Adventures in PowerPoint – Not-so-SmartArt


Office 2007 introduced a feature called “SmartArt;” Microsoft said:

“Most content that is created by using 2007 Microsoft Office system programs is textual, even though the use of illustrations improves understanding and memory and encourages action. Creating designer-quality illustrations can be challenging… With … SmartArt graphics… you can create designer-quality illustrations with only a few clicks of your mouse.”

This seems like a really good idea – help users employ graphics to improve clarity, add interest and avoid text-heavy slides. However, SmartArt can be frustrating and usually requires more than a few clicks. This post will explore some of these frustrations and provide a set of guidelines for relatively painless SmartArt. (If you don’t want the bloody detail, you can skip ahead to the guidelines at the end of this post.)

This post was inspired by a post at However, that post identifies picture-filling as an issue with SmartArt while it is, in fact, a broader issue; I may write a separate post on this subject. By the way, offers SmartArt templates as well as other PowerPoint products.

SmartArt provides a set of graphical models (“layouts”) categorized as processes, cycles, hierarchies, etc. You choose a model and provide a bullet list that will be used to organize and populate your graphic. You can acquire additional layouts online, free and for sale. (SmartArt tutorials are widely available – that’s not my purpose here.)

In many cases, you may decide that none of the available graphics will improve your message. Simply choosing an attractive graphic is a mistake; SmartArt should actually add clarity to the slide.

Using SmartArt to simply replace bullets is not a good idea.  Here are some examples of the 40 layouts in the “list category:”


It’s not clear to me that any of these options add anything other than decoration to the list.

A project description should be a better example for SmartArt:


A “process” layout should improve the slide; here’s the result of choosing the Circle Accent Timeline layout:


The graphic is obviously too small and the text illegible. Apparently, the size of the graphic is determined by the size of the source text box. It would be better to base the graphic on the source font sizes.

I can enlarge the graphic using corner handle:


This helps but the second level text is too small. I can change the font size by selecting the text and applying the usual tools:


Now I would prefer that the “Final System Test” text box is unwrapped and not colliding with other parts of the graphic.  I would normally set the Text Box option but I find it is “grayed out” (not available), along with other options. By the way, Bullets, Numbers, Increase/Decrease Indent, Columns and all of the alignment tools are not available with SmartArt text. Hmm.

So, I stretch the “Final System Test” text box using one of the handles (indicated by the red arrow):

sched4Oops. Not only did the stretch go the wrong way, but there are now side effects (“Procure” and “Sign off”). Trying to stretch in the other direction is even more disruptive:


At this point I’ve had enough; I’ll convert the SmartArt to shapes and text (Ungroup or SmartArt Tools/Convert/Convert to Shapes) and quickly fix this slide with the usual predictable and unrestricted tools.

Next, I tried a simpler model for the project schedule. I selected Basic Process and adjusted the overall graphic size and the font sizes:


This seems to be a pretty stable layout; I can move and adjust objects without side effects. However, I am stuck with the black circle bullets on the second level items (bullet tools are disabled). So, I can’t use bullets that match my theme or delete them altogether. I can fix this, of course, by ungrouping the SmartArt graphic.

Also, although the boxes look like Rounded Rectangles, they aren’t; they lack the adjustment handle. Most of the shapes created by SmartArt are not what they  look like. Ungrouping does not solve this; however, it is simple enough to Change Shape to get an adjustable shape.

Next I tried another (appropriate) model – the Basic Chevron Process. This is what it looks like after resizing and adjusting text sizes (again, the chevrons don’t have an adjustment handle):


After moving some objects and gingerly adjusting the chevron heights, I got to this reasonable layout:


Even though alignment tools are disabled, Drawing Guides will work for elements of SmartArt layouts.

It is possible to get into trouble with this (and most) layouts. I don’t remember how I got to this result:


It is a really good idea to reveal these kinds of graphics step by step (progressive disclosure). SmartArt supports two useful animation orders: “by level” (horizontal) and the usual order (vertical). (See any of the dozens of SmartArt tutorials available for details). Here’s a demonstration:

SmartArt animations are created in the Animation Pane and can be freely edited. Only a few text-oriented Emphasis effects are unavailable.

Here’s the bad news: animations are lost if you ungroup the layout. Since I suspect you will be ungrouping most SmartArt, this is a cruel choice by the PowerPoint designers.

Overall, I would recommend that you use SmartArt as a source of ideas for meaningful graphics and use SmartArt to create a “draft” version. Then ungroup and edit the graphic elements to get your final result. Here are some more specific guidelines:

  • Avoid layouts that simply “decorate” your slide; use a layout that actually improves clarity.
  • You will most likely edit the SmartArt to get legible text and clean layouts. If you begin to get unexpected results, don’t waste time and energy; convert (ungroup) the graphic and fix it.

I think there is about a 90% chance that you will end up ungrouping the graphic.

  • Use animation to progressively reveal the graphic. Since you will probably abandon SmartArt and lose animations, don’t waste time with animating within SmartArt.
  • From point of view of design and clarity, avoid the elaborate “styles” (3d effects, for example) and random color choices offered “at a single click” by SmartArt. Keep it simple.

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