5 Reasons Why Black Is The New White

March 23, 2012

Earlier this week, I was with a group of senior executives at a multinational corporation, looking at some slides I had produced for them. The HR VP had never worked with Ideas on Stage before, so our 2.0 visual style was entirely new to him.

The slides were entirely compatible with this company’s corporate identity, except that the slide background was black instead of their usual white.

The HR VP’s reaction was very positive: “I’d never thought of using a black background before. It looks so much better.”

Indeed it does. Very much better. Apple uses dark backgrounds (dark does not need to mean pure black) and that’s as good an argument as any. Here are five other reasons why you should stop using white backgrounds, and use a dark background wherever possible.

1. Don’t fatigue your audience

I often surprise my trainees when, after a hundred or more slides with a black background, I then start talking about the use of colour, and show them a mostly empty slide with a white background. Their reaction is always the same – the sudden burst of white light physically disturbs them, causes them to reel away, narrow their eyes, and not enjoy the experience at all. I make them think about why they reacted in this way. And then ask them why they would do this to their audiences all the time.

Whether you are projecting onto a screen or using a large LCD screen, a white background produces an awfully bright light, and although if the background is always white your audience will not need to recoil in self-defence, what will happen is that all that light will tire their eyes and make them unnecessarily fatigued. If you want to tire your audience, by all means bombard them with lots of white light. That’s not the aim of most presentations – but sadly it is the result.

A black background with white text will be far easier on their eyes, and help you to keep them fully awake. This is especially important in dark settings such as a theatre where the audience is mostly in the dark. There, a white background is simply criminal. But even in a well-lit room, white on black works just as well as black on white in terms of contrast – and much better in terms of the audience’s comfort.

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2. Keep them focused on you

We use slides to illustrate our messages – they are not the message themselves. We want people to be able to ‘get’ the slide in 3-5 seconds, and return their focus to the presenter, instead of spending the whole time looking at the wall.

Unfortunately, our eyes are naturally attracted to sources of light. So the more light you put on the screen, the more people will be drawn to look at it even if they already ‘got’ the slide. I sometimes test audiences with a slide with just one word on it, and I find people still looking back at it long after they had first read and understood it. That is worse when the background is white.

Give them less light on the screen, and they will be able to focus more on you and what you are saying.

3. Smile – you’re on camera

If you are being filmed, or if there are photographers capturing your moment on stage, then do the cameramen a favour – make sure the slides are no lighter than you are. Otherwise they will have a tough time with the contrast, because a white background on the slide is a lot – a LOT – brighter than you are, even if you have a spotlight on you.

If you want good-quality photographs and videos of your big presentation, don’t use a white background. Black is far better.

4. Slides without borders

You might want to have a slide which simply features a photo in portrait format (i.e. it is rectangular, but while it fills the screen vertically, there is a big gap on the left and the right). If you use a white background, then what people will see on the wall/screen is a photo with two big bright bars on each side, and their eyes will be drawn to the white bars instead of the photo. If you use a black background, they will just see a photo in the middle of the screen.

Quite simply, if you use a black background (and here I do mean a purely black background, not a gradient like Apple uses most of the time), there will be little or no ‘edge’ to the projected image. People will see your nice clear graph in the middle of the wall, and it will blend into the wall rather than being clearly part of a projected white rectangle. It looks so much better. Try it.

5. Stand out from the crowd

99% of slide presentations suck. Probably 95% of these presentations use slides with white backgrounds. It’s not because of the background that the presentation sucks, or at least that’s not the only reason. But it is a simple fact that the vast majority of slides are horrible, and the vast majority of those horrible slides have white backgrounds.

So when you start up your slides, and the audience sees they are white, they will immediately (and perhaps subconsciously) recall all their previous painful experiences with horrible white slides, and they will expect the worst. They’ll probably assume you will assault them with Comic Sans and cheesy stick-man clip art at any time. And clearly you don’t want to start your presentation by making them expect the worst – your introduction needs to make them want to listen!

If however you start projecting slides with a black background, you immediately set yourself apart from all those previous negative experiences. This is not like every other presentation. It can’t be any worse. It might in fact be better.

And if you care enough about your audience and your communication to use a black background, then you’ll probably make an effort with your story, your slides and your delivery as well, so it almost certainly will be better.

But hold on a minute…

You might be thinking that you have to use a white background because you have to print your slides, and you don’t want to use huge amounts of toner. Indeed my old friends at HP would probably love it if you decided to print out mostly-black slides. But I have two responses to this.

