Whether for class, a project proposal, or a lab meeting, you’ll probably need to make a slide deck at some point in your career. To make it stand out and stick with your listeners, here are some psychology- and research-based design tricks that you can easily add to any presentation, technical or otherwise.
(In this post I’ll use modified versions of slides I made for a neuroscience talk in 2022, which has an accompanying paper here.)
Design it like a story.
The best talks flow like a story, and your slides can help!
1. Use the three-second rule.
You can only say one thing at a time, so why visually introduce more than that at once? Try not to add more information than the audience can take in within three seconds. Otherwise, they’ll spend most of your talk reading the slides and not listening to you. Instead, use more slides or introduce bullet points individually.
2. Split up EVERYTHING, even the science.
If you have a graph, introduce one axis at a time. If you have an equation, introduce one term at a time and try to make it intuitive. The goal is for your audience to understand what you’re doing, so walk them through it piece by piece. Group terms together in a conceptual way if possible, and at the end, give a holistic understanding of what your equation or graph means.
Brand your ideas.
Brand your talk with intentional color, font, and spacing choices. Some of the best inspiration you can find for your slide decks is advertisements for big brands. Think about it—a commercial is more or less a high-stakes presentation. So try to pay attention to companies you really like, or ads you think are especially effective, and abide by the quote attributed from Picasso to Stravinsky to T. S. Eliot: “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”
Most of these ideas are based on subconscious links we make to certain artistic decisions. Everyone is affected by them, and if you’re curious, you can look up articles or books on marketing psychology to read up on the research (like this one).
3. The psychology of color
A light blue reminds us of cleanliness, the sky, open water, and tends to have a calming effect.
A rich green suggests nature, growth, and vitality.
Red is bold, incisive, and disruptive.
Purple has historical associations with luxury and lavishness.
And all of these color associations vary depending on where you are in the world .
There is a wealth of research on color psychology, and it’s worth understanding some of the subtle associations you create when you choose one color over another. To make your color choices more intentional, try visiting palette websites like coolors.co and see what palettes you want to represent your work. What color combinations remind you of excitement, depth, novelty, or reliability? Whatever you think, your listeners may feel the same (even if they don’t consciously think about it).
When making your plots, keep in mind the colorblind population. Make sure that the ability to understand your figures isn’t dependent on a viewer’s ability to distinguish colors like red and green.
4. Communicate with font
There are two main categories of English font: serifs and sans serifs. This article is in a sans serif. If you go to the New York Times homepage, everything is in a serif. Serifs have the little feet on the ends of letters while sans serifs do not.
Just as with color, we have implicit associations with both kinds of font. Serifs are trustworthy, reliable, stable. They remind us of old books and official, accepted knowledge. On the other hand, sans serifs are modern, sleek, and clean. And with both of these types of font, additional choices (thickness, height-to-width ratios, embellishments, when words are capitalized) can do even more signaling you may not even be aware of.
Try taking a look at some brands you’re familiar with and figuring out what the companies are trying to convey with their fonts. Many companies even spend time and money designing their own fonts, suggesting that it really does matter.
5. Space it out
When putting together your slides, think about where the negative space is (the absence of content). Think about whether your elements have enough room to breathe on all sides. When in doubt, err on the side of more rather than less space. If you’ve ever seen an Apple ad, you know that lots of space can make an image feel effortless and elegant. Not having enough empty space can feel stressful, and in the words of Marie Kondo, definitely “does not spark joy.”
Magazines have to work with a lot of content and a limited number of pages, and thus can’t afford to be wasteful about spacing. Look through some that you think are well-designed to get a feel for how to lay your objects out on slides (or figures for manuscripts).
All of these tips are orthogonal to preparing the content of your presentation, but they can help you deliver a talk smoothly and leave exactly the impression you want to leave. That said, I don’t always abide by these tips for the sake of time, but I usually wish I did afterward. By paying a little bit of extra attention to slide design, you can use the same methods that marketing professionals use to sell their products, package your ideas like a brand, and make them stick with your audience once you’re done.
 Weinschenk, S., 2011. 100 things every designer needs to know about people. Pearson Education.