PowerPoint Secrets – Alignment

ariGraphic designers know that alignment helps to unify and organize design elements. Aligned elements are perceived to be connected or related because the eye tends to see imaginary lines between them.

Alignment is also important in constructing PowerPoint objects from simple shapes; the target below is made of a number of circles center-aligned using drawing guides:


You can try to align objects by eye, but PowerPoint provides several methods to automatically align objects.

This post treats alignment of objects, including text boxes.  Aligning text itself is another subject.

If you don’t want all the bloody detail on this subject, see the last section for my recommendations.

The Grid

When enabled, the PowerPoint grid provides an array of vertical and horizontal (usually invisible) lines; objects will “snap to” the points of intersection, allowing you to position and align objects easily.

To set the grid parameters, right click somewhere on the slide (not on an object) and select Grid and Guides. Here’re the settings I usually use:


The Snap objects to grid option is set and the grid Spacing is .042 inches (3 points). For me, this value provides flexibility while retaining a useful “snap,” although I sometimes increase the spacing. You may like a different number.

To get a feel for the snap action, set the spacing temporarily to 0.5 inches and experiment by drawing, moving and editing a few objects. At this grid spacing, the snap action is exaggerated and obvious.

You can always override the snap by holding down the Alt key while performing the operation. For some reason, you have to use the Ctrl key to override the snap when you “nudge” (using the keyboard arrow keys). Override the snap when it gets in the way of your drawing intent.

Displaying the grid is helpful for me; you may not agree. I also like to display the drawing guides (see below).

The snap action works when creating, positioning, sizing and editing shapes and lines and in cropping images. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to help in drawing Freeform objects. However, it helps when editing points of freeforms. You can easily get horizontal and vertical lines, and right angles using the grid:


Although animation Motion Paths are a lot like freeforms, the grid doesn’t seem to help in drawing or editing the paths.

The grid snap action does not help with rotations; however, you can set a rotation exactly by using the Size and Position pane.

Drawing Guides

I find Drawing Guides to be very useful.  You can create horizontal and vertical drawing guides to help you lay out your slides and position, align and resize objects.  For example, you can align text and images by setting up a few guides:


You can also use guides to align shapes in the construction of groups like the target above and this clock face (from an earlier post); here, guides are used to center the elements and to align the numerals:

hand 2

Here are the details for using guides:

  • Right click on the slide, select Grid and Guides, and check Display drawing guides. If you haven’t set up guides earlier, a horizontal and a vertical guide will appear at the zero (center) locations on the slide.
  • You can move the guides by clicking and dragging. Grid snap will apply (if it has been enabled); you can override the snap by holding down the Alt key.
  • Create additional guides by holding down Ctrl as you click and drag.
  • Delete a guide by dragging it to the left (or top) edge of the slide. You can’t delete the last two guides.
  • In PowerPoint 2007, one guide set up applies to every slide. PowerPoint 2013 allows guide setups to be associated with Layouts so that you can define several guide setups in a presentation or template.
  • The location of each guide relative to the center zero is displayed when it is moved. You can use this, along with grid snap, to set up symmetric guides or guides with measured spacing.

Alignment Tools

To use an alignment tool, select the object(s) to be aligned and click on the appropriate tool:alignThe Alignment tools work this way: for Align Left, the selected objects are aligned to the left boundary of the leftmost selected object. For Align Top, the objects are aligned to the topmost object, and so forth, Here’s the result of Align Left and Align Top (the “target” objects are red):

align 4Some drawing/design software allows you to select an object to which the other objects are aligned; PowerPoint doesn’t work this way.

For Align Center, the objects are aligned to a computed line (the “center of gravity” of the group) as shown here:

align 5

Align Middle works similarly.

The Distribution tools adjust the position of the selected objects so that the horizontal or vertical space “between” the objects is equal. The overall extent of the set of objects is preserved. Only one dimension at a time is affected.

Here’s how horizontal/vertical distribution affects an array of objects:

align 2

Only the horizontal spacing (green lines) is changed by horizontal distribution and ditto for the vertical operation (red lines).

Smart Guides (added 7/2015)

Beginning (I think) with PowerPoint 2013, a feature called Smart Guides was introduced as an additional alignment tool. When enabled, Smart Guides suggests alignments and spacing for a selected object based on other objects on the slide. As the selected object is moved, red dotted lines appear showing candidate alignments and red arrows and dotted lines show candidate spacings. By stopping the movement at the appropriate location, you can align (top/bottom, right/left or center) with other objects on the slide and/or select a spacing (horizontal or vertical) that exists between a pair of objects.

This is difficult to describe; I suggest you enable Smart Guides and try some experiments.