1. You should never, ever, need to print your slides. Why would you do that? Slides are not handouts (if you don’t agree, read this) so you shouldn’t print them to give to your audience. Besides, in this environmentally-conscious age, you should be avoiding unnecessary paper use whenever possible. Your slides are intended to be projected on a big screen or via a webinar – and perhaps to accompany your electronic hand-outs which you distribute (ideally) after your presentation.

Of course, if you are producing a document in PowerPoint – which you may want to print – then by all means use a white background and by all means print it. Just don’t confuse that with the kind of slides you would use for a live presentation.

2. Pure Black & White. If you really, really do need to print your slides for some reason (and every rule has an exception), then you can use the Pure Black & White printing mode in PowerPoint, and it will automatically change the colours for you so that your printout is clear but you use a minimum of toner or ink. (NB: PowerPoint 2010 had an issue with this printing mode, and if you suffer from it, there is a hotfix available here.)

So there you have it. Black is the new white when it comes to slide backgrounds. And this is one change your audience will truly thank you for.


Take The Drive-By Test

January 4, 2011

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.


Presentation Pitfalls #7: Slide synch (or lack of)

September 1, 2010

“And the winner is…” called the presenter as he carefully opened the ceremonial envelope. The huge room was filled with silent yet eager anticipation.

He then paused, wondering why everyone was suddenly talking, laughing and groaning, then dutifully took the card from the envelope, and read out the winner’s name.

What could have gone wrong? Slide synch, that’s what.

While the speaker was fiddling with his envelope, someone else advanced the slides too quickly, and revealed the winner’s name to all but the speaker before the envelope had even been opened. Doh! Not only did this make the speaker look silly, it made everyone think less of the organization of the event, both for the Powerpoint slip-up and for even using ceremonial envelopes when the winners were already on the slides. Read the rest of this entry »


Presentation Pitfalls #6 – Bent logic

August 20, 2010

As I was strolling around Paris this week, I came across the kind of film poster ad which annoys the hell out of me. It annoyed me so much that I thought I would capture it and share it with you. (I’m sure the film company won’t mind since it’s a little extra publicity, and while I haven’t seen the film, it might be quite good.)

Now, what’s wrong with this? OK, it may not be the best photo of Ludivine Sagnier who usually looks very attractive, but that wasn’t the problem. I can just about live with the mix of fonts and the fairly ugly yellow colour, since at least there’s a theme which is consistently followed. I also don’t mind that there’s no real attempt to sell the film – we have no idea what it’s about, whether it’s had a good review, or why we should go and see it, other than the two lead actresses and the director, none of whom is a big enough draw on their own. (French cinema is well enough subsidised that it doesn’t actually need to sell many tickets.)

No, the problem here is that the two lead actresses are the wrong way round. The actress on the left is Kristin Scott Thomas, and the one on the right is Ludivine Sagnier. I asked a colleague what he thought I hated about this ad, and he didn’t get it because he didn’t know either of the actresses. (In which case neither of them is going to be a good selling-point for the film anyway.) But for cinephiles like me who know the actresses, it just looks plain daft to see two actresses, each with the other’s name above her head.

Does nobody check this first? What do the actresses think of it? It may be fair to suggest that Sagnier’s name should be the first we see (reading of course from the left), since she’s slightly more of a box-office draw nowadays than Scott-Thomas, but in that case, surely the poster should have Sagnier on the left and not on the right?

In any case, it just looks plain wrong to me and doesn’t inspire much confidence in the quality of the film. I should stress that this is far from the first time this has happened. There have been examples in the past where an actor and actress have appeared with each other’s names on their heads, which would look silly even to people who don’t know either of them.

Right, so what has this got to do with presenting? It’s all about avoiding what I call bent logic. If you use slides which don’t appear logical, they won’t be clear to your audience, and they will pollute your message instead of enhancing it. Read the rest of this entry »


The World’s Best Slide

June 1, 2010

Yes, dear readers, you read it right: today I am going to reveal the world’s best slide – the one you can and should use in almost any presentation you ever give. It’s so powerful that you can even use it more than once in a single deck.

You may have read about how to produce fantastic, attractive yet simple slides in highly recommended books like Presentation Zen or slide:ology (if not, please do), but this is the best of all. Even better, you don’t need to be an ace with PowerPoint or Keynote to create this yourself. I even give this to you free of copyright.

Are you ready? Then read on…

Read the rest of this entry »


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