Monkey Wrenches
October 8, 2020


Today I want to talk to you about how to approach design you’re creating something for someone else and you hear the direct or implied words: “I don’t like it.”

What do I mean by, “I don’t like it!”? I’m speaking from the perspective of your presenter or that project manager who is the gatekeeper between the two of you. When either of them express dislike for slides, that dislike can come in two flavors:

  • Either they don’t like the slides they’ve brought to you or
  • they don’t like the slides after you worked your magic on them or
  • both.

Let’s address both situations, talk about some preventative measures for the former and persuasive techniques for the latter.

Sources of slide angst

Let’s talk about the WHY of the dislike. Where does it come from? Slide angst can be rooted in several things:

  • Not knowing how to communicate a point
  • Not knowing how to use the program
  • Not having enough time to think a concept through
  • They used someone else’s slides
  • They want to use their slides as a teleprompter
  • They think the audience needs ALL THE THINGS


Ok, before we get started on those bad slides, there are two things we need to do first. One: it’s important that you know how the deck is being presented.

  • Is it a slidedoc?
  • Is it a webinar where everyone will be sitting 12 inches from their screens?
  • Is it in a meeting room with a crappy projector and lots of windows?
  • Or is it on the main stage at a conference?

How the deck will be presented will inform how the slides will be made over.

Set expectations

Two, you need to set expectations about the outcomes you can produce within the given timeframe. Estimating how much time a project will take is probably the thing I am the worst at. So I made a checklist I run through with the presenter that lists out what work will be done depending on the deadline. I know this is small. Right now, I just want to show you how much work I do at each level. I’ve added a link to a pdf of this table to this page so you can download it. Take it, revise it to your will, and keep it handy.

The list (available for download below) is divided up into 3 types of deadlines: looming in red, upcoming in yellow, and distant in green. Note that more than 50% of the red column is about only making things on the slide consistent & accessible.

One slide, three ways

Ok, we have 3 kinds of deadlines and different amounts of work that can be done for each one. Let’s use one slide and make it over in 3 different ways according to those deadlines. Assume that you’re working an 8 day today. You have 2 hours of mandatory meetings to attend, some admin work to do, and a bunch of decks from various stakeholders to get done. And then you get an email from your boss asking you to update this slide for the presentation they’re giving in XYZ conference room.

“When do you need it?”

“In an hour” is the answer.

And this is the slide.

1-hour makeover edit list

  • Reset slide layout
  • Got rid of that clip art
  • Simplified the callout shape
  • Added space between bullets
  • Made text sizes consistent
  • Removed bold from almost everything
  • Removed underlined text, made bold instead
  • Made indentations consistent
  • Removed .PNG checkmarks, changed bullets to actual checkmarks
  • Changed colors used to be readable/accessible (you’ll hear me say this a lot)… still within brand palette.

This is as far as I will take a slide makeover when given no time to do it in. At this point, I honestly don’t care one little bit about the content. I haven’t been given enough time to care.

2-day makeover

Ok. Let’s expand the deadline. Say I was given until the day after tomorrow to fix this up. Same workload. In that case, I would have cleaned up to this point, duplicated the slide to save one as an option, and continued playing. Additional edits include:

  • more white space to reduce cognitive load
  • title reworded
  • chunked out months
  • made a visual indicator of where we are in the process

2-week makeover

We kept the last version, the yellow deadline version, as option one and ditched the red deadline version. (As in, I saved it separately and won’t show it to the presenter unless they are ADAMANT that I show them something more akin to what they gave me.)

We visually formatted as a timeline and color coded the chunks of time so that you can easily understand the differences in duration. Then we added a little animation.

Give options

Remember to give options when you can. Especially for reticent presenters. Show them what they asked for and then show them what COULD be. Also, show options when you notice that the information can be interpreted several ways if you have no way of talking to the presenter directly. (Sometimes the presenter is too close to the info and may not even realize that there’s another way to interpret the info.) Then make a printout like this with 3 versions of the same slide under various deadlines and use it to set expectations for future projects.

Reviewing with the presenter

Ok, now comes the moment to send off your hard work to the presenter. This is when “I don’t like it” can mean they don’t like your changes. And this is also when you might have to sell your recommendations.

Well-designed slides and copy DO help the audience quickly understand the information being spoken to. Well-designed slides and copy DO NOT:

  • overwhelm the audiences with too much information
  • distract the audience from what is being said
  • cause physical discomfort to those looking at or reading it

Universal design & accessibility

When working with people who are resisting well-thought-out makeovers, it’s important to walk them through the whys behind the changes they aren’t too happy about. Some of us design on instinct and gut feeling, some of us methodically apply design principles, some of meticulously apply universal design standards to accommodate people with disabilities.

No matter which category you fall under, it’s important to have some guidelines and best practices documented to fall back on when having these kinds of discussions with your presenter.

I’ve mentioned accessibility a couple of times so far, but what does that mean for our presentation design and how can it help us win our presenters over with regards to the hard work we’ve done?
Accessible or universal design means making an experience just as good for those with disabilities as for those without. And disability comes in many flavors:

  • permanent disabilities like colorblindness
  • temporary disabilities such as cataracts & broken arms
  • situational ones such as screen glare or a horrible internet connection

Anyone can experience a disability when the design, environment, attitude, or social structure excludes them from participating or understanding. By making a presentation work for the extreme cases makes the experience better overall for everyone. We call this universal design. Legal departments likes to call it “avoiding lawsuits.” How many of you design with accessibility in mind now?

Let’s see how this ties into our slide makeovers.

Vision-based impairments

Affects those with:

  • Blindness
  • Colorblindness
  • Aging eyes
  • Screen glare

Design considerations:

  • Is the body copy size at least 16pt?
  • Is the color contrast between text and background high enough?
  • Is the color contrast on all parts of the presentation high enough?
  • Are you making use of Alt Text on icons and images for compatibility with screen readers?
  • (or marking them as decorative to reduce the noise?)

Text size & readability

If your presentation is going to be given in a room on a screen, and your presenter insists on a slide of solid text, send them this slide. Have them stand in the back of the room and do a vision test. What is the smallest size they can read? How is their vision compared to everyone in the room? And if they have to have a wall of text up on screen to appease the Compliance gods… then, hopefully, the presenter will be ready to crack a joke about what the audience is seeing.

Comprehension- & reading-based impairments

Affects those with:

  • ADHD
  • Dyslexia
  • Irlen Syndrome
  • Advanced age
  • Cognitive impairments
  • Language barriers
  • Hasn’t slept well
  • Distracted by children

Design considerations:

  • Is the text to background contrast too high?
  • Are we impeding readability by centering large blocks of text?
  • Do we have enough white space in our text styles?
  • Are you using placeholders as much as possible to support screen readers?
  • AYUTMA? (are you using too many acronyms?)

Hearing-based impairments

Affects those with:

  • Deaf
  • Hard of hearing
  • Noisy environment
  • Small, needy children

Design considerations:

  • Do we make use of captioning in our presentations?
  • Do we offer transcripts of any video and audio content?

Technology impairments

Affects those with:

  • Poor hardware quality
  • Outdated software version
  • Poor internet connectivity

Design considerations:

  • Are our animations too complex to run smoothly over poor internet connections?
  • Are you moving through slides too quickly for poorer connectivity when presenting online?


So there you have it. One slide, 3 ways depending on how much time you’re given. Each option is rooted in universal design which delivers a set of best practices that are, in some ways, easier for The Business to understand and agree to when it comes to your design changes.

When it comes down to it, just remember that you and the presenter are on the same side. You want the audience to connect with the information being presented. Have empathy & be kind.