Creating universal icons; Issue #249 November 22, 2011

PowerPoint Tip: Creating universal icons

When creating visuals, it can be helpful to sometimes use icons to represent items generically, such as people, cars, or objects. You could purchase vector icons from a site like, but you can usually create your own custom icon using the drawing tools in PowerPoint. PowerPoint MVP Sandy Johnson did a session at the recent Presentation Summit demonstrating some of the new techniques in PowerPoint 2010. In today’s article, I’ll focus on the techniques you can use in PowerPoint 2007, since that is the version most people are using today.

Why might you want to use a universal icon? I have used them in proportional diagrams, tables, or when I want to represent an idea, but don't want the complexity of a photo to distract the audience from a simple point. Here is an example of one of my slide makeovers that used a universal icon: watch video on YouTube here.

The first step is to design the icon you want to create. I suggest keeping it simple, because it will make it easier to create. Try to come up with a design that is a combination of common shapes, such as rectangles, triangles, and ovals. If it helps you to sketch what you are trying to create, go ahead and grab your pencil and paper.

Once you have the idea in a more concrete form, it is time to start creating it. Start with the largest shape. One tip for drawing shapes is how to draw a perfectly proportional shape, such as a perfect square or a perfect circle. After you select the appropriate drawing tool, hold the Shift key down before you start drawing. The shape will stay equally proportional, creating a perfect square or circle.

Draw each of the shapes that you need. It usually works best to not have any outline on the shape so when you place them on top of each other it looks seamless. If you need to align shapes, use the tool built in to PowerPoint. You can align multiple shapes to all line up at the top, bottom, left, or right edges. Start by positioning one shape at the edge you want all the shapes to line up with. Then select all the shapes by clicking on the first shape and holding the Control key down as you click on the other shapes. Under the Arrange ribbon button on the Home tab, you can select the type of alignment that you want. All of the shapes will now be perfectly aligned to that edge.

If you need to create a shape that does not exist in PowerPoint, you might be able to create it using a subtraction technique. In PowerPoint 2010 they have more shape subtraction features, but there is a way you could do this in PowerPoint 2007 as well. Since every object on a slide is on its own layer, you can place a shape on top of an existing shape. If you set the new shape to have no outline and a fill color of the slide background, it makes it look like part of the underlying shape has disappeared.

Once you have your icon created, you can group all the shapes to make it easier to copy and reuse this icon. If you want to select all the shapes in one area of the slide, you can draw a rectangle with your cursor around the shapes and PowerPoint will select all of them. Now you can use the Group command under the Arrange ribbon button to combine all the shapes in to a single icon shape you can easily reuse.

In the video I linked to earlier, I used these techniques to create a generic person icon by using a circle for the head, rectangle for the body, and rounded rectangles for the arms and shoulders. Once I have it created, I can use it over and over again. These drawing techniques are also used in creating your own diagrams, which is the topic of the webinar I’ll be delivering this afternoon. If you’d like to join us or get the recording, click here.