Typography for Presentations – Basics I

This is the first in a planned series of posts on text in presentations.  Rationale for the series and some font options are covered.

Typography originated as the art and technique of printing with movable type.  It’s about the design and use of type to make text legible and visually attractive.  Typography is concerned with typefaces, font sizes and attributes as well as page layout.

So what?  Good presentations are supposed to use very little text so why do I care? Here’s my rationale:

  1. Since you’re using less text, the appearance of that text is important.
  2. There are applications of PowerPoint where a presenter is not involved; these products are intended to be read and naturally use more text.
  3. The reality of preparing business presentations for others (my job) is that more text is used than the experts recommend for “ballroom” presentations.
  4. Finally, I’ll at least make you familiar with typographic options in PowerPoint so that you can escape the defaults.

Typography is traditionally about print; but obviously, the presentation designer also deals with legibility, readability and the layout of text.  On the other hand, there are some different concerns.

Good presentation design does not involve large continuous blocks of text like book pages. Paragraph layout and even sentence punctuation are rarely a concern. Text is used in short blocks, usually in combination with images, diagrams or as labels.  “Display typography,” used for signs and ads, is probably closer to presentation usage than traditional typography.

Before I look at some details, I should point out that I am not an expert in typography. Also, I will use PowerPoint terminology which is not consistent with traditional typography.

Text Usage

In presentations text is sometimes augmented to add to the meaning conveyed by the text. Examples include using currency green to color the word “money” or to animating the word “grow” so that the word stretches upward. Otherwise, text is what it is – the meaning is conveyed by the words themselves with little decoration, like conventional text.

This post will concentrate on the “simple” style, leaving “augmented” text for later.


Font choice is a great opportunity for abuse by PowerPoint users – unfortunately, there are so many “cool” fonts to choose from.

Here are a few guidelines:

  • Fonts have feelings.  We have learned to associate certain typefaces with certain emotional connotations.  You can change the impact of text by using one of these fonts carelessly, as in these examples :

For business presentations, it’s usually advisable to use neutral fonts for “simple” text.

  • Avoid the circus poster/ransom note syndrome – using several fonts is distracting, as are random text color and effects. In print, several fonts may be used to distinguish headings, captions, etc., but this is usually not necessary in presentations.
  • There is no agreement on serif versus sans serif fonts.  For years, I believed the common lore that serif fonts are more legible; it turns out that there is no conclusive research on the issue. See this post for an excellent review of the subject. Business users seem to expect sans serif fonts in presentations, believing them to be “clean” and modern. There is no value in disappointing this expectation.

In short, use a single, neutral, sans serif font.

Embedding Fonts

Embedding a font allows you to successfully distribute your presentation to others who may not have that font installed. If you don’t embed the font, PowerPoint will use a substitute; this can change layouts and cause other problems.

So, embedding sounds like a good idea, right? Unfortunately there are a number lf “gotchas” associated with embedding, mostly because fonts are licensed software and there are PowerPoint issues.

All this is complicated but very important  if you prepare presentations for others.  You must read this excellent explanation of embedding on the pptfaq website.

You can avoid some of these problems by sticking to fonts that are likely to be installed on your clients PC (i.e., fonts installed automatically with Office.)  There is information here.

Converting an object containing an “odd” font to an image (e.g., png) will make it portable but, of course, not editable.

Font Size

Probably the most critical aspect of a presentation is simple legibility. If the text cannot be read in the presentation situation, what, pray tell, is the point other than irritating the audience? I am continually surprised by the failure of presenters to recognize this issue.

Font size, along with contrast, determines legibility. Usually, I work with a minimum font size of 18 points.  This seems to be the lower limit on size in the usual conference room situation with a projector where the projected image is 5 or 6 feet wide. Recently, companies have started to use 40-50 inch flatscreen monitors in conference rooms; this obviously demands a larger minimum. Also, kindly remember that some members of the audience may not have perfect 20/20 vision.

If you have problems using a large font size, you have too much text. Do your audience the favor of fixing that rather than reducing the font size.

Some writers demand a larger minimum – 30 points in the case of Guy Kawasaki’s 10-20-30 rule. This is as much a cry for brevity as it is legibility by a person who sees thousands of investor pitches each year.

PowerPoint applications including “kiosk” or web videos are intended to be read by a single user on a desktop or laptop screen. Obviously, smaller fonts (and more text) are appropriate here.

Please learn to consider text legibility when you display a spreadsheet, a chart or graph, or a screenshot. There is no excuse for disrespecting your audience with illegible material.

This series continues with the next post, which will cover emphasizing words or phrases , some text effects and kerning and spacing.

1 Response to “Typography for Presentations – Basics I”

  1. 1 Warning! Defective “Template!” « powerpointy Trackback on December 19, 2012 at 1:17 pm

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