk, because people have seen the template already and edit it out mentally as though it were a web ad-banner. (I do, anyway.) There is certainly value to a sense of unity and rhythm in talk visuals—but there are other ways to achieve that, which I’ll talk about in a bit.

The key advantage to a dark background with light text is that your slides will hold up better in a venue with too much light. Dark text on a light background will be attenuated into illegibility by excess ambient light; I’ve squinted too many times myself! Another advantage is that you can use opacity control on a background image to darken it up; that makes type work a lot better on it (though the Keynote “shadow” control is your friend, and sometimes I wish Keynote had an outliner as well).

So then I think about my talk title. I go for jokey (sometimes hokey, I admit) talk titles, but there’s method to my madness: they usually contain or at least imply a visual that I can build slides around. “Le IR, c’est mort” gave me the white Academy Engraved and the red Zapfino fonts. “Save the Cows” and “Even the Loons are Licensed” are obvious. I have one coming up (uh, should probably start working on it, in fact) on IRs called “Rebirth of the Phoenix,” which by some utter Internet miracle yielded me this image of amazing awesomeness.

Ah, yes. Images. Flickr Storm and Flickr’s own Creative Commons search, set to CC-BY only, yield wealth undreamable. There are even image-search engines out there that will match a specific color or color palette; their one drawback is that they don’t tend to be license-limitable. I’m changing my practice on crediting images; I’ve tended to put a credits slide at the end, but that makes slide reuse more difficult for others, so I’m starting to put the image URL right on the slide, somewhere I hope is inconspicuous. (Tip: if you always put it in the same place on the slide, it becomes “visual furniture” and the mind’s eye edits it out.)

I’ve done an image-themed slideshow at least once. Worked okay—it helps that at least one of those images is iconic.

What I do with images tends to be cut-and-dried and can probably be improved upon. I do image backgrounds, as many people do, though I think I’m more careful about font readability than most. I’ll deopacify a smaller image and tilt it a bit in the center of the slide. I’ll do an image centerpiece for images that are strong enough; “Save the Cows” has a lot of these (the pic on slide 28 still makes me laugh). I’ll make collages, though I go easy on this tactic because I don’t think I do it well. I’m still learning how and when to use Keynote’s picture frames and shape masks; the only advice I have is that pictures don’t need to be pointy-corner rectangular, and often don’t want to be.

Fonts. I am not really a typographer, despite having been a typesetter. I sling some of the lingo, and I have gut feelings about some fonts, but true font geeks awe me. Here are my plain-Jane rules of thumb about fonts:

  • Don’t use widely-reviled fonts. Comic Sans, Times New Roman (which is bad for other reasons), Arial, Papyrus, (yes, even) Helvetica. You never know when you’ll have a true font geek in the audience.
  • Don’t use program-default fonts; they’re overused. This means no more Gill Sans, Keynote users. I would avoid super-common Web fonts, too, but that’s me.
  • Sans-serif and humanist fonts are generally better than serif. Serif is okay for big text such as headers, but…
  • Pick a font with some weight, to help a bit more against the excess-ambient-light problem; this is especially important for serif (and monospace, if you have a use for it) fonts. It’s a good idea to use a font that has a built-in semi-bold face. I’ve been liking Diavlo lately, though it’s rather wide. Futura is nice, too—and it has a condensed variant that I really like for smaller-text bullets. Optima Bold works, but don’t even bother with the non-bold face; it’s too thin.
  • If you’re using more than three fonts in a single presentation, shame on you. I make an exception for “font-art” slides (see slide 2 of What’s Driving Open Access?), which is a technique I use when I have to throw a lot of jargon at people at once.

Fonts have personality. It’s fun to work with that, and it can also set a mood. I use Futura for teaching-heavy presentations because it has that elementary-school chalkboard feel to it. I ended up with Bank Gothic in “Save the Cows” just as a lark the first time, but when I revised and expanded that one, I thought the dialogue between strong, formal, admonitory Bank Gothic and lighter-hearted Bradley Hand ITC turned out rather well. “Font-art” jargon slides are a beast to put together because they practically demand a ton of animation work, but people seem to enjoy them despite my ham-handed layout approach.

Animation. Effective when used gracefully, distractingly bizarre when abused. For the body of any talk I give, I pick one or two animations and stick to them religiously; that helps give the slides that sense of visual unity I talked about. I intentionally keep these animations simple and unobtrusive (“dissolve” is my favorite). On top of that, I’ll use flashier animations for effect, tailoring the animation to what I’m trying to get across. Font-art slides are a favorite flashy-animation target, but I’ve sprinkled it over other things too.

