Jan 14 2013

Choose Your PowerPoint Fonts Wisely

Indie chose wisely. Can you?

When picking fonts for presentations or corporate PowerPoint templates, you need to be careful which fonts you choose. You may hate Microsoft’s default fonts (e.g., Arial), but if you’re considering using another font you’ll want to make sure it’s a commonly installed font. Why? When people go to view your file on their computers and they don’t have the same font, PowerPoint will substitute another font which may not be the exact same size or style as your original font (12 pt in one font can be smaller or larger in another font). As a result, all of your copy and labels may end up being misaligned or text-wrap in places you didn’t anticipate. In other words, your nicely designed slides can turn into an unintelligible, sloppy-looking mess simply because the computer you’re presenting on doesn’t have the right font.

In most cases, a non-standard or custom corporate font isn’t going to cause problems internally because theoreticallyeveryone at your company should have the corporate font installed. However, I’ve still seen problems with custom corporate fonts when your IT team fails to install these fonts on all new computers or re-imaged computers. When it comes to setting up a new computer or re-imaging an existing computer (i.e., restoring a computer to its default state typically after a bad crash or virus), fonts aren’t going to be the highest priority for IT. If you have both PCs and Macs at your workplace, it’s also common to run into font compatibility problems because PCs and Macs don’t share all the same fonts (e.g., PCs don’t have the Helvetica font by default).

PCs don’t have Helvetica by default like Macs. No, Arial and Helvetica are not the same.

While it can be an occasional problem for internal computers, it can be a serious problem when presenting on external computers or sharing PowerPoint files outside of your company. In my current role as an analytics evangelist, I’m not always presenting from my own computer. My company, Adobe, has its own set of corporate fonts, which is both good and bad. The corporate fonts are unique, clean, and professional. However, they can trip up employees when they present on external computers or share slides with another company.

In general, I’ve avoided using custom fonts because of the problems they create. I do use them from time to time, but I’ve learned to be very careful with them. At one industry event, I inserted a couple of slides from another co-worker into my slide deck. After joking about being the PowerPoint Ninja at the beginning of my presentation, I noticed to my horror that the inserted slides used the corporate font. I noticed it because all of the labels on one slide were a jumble of text (see below). Not only was I embarrassed, but the slide failed to communicate effectively to my audience. This experience highlights the importance of always checking what your slides look like on a different machine before presenting–something I failed to do and paid the price.

On the left, I’ve zoomed into part of the slide which is using the right custom font. On the right, you see what PowerPoint substituted when the computer didn’t have the same font. The substituted font messed up the text in several spots. Don’t make the same mistake!

If you present or share slides externally, here are some options for avoiding font problems:

  1. Use your own computer: If you’ve used several custom fonts, you can insist on presenting from your own machine. In some cases, this may not be an option at a conference where the audio/visual team wants to standardize the hardware being used or at an organization that doesn’t allow outside computers (security precautions).
  2. Provide custom fonts: If you need to present your slides on an external computer, you can provide the custom fonts along with your presentation. You then need to hope the audio/visual team for the event installs them, which can be a low priority for a very busy team. I’ve found you need to follow up prior to presenting to make sure the fonts are installed because it is a minor step that is frequently overlooked. Consider zipping the fonts and PPTX file together so it’s more obvious that they’re required. If you just want to share your presentation with people at another organization, you typically don’t burden them with installing a font on their computers (even though it’s easy). In addition, they may not be able to install fonts due to IT security restrictions.
  3. It’s simple to convert any custom text into an image, which removes font compatibility issues. You should only notice a small difference between the text and image.

    Convert custom font to image: If you’re only using a custom font in a few minor places, you can convert the text into an image. Just copy the text box, and then paste it as a picture. You remove the need to have the font installed and still produce the desired effect with the custom font.

  4. Embed custom fonts: In PowerPoint, you have the option of embedding custom fonts. One drawback to this approach is that it can significantly inflate the size of the PowerPoint file. Sharing large files can be unwieldy and you may need to use Dropbox or some other file sharing tool. Most people don’t know that they can embed custom fonts or may view it as a hassle and skip the extra step in the process, risking how their presentations are seen by others.
  5. PDF your slides: If you’re just sharing your slides, you can PDF your slides which will retain whatever fonts were used in the slides. However, if you PDF your presentation it will lose all its animations, which may not be a viable option.
  6. Avoid custom fonts: If you’re presenting externally on a different computer or know you’ll be sharing the PPTX file externally, you might decide to avoid using any custom or corporate fonts. While this may freak out the brand nazis at your organization, the most important thing is to communicate your message effectively. Brand considerations (especially at the font level) should be secondary to the message in my mind.