I have tried Smart Guides experimentally and with some real projects; these are my reactions:

  • For all but the simplest slides, too many candidates appear, most of which are not applicable. This makes it difficult to find and select the alignment or spacing you are looking for.
  • Sharp eyes and a steady hand are called for to position the object at the desired alignments or spacing; the object does not “snap” to the candidate positions. Even small movements cause candidates to appear and disappear. A coarse Grid might help this.

I find this tool difficult and prefer the other tools, even though a little more planning is required. You should try it out and draw your own conclusions.

Some Unexpected Results

As usual, some applications of these tools and techniques produce “unexpected” results. In the case of alignment tools, most of these can be explained by the idea of a “bounding box.” Every PowerPoint object has a bounding box; it is displayed when the object is selected. Here are a few examples:


PowerPoint uses bounding boxes when alignment is applied. Here’s an example:


At the top is a row of equally sized circles; some of these have been rotated as you can see by the gradient fill. The second row shows the circles after an align-to-top operation. What’s wrong?

The bottom row shows what happens: the bounding boxes are aligned but, since the objects have been rotated, the circles themselves are not aligned. (Center alignment works fine.)  Distribution may also be affected by rotation since the space “between” objects is determined by the bounding boxes.

Some objects have bounding boxes that you may not expect.  Here’re some examples, along with a circle for comparison:

align 3

The top row is aligned on “middle” and horizontally distributed; the bottom row shows the bounding boxes and how they affect the alignment and distribution.

For a group, the visible bounding box is slightly larger than the actual bounding box. If a group contains a rotated object, the visible bounding box is, well, uninformative with respect to alignment. Here’re some examples, aligned and distributed:


The first example shows that the group is aligned “properly” rather than by the visible bounding box. The other examples include rotated objects; again, the alignment is “correct” but doesn’t have much to do with the visible bounding box.

Here are the same examples middle-aligned; the alignment is correct but the bounding boxes are misleading:

group 2

More Snaps

You may have noticed that I skipped a couple of options in the preceding:  Align to Slide and Snap objects to other objects.

Align to Slide/Align Selected Objects are fairly mysterious options in the Align pane. Here’s how they work:

  • If you have a single object selected, the Align to Slide option is automatically checked and the Align Selected Objects is grayed out.  This means that, if you select a single object and an alignment tool (e.g., Align Center), the object will be aligned to the vertical center line of the slide.   Other tools align to the horizontal center line or the edges of the slide.
  • If you have more than one object selected, you have a choice to align the objects or to also align the objects to the slide. Here’s an example of an original slide and the options:


The Snap objects to other objects option appears in the Grid and Guides box. This option is convenient when making objects from groups of shapes and may be familiar if you have used CAD software.  The PowerPoint version works like this:

  • Objects will snap to other objects at points on their boundaries that are also grid points (even if Snap to grid is turned off).  In the example below, I have added red dots at the contact points:


  • When an object is rotated, the bounding box is the point of contact; in some cases, this is not the object boundary:

snap 2

  • An object can snap to an object in a group:

snap 3

  • For some objects, the bounding box is not the boundary; objects will snap to the bounding box in this case:

snap 4


This post has become more complicated than I expected. And, maybe you don’t need all these options.

Here’s a simple approach to alignment that allows you to do everything that can be done with the other tools and options:

  • Turn on Snap to grid and set the spacing to a small increment but large enough that you can “feel” it.
  • Turn on Show drawing guides.
  • Make multiple drawing guides as needed.
  • Use drawing guides and the grid to position, size, align and distribute everything. If objects are sized according to the grid, things will line up easily and naturally.
  • Use the Alt key (Ctrl with nudges) to override the grid/guides when you really need to.
  • Occasionally, it will be convenient to use an alignment or distribution tool.
  • Understand the issues about rotations and objects that don’t fit their bounding boxes.

If you have a question or comment about this post, use the form below:

4 Responses to “PowerPoint Secrets – Alignment”

  1. 1 Ronen September 13, 2013 at 10:54 am

    thank you
    I have two puzzle pieces (as 3d objects) and I want to put the pieces together. when I alighn them closer they overlap but always one stays over the other. the “tounge of the piece is over or under the adjacent piece)
    Is there anywhere information about alighning 3d pieces with different areas of overlapping between them?

  2. 2 pptcrafter September 13, 2013 at 11:33 am

    It may help if you hold the Alt key down while you move the object – this overrides the “snap” so that you can move the object in very small increments. It may also be that the edges of the pieces don’t exactly match.

  3. 3 pptcrafter December 23, 2013 at 11:04 am

    The overlap problem noted by Ronen occurred because the puzzle pieces had 3d depth applied. The workaround was to remove the depth.
    If you use 3d, you can be assured that other PowerPoint features and operations will not work as you would like. 3d seems to have been added to PowerPoint with NO ATTEMPT to integrate it with other features.

  1. 1 PowerPoint Secrets: 5 Power Tips | powerpointy Trackback on November 14, 2013 at 1:57 pm

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