Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Make your slides better by making them harder to read

I read a great article yesterday by Roger Dooley called Fancy Fonts Boost Recall. A fascinating article, and at first glance it's contradictory to the received wisdom in my field of presentation graphics which is: For your slides to be effective they have to flow with minimal effort into the viewers brain in as short a time as possible, allowing the viewer to concentrate on what the presenter is saying. 
To summarise the article, Roger says that by using fancy fonts, information becomes more memorable because our brain has to work a little harder. Upon pondering this potential bombshell, rather than contradict the current thinking, this actually adds another layer to the presenters armoury in helping them communicate more effectively. Let me explain; Until now I've always used fonts as a decorative part of the process, as an afterthought as I believe that I should keep fonts simple and clear. Most of my efforts as a designer are based around trying to identify what is important to help tell the story of the presentation, and I do that by using various tools to create a focal point such as size, colour, shape, diagrams etc.
I still think this holds true, my job is to still identify what's important, but the difference now is that perhaps once I've identified it on the slide using the techniques described above, my job is to make it slightly harder to process. So using a fancy font style would do this, but with this new insight i could also use some of other techniques described above to make it slightly harder to process. 
Let me show you some examples of how this could be used:
A standard slide - hard to identify the message and hard to process anything

An improved slide - easy to identify the message and easy to process it

An improved slide using a fancy font  - easy to identify the message but very slightly harder to process that message once identified

A step further - using a fancy font, and recolouring that font to make it even harder to read - maybe a step too far?

With all of this, we're talking subtleties, the 'undesigned' slide might take 15 seconds to work out what's going on, the improved one should take less if we follow Nancy Duarte's 3 second rule. The fancy font slide may only take nano-seconds longer to process, but if the result is a more memorable message then it's time well spent. 
In any presentation, there are always a few key ideas or numbers that you want your audience to remember. I think if used sparingly this could be a great technique to identify them and make them more memorable. I suspect the danger is that if used too often it will just become part of the general 'design' of your slides (like the logo in the corner and the copyright disclaimer most corporates still persist with) and lose it's efficacy. 
I'd love for more research to be done on this, particularly around using other techniques as well as font style to make information 'harder' to process. We'll certainly be playing around with this to find the optimum style over the coming months.

If you're interested in how your brain functions and becoming a better presenter, my colleague Richard Garnett has posted some fascinating presentations with his insights here.

Spencer Lambert

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