Skip to Main Content
University of York Library
Library Subject Guides

A practical guide to presentations

Basic slide design

A look at designing and delivering presentations, in person and online.

Having chosen our tool, it's time to consider some basics: First we take a look at five golden rules of effective slide design, and then have a go at implementing those principles using the full-screen image method. Then we take a look at the importance of placeholders and how slide layouts can be controlled using masters and themes.

Five golden rules

Academic Liaison Librarian Ned Potter offers the following 5 golden rules for a presentation which sticks:

1: Keep it simple

Presentation materials should aim to be clean, consistent, and supportive of what you're trying to say. Avoid anything that distracts from your message. If animations, transitions or templates are just for the sake of it, they will get in the way of your story, so use them wisely and with caution.

2: No bullets!

Bullet point lists have their uses (not least on a website like this) but in a presentation slide:

  • bullet points are often fragments of sentences (bad)
  • they take up all the space, less room for images (bad)
  • they make your audience less likely to read the slides (bad)
  • if they are reading, they'll be reading faster than you're talking, distracting them from what you're actually saying (really bad)

It's true that a bullet list provides a potentially useful summary of what's being said, but it's not always the most helpful approach. Research shows that graphical representations are more helpful to learning (and better received) than bullet point lists.

3: One point per slide

Rather than a list of potentially distracting points, try to keep to one point per slide (or at the very least reveal each point as it becomes relevant). Give what you're saying room to breathe.

Use whole sentences rather than fragments, although you can always use things like colour (contrast permitting), weight, or font-size to emphasise key points.

4: Big fresh fonts

Font choice

There are four main font categories:

Serif fonts, with their traditional, formal overtones, are often used in print. They're typically avoided in online contexts because display resolutions have historically not really been up to displaying them with sufficient clarity to be properly accessible.

Sans-serif fonts like the ones we usually use on these pages are considered more modern and less formal, and their relative simplicity means that they display better in digital media (like a web page or a PowerPoint slide). You should generally favour fonts like these in your slides.

Cursive fonts mimic handwriting. Some look like wedding invitations and aren't very readable at all. Some, like Comic Sans, are designed to be accessible for children, but that carries negative connotations in other uses.

Then there's decorative fonts. Informal; fun; good for accents. But you wouldn't want a whole presentation like this.

In terms of font selection, University-managed computers have a broad range of fonts. If you're on your own computer and want a better variety of fonts, there are a number of free fonts available online. We got the fancy font above ("Audiowide") from Google Fonts, and there's also Font Squirrel. As always, use caution if downloading fonts from unfamiliar sites.

Font size

As any optician's chart will demonstrate, size of font is important.This is 24pt and you probably wouldn't want to go much smaller than that on a slide (though it depends on where you're presenting and the size of the screen) — if you're struggling to fit things on at that size, maybe you're trying to squeeze too much into one slide?

5: More images, less text

Meow. It's a very relevant kitten. Awww.

According to research by Dr Richard Mayer (on whose principles these rules are based), learning improves when words are placed near relevant pictures. The key word there is relevant. Relevant images help people learn.

Take a look at our Practical Guide to Copyright for information on sourcing images that you can legally use in your presentations.

Death by PowerPoint is a phenomenon caused by the poor use of presentation software. Key contributors...include confusing graphics, slides with too much text and presenters whose idea of a good presentation is to read 40 slides out loud.”


Making simple but elegant slides using the full-screen image method

We'll get onto the detailed mechanics of slide making in a bit, but first let's have a go at a quick but attractive approach to slide design: the full-screen image method:

The image you use should reflect the point you're making.

This approach, based on the 'five golden rules', uses a relevant background image overlaid by a short summary sentence. A slide deck using this method may be quite long in terms of the number of slides, but each slide might only be on screen for less than a minute. Slides of this style are relatively easy to put together but make for a distinctive and attractive presentation.

Find an image

It might be your own image, or it might be something you've found on the internet, in which case you'll need to think about questions of ownership and copyright. Fortunately there are plenty of images out there that you can use for free. Our Practical Guide to Copyright has information on sourcing images that you can legally use in your presentations. We're particularly fond of Pexels and Pixabay which both provide public domain / CC0 images that you don't even need to cite (unless you want to).

