Design visuals vs. Content visuals; Issue #279 February 5, 2013

Some presenters think that adding visuals, especially pictures, will instantly improve their slides. I agree that visuals can improve your slides, but only if those visuals help communicate your message more effectively. In this article I want to discuss the difference between design visuals and content visuals.

Let me start by defining each of these terms. A design visual is used to improve the appearance of the slide, and doesn’t really add to the point the presenter is making. A design visual is usually a photo or a graphic element. A content visual is one that helps the audience understand the point you are making and includes more that just photos or graphic images.

When I was recently reviewing a set of slides for a client, my feedback was that they had used design visuals instead of content visuals. They had used pictures, but those photos were not related to the points being made. For example, they were talking about partnering with customers and they used a photo of a chess board. The image of a game that has a clear winner and a loser doesn't support the message of partnering together for mutual benefit, and may end up confusing the audience. If they had used a photo of two people helping each other scale a mountain, it would convey working together to reach a mutually beneficial goal.

Content visuals could be photos, but presenters who use content visuals can choose from a variety of visuals that make their message more impactful. If they want to show trends or measured values, they might use a graph. If they want to show relationships or processes, they might use a diagram. For a testimonial, they might use a video clip. Using content visuals is more effective than using design visuals. You don’t need to be a graphic designer to create a content visual. You can easily use the tools in PowerPoint to create graphs, diagrams, and other visuals. I have a number of PowerPoint tutorials on my site here that show how to create a number of visuals using PowerPoint.

I am not suggesting you stop using photos, because photos can be very effective if the photo reinforces your message. I am suggesting you be very deliberate in choosing visuals for your slides. Don’t limit yourself to photos, use a broader selection of visuals. In my latest book Present It So They Get It, I suggest three strategies for selecting an appropriate visual depending on what point you are trying to make and I show many examples of different visuals you can use on slides.

Don't use a visual just because it makes your slide pretty, use it because it better communicates your message. Choose content visuals over design visuals and your presentation will be more effective.