One thing to remember is that at least in Keynote, you can de-opacify slide elements as an “animation.” This makes them recede into the background visually (at least on my black backgrounds). This is a great trick for slides that have a lot of elements on them, such as my talk-bubble slides (see slides 4-6 of “Le IR, c’est mort;” I did this on slide 11, too, but I cut out the intervening stages when I posted the deck, sorry).

If you’re going to get into animation, you need to learn how to do automatic transitions between slides and slide elements. Keynote users, this is the rushing-diamond tab in the Inspector, and always have “More build options” open. (Oi, Apple? The mystery-meat tab navigation in the Inspector is frustrating; please fix it. Acorn’s tab palettes have words.) If you don’t learn transitions, you’ll wear out your space bar in addition to making your presentation all herky-jerky. Word to the wise: even when you get good with transitions, review a slideshow before you give it—I have been known to overuse the space bar in presentations I haven’t given for a while, trying to space over something I have an automatic transition set for. Oops.

(The awesomest animation/transition I ever did was for UPEI’s Island Scholar opening: a slow crossfade between Alice holding the Red Queen and Alice holding the kitten. It was a beautiful, beautiful thing. Took some fiddling, but so very worth it.)

I am the first to admit that I have a bad, bad time with color and wish I used it more effectively. One thing that sometimes helps, especially if I’m theming a talk around a few images, is to grab a dominant color from those images. Another trick is to use a web color-palette generator. Once you have your colors, don’t be afraid to use color contrast for text emphasis; in my experience, that works better on a slide than bold or italic text in the same color. One thing I want to try (and may with the upcoming IR presentation) is holding everything in a presentation, including images, to a strictly limited color palette.

Visual unity. If you’re holding yourself to a few fonts, a few animations, and a few colors, you’ve already gone a lot of the way. For presentations shorter than half an hour, this may be all you need to do, honestly. For longer presentations, I tend to use transition slides, all in the same visual style, to move between talk sections while unifying the whole talk; “Le IR, c’est mort” did this moderately well, though in hindsight, I should have held that deck to a smaller visual vocabulary. Typically, a transition slide has very little text on it; it’s a title, after all.

Slides with very little text can be striking and beautiful, in fact. I think slide 19 of “Save the Cows” may be the best slide I’ve ever done. Six words, one image, made the entire audience wince and nod. Some people will tell you that this kind of slide is the only kind you should do, in fact. I disagree; I think repetition makes it gimmicky. Still, it’s a good tool for the arsenal.

I hereby admit that I still use bullet points; Tufte can draw-and-quarter me whenever he’s a mind. The longer the presentation and the more abstract the material, the more likely I am to. I do try to put visual interest on bullet-point slides some way or another, without drowning out the text, and I don’t think I’d ever do a presentation now that was all bullet-point slides. (Even “Even the Loons” wasn’t all bullet points, though it was pretty close!) Bullet points are particularly putrid for telling stories, which is something I like to do; I far prefer illustrative quotes or images for that, or even the timeline in “Le IR, c’est mort.”

How all of this comes together… well, I dunno, I just do it. I do a lot of slide duplicating-and-editing once I get rolling, which helps keep things visually consistent. I occasionally (and with regret) kill my darlings, when I make something beautiful that just doesn’t fit into the presentation. I rearrange slides a lot, until the narrative makes sense in my head.

So that’s what I know about making slides. Hope it helps somebody.

A bit for WisCon

I’m in a better mood than I have been for a while. Though I don’t regret swearing off cons for this year, I am a little sorry not to be kicked into thinking about what I was thinking about talking about at WisCon. (And after a sentence like that, I’m sure WisCon is breathing a sigh of relief at not having to find a gracious way to bounce my submission out the door!)

I was thinking about LeGuin’s Earthsea dragonspeech, also known as the Old Tongue, and why it’s an utterly impossible language. And why I suspect LeGuin knew that when she started writing about Earthsea again after a hiatus. And how the impossibility might be reduced to a mere improbability.

But no, I can’t think about this stuff unless I’ve got to get up and actually talk about it. So instead, I’ll pass on a little bit I once talked about at a Mythcon past.

Remember how I said there were lots of interesting things about Pravic, the doubly-invented (by author and by fictional people) language of The Dispossessed? Here’s one. You can figure out the population of Anarres from it. No, I’m quite serious; stop laughing.

I’ve never been sure I got the math right on this, so somebody who knows more about math than I do (that would be “most people”), please check it. Here is my reasoning, and the number resulting from it.

I wrote that up more than a year ago, intending to get to a LeGuin signing at Book Expo America. I did make BEA, but not the signing; such is life when you’re a brand-new employee at a major ebook player when ebooks are still hot. And here I am going to miss another LeGuin appearance, at this year’s WisCon.

The things you can do with invented languages, though…