Use the image as your slide background

Format Background > Picture or texture fill > Picture source
  1. Right-click select the background of your slide and choose Format Background... — the "Format Background" side-panel will open;
  2. In the side-panel, select Picture or texture fill — a tasteful beige wood effect will appear on your slide, but don't worry: it won't be there for long;
  3. Go and find your image; if you've got it saved to your computer, choose the Insert... button on the "Picture source" section of the side-panel, then choose "From a File" and browse to the image you need. Alternatively, you could copy the image to your clipboard and then use the Clipboard button;
  4. You can use the other tools on the side-panel to make changes to the image, such as adjusting its position or applying effects.
Google Slides
  1. Right-click select the background of your slide and choose Change background... — the "Background" dialogue will open;
  2. Select Choose image: you'll have a choice of different import methods;
  3. Go and find your image; if you've got it saved to your computer, choose the UPLOAD button, then "BROWSE" or drag in the image you need. Alternatively, you could copy the image's web address to your clipboard and then use the BY URL method;
  4. Select Done to apply your new background.

Background images don't include alt-text. If your image contains something important (rather than merely decorative / reinforcing), insert it in its own right rather than as a background (we'll look at these principles in the Images section).

Add some text to your slide

There are a few ways of going about this (we'll look at some more in the Text section), but perhaps the most straightforward and accessible method (especially if you're going to be sharing the slides) is to use a Title/Content layout.

  1. In the navigation pane (left-hand side), right-click select the thumbnail for the current slide and choose: Layout > Title and Content — template boxes will appear on your slide;
  2. Layout > Title and Content
    The drag crosshair
  3. We don't need the title box visible, but it's useful for navigation purposes for a slide to have a title, so drag the box out of the visible area of the slide (the border of the box is the draggable part, as denoted by the drag crosshair), then put in an appropriate title;
  4. Now reposition your content box to where you want your text to appear. Again you can drag with the border. You can also adjust the size of the box with the toggles at each corner;
  5. Enter your text and format your box as appropriate (see below for more on formatting options).
Google Slides
  1. In the navigation pane (left-hand side), right-click select the thumbnail for the current slide and choose: Apply layout > Title and body — template boxes will appear on your slide;
  2. We don't need the title box visible, but it's useful for navigation purposes for a slide to have a title, so drag the box out of the visible area of the slide (the border of the box is the draggable part, as denoted by the drag crosshair), then put in an appropriate title;
  3. Now reposition your content box to where you want your text to appear. Again you can drag with the border. You can also adjust the size of the box with the toggles at each corner;
  4. Enter your text and format your box as appropriate (again, see below for more on formatting options).
A slide with a picture of a cat as the background; the title ('Cats') has been moved off the slide, and the caption ('Everybody loves a slide with a cat on it!') has been positioned in 'copyspace' to the right of the cat.

Controlling layout using masters

PowerPoint and Google Slides are not strictly designed to be blank canvasses that we fill ad hoc with images and text boxes. This never used to be a problem until we realised how inaccessible our slides were for other people who might have to 'look' at them. In the full-screen image example we deliberately (ab)used a standard title/content layout, and we did so for good reason...

Layouts: what are they and why are you making me use them?!

When you create a new slide, the chances are that your blank slide won't be blank; it will contain a number of placeholders just begging to be filled. The expectation is that you choose an appropriate layout for your slide and use it accordingly.

The first slide in your deck will usually contain Title Slide placeholders, while subsequent slides will generally be created with Title and Content placeholders by default.

The primary functions of these placeholders are to:

  • help achieve consistent positioning within a presentation
  • allow you to make use of the Master Slides feature to achieve consistent and easily editable formatting within a presentation

It used to be that if you didn't really care about consistent positioning or the ability to globally edit your slides' appearance, then you could happily just ignore these placeholders. But the placeholders are also used to construct a document outline from your slides, making them more accessible and easier to navigate.

Titles are especially valuable in this regard. Take a look at the embedded slides at the top of this box...There's a dropdown on the control panel for those slides (where it says "Slide 1"). If you select that dropdown you'll see that the slide title appears there for each slide in the deck, with the exception of Slide 4, because Slide 4 is the one slide that isn't using a layout with a title placeholder.

Slides 7 and 8 have the same title, which isn't really ideal either, but at least they've got titles, so we can navigate to them safe in the knowledge that we've some idea as to what they're about.

Title text (and even content text) also appears in the 'Outline' view in PowerPoint (View > Presentation Views > Outline View), and PowerPoint's accessibility checker (Review > Accessibility > Check Accessibility) will complain at you if you haven't got titles on your slides (though it will also offer an assortment of solutions to help you out).

