Background Checks

Is your presentation dull and uninteresting? How about a spiffy new slide background? They’re available from hundreds of sources on the web (including Microsoft) and are sometimes free. Or you can hire a designer to build a custom background, using your corporate “look and feel.”

Will this save your presentation? Is this even a good idea? I don’t think so.

Here’s what’s wrong with typical commercially available or “custom” backgrounds (I have collected some examples below):

  • Irrelevant and/or distracting graphics – If the graphics don’t contribute to your message, they become noise and degrade your message.

Commercial backgrounds have to be fairly generic; this leads to clichés like pictures of money for financial applications, images from nature (clouds, waterfalls, etc.) or abstract geometric objects (spheres, “swoops,” etc.). Although these may be attractive, they don’t add anything to your message. And remember, these will appear on nearly every slide and can quickly become boring.

Even background graphics that are relevant to your business (e.g., trucks for a transportation business) quickly become noise through repetition.

  • Clutter – Obtrusive graphics can make it difficult to add slide content (your message!) without contrast or color problems. It is often difficult to make your slide content clear against the space occupied by a colorful background graphic. Typically 15% and up to as much as 60% of the available slide space is obscured in this way.

This problem may force you to make your content smaller and less legible to your audience – a bad thing.

  • Color conflicts – the color(s) of the background will dominate the slides but they may not be consistent with your corporate scheme. However, some commercial backgrounds are available in a range of colors. A custom background should be consistent with your scheme.

I’m purposely using the term “background” which is only part of a “template” or “theme” which include color scheme, fonts and other things as well as the background(s).  Some themes or templates available on the web are not complete and may only provide a couple of master slides.

I think the reason for these problems is that graphic designers are inclined to create “eye-catching” designs as they would for print or web applications; this is clearly NOT what you want for your presentation background. The content of your slides should not be obscured or overpowered by the background.

Of course, you need some unifying elements so that your presentation looks like it was designed and not cobbled together from random bits and pieces. I’ll give you my thoughts on this after I show you a few examples of typical commercial and custom backgrounds.

By the way, the background on a particular slide is determined by: (1) the background on the Master Slide plus any objects on the Master Slide, and (2) the background on the Layout (e.g., Title, Blank) for that slide, plus any objects on that Layout.

(Maybe this deserves another post…)

Examples – Commercial Designs

These examples were, unfortunately, easy to find; they resulted from an hour or so of browsing sites that sell “templates” or offer them free. Typically, you get a title slide design and one or more content slide designs.

For the most part, these backgrounds may include attractive graphics but also demonstrate the problems described above.


This set is offered in a “business” category and features a gear motif which is presumably meant to represent industry; title and content slide layouts are included.

The graphics are attractive but irrelevant (unless you sell gears) and obscure nearly 30% of the slide space on the content slide.  Note also how the blue color dominates the slide – this may not be consistent with your color scheme.

Gears title


This is a similar approach except a more abstract graphic is used; this may be less distracting than the gears – or maybe more boring.  The faded graphic relieves the obstruction slightly but about 20% of the space is still obscured.

Atomic Bomb

This is a particularly bad example; at least two thirds of the space is obscured and the images are irrelevant (unless you’re selling atoms).

Right or Left Bar

This has become a cliché; a graphic forms a vertical bar at the left (or right) margin. If you want your presentation to be quickly forgotten, this is a good way to start.

The image is distracting and more than 20% of the space is obscured.

Top and Bottom

This is also very common – the background consists of a “banner” and sometimes a similar image at the bottom of the slide. The image is probably irrelevant and the design obscures about 25% of the available slide space.

Her Face

There is probably nothing more distracting than an image of a person’s face. In this example, eyes will be drawn to the woman’s face (not your content) until it has appeared a few times – and then it will be boring. The image obscures about 30% of the space.

This is an example of a design that might work well for an ad or a web page – not a background.

Mob Madness

This is a terrifically bad and awful example, even if it’s free; your content has no chance against this background.

Under the Rainbow

This design obscures more than 30% of the space and is ugly, to boot.


This would be very difficult to work with.  Even if you could tolerate the color, the slide space is obscured by distracting graphics.  Also, the medium color value (not light, not dark) makes it difficult to get clear contrasts.

Corporate (Custom) Designs

These have been selected from the web and represent designs custom-made for corporations. The content has been intentionally blurred.


This represents a common approach: a composite image representing operations and attributes of the company (a transportation company), along with the corporate color scheme. The title slide is workable but the content slide is about 15% obscured by a distracting image.


I’ll bet the corporate marketing guys loved this one – it’s aggressive and manly.  What the racing scheme has to do with anything is anyone’s guess; the racing theme is not related to the content. This is an enterprise software company.

The images are distracting and, for the content slide, obscure about 15% of the space.


This is a graphic designer’s masterpiece and a corporate extravaganza.  There are faces and even a butterfly in there!

The content slides are 24-28% obscured.  Multiple content backgrounds are provided to allow a little (but highly restrained) variety.


This is the banner cliché – the banner obscures 14% of the slide (I don’t know what the image in the corner is supposed to be).

Neat and Clean

This is a nice try – very clean, non-distracting appearance.  Unfortunately, only 40% of the slide space is unavailable for content.

Observations and Guidelines

These backgrounds are not going to save a boring, vacuous presentation.  And you shouldn’t want to give up 15-50% of the space available to you to deliver your message (unless you really don’t have anything to say).

Concentrate on your message, how to present it, and design (or have designed) engaging, compelling slides, not backgrounds.  Use consistent color schemes, fonts and graphic styles to achieve unity.

For backgrounds, use a full size gradient (ranging from two relatively close values) with no graphics.  A gradient is not as flat as a solid color but the color variation should be subtle.  Use gray or one of your corporate colors.  Use light or dark values – mid-range values make it difficult to achieve contrast with slide content.

Your company or client will probably insist on including the corporate logo on each slide; put it at the lower right corner to balance the slide title which you put at the upper left.  Make it as small as you can but still legible.  Leave as much space as you can for content – that’s what matters.

The title, content and logo arrangement is suggested by the “Gutenberg diagram;” see Universal Principles of Design, Lidwell, Holden and Butler, Rockport Publishers, 2003.

Use a small slide number for reference, especially during the design, but try to avoid dates, privacy notices and other irrelevant texts on the background or slide master. Here’s an example – a nearly blank slate:

Since your slides will be filled with exciting and engaging images rather than repeated irrelevancies, boredom will be minimized!

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