Take The Drive-By Test

Driving through Belgium last year, I was struck by some large road safety advertisements along the motorways. Usually they are clear and simple, but these were horrific. No, they didn’t show photos of grisly accidents. They were simply like bad presentation slides, with far too much text, and a variety of overly small font sizes.

Perhaps they placed them strategically in the places where there would be the most traffic congestion, because it was impossible to understand every word while driving past at 120km/h – at least not without staring constantly at them instead of at the road, and thus increasing the risk of an accident, which I am sure was not their intention.

These just had too much text, and too much small text, with visual pollution by the logo in the bottom-left, and they were not helped by using photos of seven top Belgian managers, most of whom were not recognised by my Belgian friends, who – instead of thinking about the road safety message – were first trying to work out who the people were, and then trying to fathom why they were appearing in a road safety ad. Frankly I’ve never seen a more useless ad campaign, and I can’t believe anyone would sanction something so dangerously distracting in the name of road safety.

But it did make me realise an important lesson for slide design.

A good slide is like a good road sign or roadside advertisement – it should be clear, simple, high-impact, quick to understand, and easy to remember.

A great example of this was Trevor Beattie‘s original Wonderbra advertisement many years ago. It featured a model (Eva Herzigova) looking down at her Wonderbra-clad chest with the two-word caption: “Hello boys.” It was snappy, quick to understand (even with its neat play-on-words), and extremely memorable. It may have caused some accidents among excitable male drivers, but it was extremely effective with its female target market.

(Yes, even this had some tiny text at the bottom stating available sizes. Nobody noticed it then either.)

So based on this realisation, I tell my students that when they are designing slides, they should give each of them the drive-by test. Imagine you are driving down a fast road (motorway, freeway, autobahn, etc.) at the maximum speed limit, and you see your slide on a large sign by the side of the road. In the time it takes you to whizz past, did you see it and understand it? If so, good. If not, it needs more work.

Why is this an important comparison?

When driving fast, you need to understand road signs while concentrating on your driving. The sign must never distract you so much that you are no longer focusing on the challenge of driving safely. Likewise, when watching a presentation, you should be focusing on the presenter, what she is saying and how she is saying it, and not reading her slides – because as regular readers will already know, you can’t read and listen simultaneously. So as a presenter, you should ensure your slides are simple and clear enough to help get your message across, without reducing the audience’s attention to what you are saying.

If your slide is simple and clear enough to be understood by someone driving past at top speed, it’s good enough to be on the wall behind you.

To finish, and to cement the road sign = slide analogy in your mind, here’s a hilarious video about designing a road sign. How many slides are designed this way? Too many… This is a great example of why simplicity and clarity for your audience must be your utmost priorities when designing slides.

2 Responses to Take The Drive-By Test

  1. Thanks for the wonderful post — and although this happened on the road, a variation of the same concept happens on many web sites that use Flash to add an intro. Many of these intros have too much text that is shown for far too little time to read.

  2. Jon Thomas says:

    One of my favorite videos of all time…

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