Applying layouts

You can apply a layout to a new slide, or even swap the layout of an existing slide.

As well as accessing the layouts from the navigation panel (as demonstrated for the full-screen image method), you can change the layout of a slide from:


Home > Slides > Layout

Google Slides

Slide > Apply layout

Any page element using the same placeholders will be adjusted according to the selected layout. Any other modifications to the page will remain unchanged.

Configuring layouts with master slides

The top slide in the master view is the Slide Master. Below that are Layout Masters slaved to the Slide Master

The positioning and formatting of placeholders and other slide content is controlled using a collection of slide and layout masters (effectively a sort of template hierarchy). These masters can be viewed and edited in their own special Master View:


View > Master Views > Slide Master

Google Slides

View > Theme builder


When you view the masters, the layout master for the current slide will be highlighted. Hover over (or select in Google Slides) any layout master to see which slides are using it.

Like the usual view in PowerPoint or Google Slides, the Master View consists of a thumbnail list of masters to the left, and a slide workspace to the right. A slide deck can consist of one or more Slide Masters under which will be a number of Layout Masters. These work according to the following principles:

  • Changes made to the Slide Master will be inherited by every Layout Master, and hence by every slide;
  • Changes to Layout Masters will affect only slides based on that layout;
  • Inherited content (eg background graphics) can be hidden on a Layout Master, or on an individual slide;
  • Text formatting applied to a Slide Master or Layout Master will affect all associated slides but can be over-written by direct formatting on individual slides.

In the above example:

  • ...a red star placed in the top left-hand corner of the Slide Master is inherited by all other Layout Masters, and hence all other slides;
  • ...a green star placed in the bottom right-hand corner of the Comparison Layout Master is inherited by all slides using that layout;
  • ...font formatting applied to the Comparison Layout Master is inherited by all slides using that layout;
  • ...a picture of some cake added to the Title & content Layout Master is inherited by all slides using that layout.

In some cases (particularly in terms of placeholders), changes made at a higher level can be 'undone' or hidden at lower levels.

Editing masters

Here's some specific examples, and how to go about implementing them:

I want to...Edit the...Method
...change the font used for the title on all slidesSlide MasterFormat the title placeholder text as required.
...change the font used in content placeholders on all slidesSlide MasterFormat the various levels of text as required.
...add a coloured title bar to all slidesSlide MasterDraw and format a rectangle on the master and position the slide title placeholder as appropriate.
...use a coloured background but only on Title slidesTitle Slide LayoutFormat the background colour as normal, and modify the placeholder text for an appropriate contrast.
...modify the heading text for Comparison slidesComparison LayoutFormat the two heading placeholders as required.
...modify the content placeholder text for one specific slidespecific slideSimply reformat the text on the individual slide as required.
...prevent a graphic element from the Slide Master appearing on slides that contain only a titleTitle Only LayoutPOWERPOINT ONLY*:
Select Slide Master > Background > Hide Background Graphics. If this removes some elements you want to keep, you may need to copy them to the Layout Master.
...prevent a graphic element from the Slide Master appearing on just one Title and Content slidespecific slidePOWERPOINT ONLY*:
Select Design > Customise > Format Background  and choose Hide Background Graphics from the side panel. If this removes some elements you want to keep, you may need to create a new layout.
- In Google Slides you would need to create a new Layout Master (see below).

In summary:

  • To make a change that will affect all slides, edit the Slide Master
  • To make a change affecting slides based on a particular layout, edit the relevant Layout Master

Custom Layout Masters

If none of the layout masters meet your requirements, you can modify an existing one or add your own.

From within the Master View...:

  1. Select a Layout to change, copy an existing layout by right-click selecting it and choosing Duplicate Layout, or create a new layout from scratch by choosing:

    Slide Master > Edit Master > Instert Layout

    Google Slides

    Insert > New Layout

  2. Insert any required placeholders from:

    Slide Master > Master Layout > Instert Placeholder

    Google Slides

    Insert > Placeholder

Multiple Slide Masters

Your slide deck can include more than one set of masters (handy if you're stitching multiple presentations together into one deck). You can duplicate an existing Slide Master (and its Layout children) by right-click selecting the master and choosing Duplicate Slide Master. In PowerPoint, further Masters are added to the left-hand navigation pane. In Google Slides, Master View will only display one set of Masters at a time, but you can toggle between them with the toggle selector at the top of the navigation pane.