We all get tired of Microsoft’s default fonts–Times New Roman, Arial, etc.–but you need to be careful when choosing fonts, especially if they are included in a corporate PowerPoint template. You can’t assume because a font is available on your computer that other people have the same font. Other software products besides Microsoft products also install fonts on your machine. For example, Myriad Pro is a non-Microsoft font that is installed if you use certain Adobe products (Adobe Reader 7 & 8). While a font might be common among your team or department (because you use the same applications), it might not be shared across your company or outside of your company.

Unfortunately, if you want to be safe with fonts, you need to take a less exciting, lowest-common-denominator approach, which means limiting yourself to just widely-available Microsoft Office fonts. While I’m sick of Times New Roman and Arial, I’ve enjoyed using Calibri, which was introduced with Windows Vista and Office 2007. Before you decide on what fonts to include in your corporate presentation template, consider reviewing the following Microsoft Office font lists:

Office 2003 Pro fonts

Office 2007 Pro fonts

Office 2010 fonts

Choose your fonts wisely

If you have a font that isn’t on one of these lists, then you have a custom/non-standard font. Depending on your presentation and audience, custom fonts may not be an issue. If you’re only going to present on your machine and aren’t going to share the slides, it doesn’t matter what font you use. However, it’s important to think ahead so you can avoid unnecessary font-related surprises that can interfere with how effectively your content communicates. Choose wisely and good luck!

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Oct 08 2012

PowerPoint Design Principle #3: Contrast

Back in 2008 when I started blogging on PowerPoint topics, I started a series of articles on important PowerPoint design principles. The first two articles were on consistency and control. However, for whatever reason I never continued the series and failed to cover other important design principles. During a recent business trip, I participated in two client presentations where the principle of contrast was overlooked and the oversight ruined the effectiveness of several PowerPoint slides. I thought it would be helpful to review this topic in hopes that other presenters can avoid unnecessary contrast issues.

Have you ever sat through a PowerPoint presentation and the presenter had to apologize to the audience for not being able to read text on the slide? That’s what I experienced on my business trip. Often it is due to the font size being too small, but just as frequently it can be caused by sloppy color contrast. While the most common application of contrast in PowerPoint is color, contrast can be created by having different object shapes, object sizes, font types, font sizes, alignment, etc. The principle of contrast is dependent upon the surrounding elements being noticeably different from the focal point. Contrast fails when the difference is too subtle or weak.

There are lots of different ways of showing contrast besides color.

For the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to focus on color contrast, which involves the difference in lightness or darkness between a foreground and background color. The strongest contrast is black on white or white on black. Because most PowerPoint presentations aren’t just black-and-white, you need to be mindful of the contrast principle in your design. With color contrast you also need to be careful about the hues you’re using on your PowerPoint slides. If you look at a color wheel, colors on opposite sides of the wheel will have the most contrast; whereas, analogous hues that are next to each other have weaker contrast (e.g., red and orange, violet and blue). However, you also need to be careful with color blindness issues. Even though there is good contrast between red and green, not everyone in your audience can necessarily perceive the color difference. For a good, brief overview of effective color contrast, I recommend this Lighthouse.org article on the three perceptual attributes of color – hue, lightness, and saturation.

The Projector Curve Ball

Designers need to carefully consider color contrast in their design work. Presentation designers have an additional curve ball thrown at them – projectors and LCD displays can significantly lighten or even alter the colors of slides when they’re projected. All the time spent on getting just the right color combinations on your laptop can be completely destroyed by an old, overused projector that hasn’t seen a new light bulb in a couple of years. It can also be ruined by too much light in the meeting room or particularly near the projection screen. As a general rule of thumb for presentations (with white backgrounds), you should design your PowerPoint slides as though all of the colors will be seen 20-30% lighter than what you’re seeing on your laptop screen.

I’d like to share three common scenarios where poor color contrast can ruin PowerPoint slides. I’ll start by sharing the two contrast-related mistakes I witnessed on my recent business trip along with a third one I’ve seen on several occasions.

Gradient steps or blends

When you have a process or flow diagram, it’s common to color the objects with different gradients – going from light to dark. Problems occur on the side with the lighter gradients if you’re using a light text color consistently across all of the objects. The light font will have good contrast against the darker gradients, but against the light gradient it can become ineligible, especially when you throw the projector brightness wildcard into the mix.

As you can see below, the light gradient with light text was too difficult to read even with the text shading. Unfortunately, the presenter had to pause and explain to the audience what the label was on the first object when he realized it couldn’t be read. If you’re using gradients, you either want to ensure you start darker on the light side or have darker text on the lighter objects (switching to lighter text on the darker objects).

