Today’s article was inspired by a topic that fellow PowerPoint MVP Nolan Haims covered in one of his sessions at the recent Presentation Summit. When he was speaking about using icons, he stressed how vector icons are better than image icons. Today I want to explore this topic in some depth and give you resources to find and use vector icons in your presentations.
Icons are an accepted way to communicate without words. We see icons everywhere today, from signs for the restroom/washroom, to pedestrian traffic signals, to icons on smartphones and websites. Here is an example from a recent workshop where I used icons to make a bullet point slide more meaningful.
Instead of creating icons on your own, which takes artistic talent, it is much easier to use ones that are available from artists who have shared their work under an appropriate license. There are three areas I want to address in this article: what icons you should look for, where to find vector icons, and how to convert common vector formats for use in PowerPoint.
What icons to look for
It seems like icons are icons, but that is not the case. Many icons you see are images, usually PNG images with a transparent background. These images work well if you don’t need to resize them, edit them, or recolor them. If you resize a small image icon, it gets fuzzy, and as an image, you can’t separate the pieces of the icon to make changes. Common image file types include PNG, JPG, TIF, or BMP.
As Nolan pointed out in his session, your preference should be to find vector icons. Vector files do not store information about dots of different colors like image files do, they store information on the lines or shapes that make up the icon you see. These files allow you to resize while maintaining quality because the information in the file allows for drawing the shapes at any size. Because the file contains the information about each shape, you can separate the shapes and edit them. Vector files are far less common than image files. Common vector file formats include EPS, SVG, and EMF.
Where to find vector icons
So where do you find no-cost vector icons that can be used without restrictions? When I say without restrictions, I am referring to a license that does not require you to place attribution text on each slide using an icon, or a license that requires you to share your presentation publicly if you use an icon. Many of the Creative Commons licenses have one or both of these restrictions. Here are three sources I have found.
Source 1: www.iconmonstr.com
This is my first choice for finding vector icons. I usually use the function to browse the collection instead of searching because I find the search doesn’t work all that well. The icons are organized into categories and sub-categories that make finding the right icon from browsing quite quick. When you find an icon you want to use, make sure you select to download the SVG file, not the PNG file. The icons in the example above are all from iconmonstr. Since all of the icons on this site are created by the same person, you get icons that have the same style, which is why they will work well if you use multiple icons on a single slide.
Source 2: www.iconfinder.com
What I like about this site is that it allows you to filter your search results by file type so you can specify vector format, by price to select free price, and by license type to select no link back license. Again, most of the vector formats here are SVG.
Source 3: www.icomoon.io/app
This site has a smaller collection of free vector icons that can be downloaded in SVG format. You select the icons you want, then you download all of them in a single ZIP file. There is a folder in the ZIP file with the SVG files in it for each icon.
Using vector icons in PowerPoint
The big challenge for most presenters with vector file formats is how to use them in PowerPoint. Vector files are created by illustration software such as Adobe Illustrator. If you have that program and know how to use it, that is fine. But most presenters don’t have access to such a specialized program. I certainly don’t, and I don’t want to have to learn it in order to get the advantages of vector files.
The only vector format that you can import into PowerPoint is the EMF (Enhanced Metafile) file format. So how do you convert an EPS or SVG file to EMF? It took me some digging, but here are some online tools that will do the conversions. It is possibly a two-step process with two different tools, so follow along closely (to answer the inevitable question of why can’t someone make this easier, I don’t know!).
Step 1: Convert EPS to SVG (start here if you have an EPS file, skip to step 2 if you have an SVG file):
If you have an EPS file, use the EPS to SVG converter at www.online-convert.com (use the drop down list in the Image Converter section to select the target format as SVG). You upload the EPS file to their service, they convert the file to the format requested, and then you download the converted file.
Step 2: Convert SVG to EMF
Now convert the SVG file to an EMF file using the SVG to EMF converter at www.cloudconvert.com. Again, you upload the SVG file, the service converts it, and you download the converted file.
Once you have an EMF file of the icon, you can insert it on a PowerPoint slide using the Insert – Picture function. The icon shows up on your slide like any other image, but there are two more steps to take in order to make it fully editable. Click on the icon and Ungroup it. You will likely see a warning dialog box asking you if you want to convert the image to Office drawing objects. This is exactly what we want to do, so go ahead and confirm that you want to do the conversion. This converted it to a group of drawing objects, so you have to Ungroup it again to actually separate it into editable shapes. Now you can modify any shape, including recoloring it. If you resize a shape, remember to lock the aspect ratio or hold the Shift key while resizing with a corner handle so you don’t distort the shape. How many component shapes you end up with is a function of how the designer created the file, so it may vary in granularity depending on the designer’s approach.
I know this article is longer than usual, but the ability to resize and edit vector icons makes them a great addition to many presentations. When you are looking for a way to communicate using common symbols, follow the steps above to start using vector icons in your presentations.
Update #1: Fellow PowerPoint MVP Julie Terberg let me know that some EPS files can be inserted directly into PowerPoint and then ungrouped twice to get to the editable objects. Try this first if you have an EPS file. Since an EPS file can be created in different ways, this may not work 100% of the time. If all you get is an SVG file, you have to use the conversion in Step 2 above.
Update #2: A number of people have suggested additional sources such as www.flaticon.com and www.thenounproject.com. These are good sources, and the reason I did not include them above is because they require you to attribute the icon to the source on the slide or they require payment in order to remove the attribution requirement. In a corporate presentation, I prefer not to have information on the slide that takes away from your key message, so I provided sources that do not require attribution. I also stayed with free sources for those who don't have a budget for artwork for their presentations. If attribution or payment is OK with you, check out these sources as well.
Update #3: Guy Kawasaki tweeted about a list of sites to find free icons that was put together by Canva at designschool.canva.com/blog/free-icons-download/. It looks to be very promising, with the first site listed, Smashing magazine (www.smashingmagazine.com/tag/freebies/) having a number of good sets of icons that can be used without attribution. A good list to check out.
Update #4: Nolan Haims offers some vector icons in the bonus PowerPoint Assets file he offers when you sign up for his newsletter at http://nolanhaimscreative.com/subscribe/. You also get other great resources as well, so sign up and check them out.
Dave Paradi has over twenty years of experience delivering customized training workshops to help business professionals improve their presentations. He has written nine books and over 100 articles on the topic of effective presentations and his ideas have appeared in publications around the world. His focus is on helping corporate professionals visually communicate the messages in their data so they don’t overwhelm and confuse executives. Dave is one of less than ten people in North America recognized by Microsoft with the Most Valuable Professional Award for his contributions to the Excel and PowerPoint communities. He regularly presents highly rated sessions at national and regional conferences of financial professionals.