Closing the Master View

Getting into the Master View is one thing; getting back out of it again is altogether harder – at least in PowerPoint. Here's the way out:


Go to Slide Master > Close > Close Master View (it's a cross icon but it's easily lost when you've been working in the Master View);

Google Slides

Unselect View > Theme builder, or just hit the little cross in the top right-hand corner of the view.

Footers and page numbers

The Slide Master and most Layout Masters include placeholders for footer information such as slide number (PowerPoint and Google Slides) and date (PowerPoint only). These can be formatted in the same way as other placeholders but will only appear on your slides if the respective features are enabled.

To enable such features:

  1. From either the normal view or the Master View, select Insert  Text > Header & Footer — the "Header and Footer" dialogue will open;
  2. Enable the regions you wish to be displayed. Text you want to appear should be entered here rather than in the Slide Master placeholder;
  3. Enabled regions are shaded in the preview.
  4. Choose Apply to All unless you are configuring just one slide or master.
Google Slides
  1. From either the normal view or the Master View, select Insert > Slide numbers — the "Slide numbers" dialogue will open;
  2. There aren't many settings in Google Slides: it's pretty much on or off, though you can choose to skip title slides;
  3. Choose Apply unless you are configuring just one slide or master, in which case choose Apply to selected.

So can't I make freeform slides?

Many people (the writer of this sentence included) prefer to add their own text boxes to slides, in addition to (or even instead of) the placeholders. There's nothing wrong with doing this, so long as you bear in mind a few things:

  • Content in additional text boxes cannot be formatted using any Master features — you can't make global changes; you have to configure (and perhaps subsequently reconfigure) each instance individually;
  • Accurate positioning of content and formatting for consistency within a presentation becomes more difficult.

More importantly, if you're going to be sharing your slides with others, they're going to need to be accessible, and that means:

  • Each slide should have a title (and as we've already established, that really needs to be in a title placeholder);
  • The other content you add to your slide needs to adhere to the expected reading order.

To help achieve consistency with freeform slides:

  • Use the Master features to position and format the slide title, and make use of the Title Only layout at the very least. If you don't want the title to be visible, you can always move it out of frame;
  • Copy and paste is your friend: copy and paste placeholders, text boxes, and other items between slides to preserve format and position, or, better still, duplicate whole slides. That way the previous slide becomes its own master of sorts that you can keep duplicating and overwriting.


A theme is a collection of colours, font styles and graphic elements that give a consistent visual identity to a presentation. Essentially, they're different sets of slide and layout masters.

PowerPoint and Google Slides include a range of built-in themes. They can add a bit of prettiness to your slides, but by their very nature they're a little over-used. You can, however, create and save your own designs.

Choosing a theme

  1. Select the Design tab — the themes occupy most of the ribbon;
  2. The 'More' toggle is at the bottom right of the themes menu
  3. Choose the More toggle to view the full range of themes;
  4. Hovering the pointer over a theme will temporarily format your presentation in that theme using its default colours;
  5. Select the required theme to apply it to your presentation;
  6. Use the Design > Variants ribbon section to select an alternative preset colour palette for the theme.
Google Slides
  1. Go to Slide > Change theme — the "Themes" side-panel will open;
  2. Scroll down the list to a theme you like;
  3. Select the required theme to apply it to your presentation (you can always hit undo if you don't like what it's done).

You can also import a theme from another presentation:


Design > Themes > More > Browse for Themes...

Google Slides

Use the Import theme button at the bottom of the "Themes" side-panel.

Customising and reusing themes

Customisation is simply a matter of editing the Slide and Layout Masters to suit your needs. You can then save the modified version for future use:

  1. Select Design > Themes > More > Save Current Theme...
  2. Give your theme a name and Save it (you might want to take note of the default location or choose a more accessible folder). — the theme will now be available in the gallery for future use.

PowerPoint presentations can also be saved as templates (select "PowerPoint Template" when saving): these serve as an alternative starting point as you can include reusable content (unlike with themes which are just concerned with visual appearance).

Google Slides
  1. Go to View > Master to access the Master view;
  2. Select the Master slide;
  3. Hit the Rename button at the top of the Master view;
  4. Give your theme a name and hit OK;
  5. To reuse your theme in future, choose Import theme from the "Themes" side-panel (Slide > Change theme), find the presentation containing the theme you want to use and select the required theme.