This is the picture I took with my iPhone when I spotted this contrast issue. On the far left, the text was impossible to read because the white text didn’t contrast with the light gray object.

On a laptop screen, the text on the left is still legible, but once it is projected then the white text doesn’t stand out enough to be read against the light gray object. Either the background color on the object needs to be darker or the text needs to be darker — more contrast is required!

Green text

When using a PowerPoint template with a white background, you should avoid using certain colors for text. I’ve found that green or light green are not handled very well by a lot of projectors. There’s probably some technical reason for this, but I’ve learned over the years that this particular color is problematic. In the presentation below, the title of the slides and key metrics were in a lime green color. While it looked okay on a laptop screen, it became almost invisible when projected onto a screen. As a result, the presenter had to explain the purpose of each slide to the audience and verbally highlight key metrics that couldn’t be seen.

Be careful about the text colors you choose, especially for key text such as slide titles or data points. I would recommend never using green text due to how unreliable it can be with some projectors. If you’re using a template with a white background, use only dark colors for text.

Here’s another snapshot I took with my iPhone. This meeting was actually before the previous one, and the disruption to the presentation was more dramatic.

The lime green was visible on a laptop screen, but disappeared when projected. Not good if it’s used for the slide title or a key metric.

Colors on a dark background

My last real-world example comes from the Sunday school teacher at my church who uses PowerPoint presentations for her gospel lessons. She has a tendency to use red or blue text on a black background, which causes the text to be washed out and almost indistinguishable from the dark background. If you’re using a template with a dark background, don’t use standard colors such as blue, green, or red because most projectors struggle to project those colors with the same vibrancy as what you see in your laptop screen. If you’re using a dark background, always try to use light colors that will stand out when projected. Don’t be tricked by your laptop or desktop screen that the colors will display the same way when they’re projected.

Okay, no iPhone snapshot for this one so I’ve tried to reproduce what happened. While the colored text looks vibrant on your laptop (left), it can appear washed out when projected (right).

Don’t make your presentations hard to read; use appropriate levels of contrast for your text. There’s nothing wrong with black text on a light background or white text on a dark background. I know it might be a little boring but better boring than baffling (it seemed to work for Steve Jobs). If you’d like to get creative with your text try a different font or more expressive language—but don’t use font colors that won’t provide enough contrast.

You can also run into color contrast problems with other parts of your presentation besides text. For example, I was saddled with a corporate template (white background) which used a light faded orange color for its bullets. What might have looked stylish on the designer’s laptop, failed in execution. Simply because a brand designer failed to consider how the light-colored bullets would look on most projectors, hundreds of employees were communicating less effectively with their bullets (except for a rogue PowerPoint ninja who edited his version of the corporate template to include bold orange bullets). Be kind to your audiences and remember the PowerPoint design principle of contrast!

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Jul 23 2012

Tips for Removing the Background from Images in PowerPoint 2010

Remove the background from one picture so it can be layered on top of another. (c) Thinkstock

When you use images in your presentations, you might run into scenarios where you want to combine two images. In order to achieve the desired effect you may need to remove the background of one image so that it can sit in front of another image. In a past blog post, I explained how to do this in PowerPoint 2007. You can still use that approach in PowerPoint 2010 (Select image > Format > Color > Set Transparent Color). However, Microsoft offers you a new and useful option in PowerPoint 2010 to actually edit and remove the background of an image. Continue reading “Tips for Removing the Background from Images in PowerPoint 2010”

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May 07 2012

How Recover an Unsaved PowerPoint 2010 File

Ooops. I just closed the PPTX file I was working on that I hadn’t saved in a few hours. (c) iStockphoto / Thinkstock

You’ve been working tirelessly on a presentation. The creativity is flowing, you’re in a groove, and you’re masterfully pulling together what will be an epic PowerPoint presentation. For whatever reason as you juggle various files on your desktop, a part of your brain cramps up and you accidentally close (without saving) your presentation. This may never have happened to you, but it has happened to me a few times, including last Friday. Continue reading “How Recover an Unsaved PowerPoint 2010 File”

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Mar 27 2012

10 Ways to Spot a Lame Corporate PowerPoint Template

Rise up against bad PowerPoint templates! (c)Thinkstock

If you work at a company with more than 100 people, you probably have an official corporate PowerPoint template. If you work in a company with more than 1,000 people, you probably don’t know the designer who created your presentation template. There’s a good chance that the graphic designer who created your PowerPoint template doesn’t use PowerPoint on a regular basis — in fact, they probably detest PowerPoint and never touch the presentation software other than to make sure the template looks okay every time the corporate branding is updated. Continue reading “10 Ways to Spot a Lame Corporate PowerPoint Template”

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