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I enjoy creating presentations a lot and I think I have an eye for nice design, however, I tend to always have the same layout/colour scheme/etc. and I'd like to try something new for my defence.

So I've been googling great presentations for hours, and there are heaps of innovative designs but usually these are from outside academia. I still want to convey information in a serious manner. But when looking at websites that intend to give advice for scientific presentations I find the examples horrible and very much 1990s (bullet points...)

So, in short, can you think of any scientific presentations with unpretentious but great design, which can be found somewhere online?

Edit Thank you for your comments, which definitely include heaps of helpful advice, however, I was less looking for "basic" presentation guidelines but more for design elements, which do not distract the audience but which make the presentation a bit more interesting. For instance, a colleague of mine recently gave a presentation and before each section she'd have a slide with just the title of the section and a photo (e.g. "Methods" and a picture of her lab equipment). I liked that because it structures the presentation and is a nice break from charts, diagrams and (in the worst case) bullet points. So, yes, I am really more looking for inspiration on fonts, colours, using white space, ...

  • You're using LaTeX with beamer, right? ;-) – David Z Nov 26 '13 at 19:43
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    Is that a trick question? Unfortunately my skills are limited to PowerPoint.. – user34927 Nov 26 '13 at 19:49
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    No, not a trick question... LaTeX and beamer are widely used in many academic disciplines precisely because of their unparalleled ability to produce clean, serious yet visually compelling layouts, and to make it easy. Anyway, if you're limited to things that can be done in PowerPoint you should definitely specify that in the question, otherwise you'll probably get a lot of answers pointing you to beamer templates. – David Z Nov 26 '13 at 19:53
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    @DavidZ I don't think “something new” is going to be found in a beamer theme… we always see the same ones! – F'x Nov 26 '13 at 20:48
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There are two aspects to your question, in my opinion: design and function.

Function. Many have criticized PowerPoint and bullet points and perhaps none so much as Edward Tufte in his essay booklet The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within. The defaults of PowerPoint and reliance on bullet points is interesting and "forces" users into a particular form of presentation where bullets are more reminders for the speaker than the audience. From this background an alternative is to use the so-called Assertion-Evidence Structure which takes a very different approach to building slides.

In the Assertion-Evidence Structure the heading of the slide is the main point of the slide, a take-home message. The slides use graphics extensively to support and high-light the main point. The structure has been shown to yield significant improvements in both audience understanding than normal bullet-point presentations. Se the linked example of the structure.

The Assertion-Evidence slides are not necessarily pretty but they do the job very well so that brings me to the second issue.

Design. When you look at designing slides it is probably easier to list the don'ts than the do's. In general, anything "fancy" easily becomes boring when overdone. Therefore simple is better. I would also add that subtle is better. Do not use strong colours and avoid backgrounds that can clash with the text, either structurally or in terms of colour, after all you want your message to shine.

So design anything with a principle to do as much as possible with as little as possible and you should be on a good road. I think referring back to Edward Tufte is useful also here.

So taken together, it is not clear what is a well designed presentation depending on whether you are looking at aesthetic impact or factual impact.

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I've tried following a number of design presentation guidelines (Presentation Zen being one of them).

In the end, I've found that the real focus of presentation design needs to focus first on your story (and therefore your content) and less on the visual aspects of your presentation. One colleague of mine read a lot of presentation books and then tried to do a presentation filled predominantly with large photographs (as recommended by one of them) and minimal text. A faculty member complained that he couldn't follow the talk because there were too few words. I've seen slides that are dull and boring that are accompanied by fascinating speakers. I've seen talks with boring slides and really amateurish graphics that are good talks (the amateurish graphics were actually interesting in that they made the presentation stand out).

I think my main message here is that we could throw examples of good scientific presentations with good visual design at you all you like but they won't necessarily improve your presentation. If you already knew that, then that's excellent - you're probably just looking for something minor then, like a new type of bullet or an interesting color scheme. But if you're hoping that "using more animated builds" to explain complex topics and adding "more punchy pictures" will help, that's not a sufficient condition!

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If you are tired of the slide-by-slide format of PowerPoint, you can have a look at dynamic presentations with Prezi or Impress.js. These two tools can introduce you to a whole new way of creating presentations but using them must always be motivated by good reasons. Because PowerPoint follows a linear path in the presentation, it is easy to do the same with Prezi and Impress.js while they can afford for a higher level of interaction between each slide.

Last but not least, some people have motion sickness and using too many effects might annoy them.

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Butterick’s Practical Typography has some great tips for making more readable presentations that don't look like typical PowerPoint ones.

Don't use a white background. High contrast slides can be very exhausting, especially if your presentation is given in a darkened room. In that case, consider a black background with light grey text. Even in bright rooms, using a light grey background with dark grey text reduces eye strain.

Use a consistent font size. Most presentation programs will automatically adjust the font size based on the text, which just looks messy. It's better to adjust your text so that it displays nicely at your font size.

Limit the use of color. Use color sparingly to emphasize or set apart certain elements. A lot of color quickly distracts from the content, and when every­thing is em­pha­sized, noth­ing is emphasized.


Other than that, I have seen some really good hand-drawn presentations. They have a feeling of authenticity that you can't get from PowerPoint. I've seen two versions of this: using note-taking software, or simply a sequence of photographs of a stack of hand-written sheets of paper. The note-taking software can make it much easier to do certain animations, as you can draw on the slides during your talk.

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I personally like the books from Nancy Duarte, "slide:ology" is about design and how to express certain concepts (Flow, Structure etc.) while "resonate" is about structuring the story.

Clearly these books can't be applied to Science directly, there is nothing about setting formulas etc, but they provide good directions and give inspirations on what to think about.

Beside this I would not focus that much on the whole presentation, but on special components, like "How to visualize Information/Data", typography or design in general. There are a lot of websites and books on these things.

Finally on real examples: There are tons of presentations on ted.com. In my opinion Hans Rosling is an interesting speaker, his talk "Global population growth, box by box" is a example of a presentation which combines powerpoint and real things. Brian Cox is also worth mentioning.

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