Last weekend I gave a talk at DevRelCon Tokyo called The Art of Slide Design. This is the third post in this series, covering the second principle: make important information stand out. The series is pretty much the blog post version of my script/speaker’s notes for it, albeit split out over several posts!

Go back to read The Art of Slide Design intro and Maximise Signal, Minimise Noise.

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Our second principle is: make important information stand out.

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So again let’s go back to some theory (from Universal Principles of Design). The von Restorff effect is a phenomenon where you’re more likely to remember things that are noticeably different than things that are common. This is about making things look more unique or distinctive, so that it stands out more and that people will remember them.

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This is basically what the definition of contrast is: the state of being strikingly different from something else in juxtaposition or close association. So what we want is to use contrast in our slides to make things memorable.

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A good example of using contrast comes from this book, Slide:ology, from Nancy Duarte – which is all about how to make good presentations.

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In it she explains contrast through this visualization, highlighting how we can use contrast in our slides in a couple of different ways – using colour, shape, size, shade and proximity. In each of these examples, you’re automatically drawn to the element that stands out.

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I’ll only cover three of these here, cause I think shade is a variation of colour and proximity isn’t as easy to apply as the others.

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I’ll give examples for each of these 3 areas, starting with colour.

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First step is choose a colour palette with contrasting colours.

In the case of colour, contrasting doesn’t necessarily have to mean exact opposite – it’s more about having colours that work well together and are different enough from each other that you can see that they are noticeably different. I won’t go into too much detail here about colour theory, cause there are plenty of web sites and books out there that cover this.

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One of those websites I really like though is It allows you to quickly try out various colour combinations and shows different variations of it.

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Plus it also shows you how the colours look together in icons and patterns. So you can get a sense of what type of contrast you might be able to get in your slides.

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One way of using colour contrast is to use it within a slide to highlight the most important phrase or data.

Going a bit meta, you’ll have noticed that most of my own slides in this presentation have been following exactly this pattern.

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Another way of using colour is to highlighting different elements on your slide. As I mentioned before the colours don’t need to be too opposite each other – you can use the same colour, in this case: green, and achieve contrast from the different variations of green.

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Besides using contrast within slides, you can also look at contrast between slides. If you use Keynote, this is the Light Table view – where you can see an overview of all of your slides. I use this overview a lot, cause you can quickly see how all your slides feel as a whole.

This is an overview of one of my presentations from last year about lessons that we could learn from Marvel superheroes.

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I each time used a red slide at the start of a section to highlight that we were switching to a different superhero.

Because all the other slides are white, the red title slide stands out much more and makes people pay attention.

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Second way to use contrast is shape. Now traditionally when you think of shapes, you think of shapes like in that example: circles, squares, triangles, etc. And while they can be used within your slides for contrast, those aren’t actually the shapes that we most rely on in our presentations

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What we rely on a lot are fonts. So one way of achieving contrast is through using different types of fonts within your presentation.

I tend to use custom fonts cause the fonts that are built in to our systems are mostly designed for reading paragraphs of text, so they don’t quite work when on a slide, and also people are more familiar with them already and it won’t stand out as much as it could.

Which fonts you end up choosing is quite a personal choice, and it will depend on your presentation style what type of feeling you want your slides to exhibit.

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If you don’t want to spend anything, the first place to look for free fonts is Google Fonts.

The main focus of the collection is in providing the fonts as web fonts, but you can download them too and use them in most slide editors.

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If you’re willing to pay for fonts, I’d suggest taking a look at the bundles on these websites (Design Cuts, Pixel Buddha, DreamBundles, The Hungry JPEG). Rather than buying a single font, you basically buy a bundle of different fonts and they often include quite a large and interesting selection.

Once you have multiple fonts, you can start playing around with them to create contrast. I’ll show a couple of examples, but again this is by no means the only ways you can create contrast.

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In this first example we are using different fonts within the same phrase or sentence – the contrast is used to highlight specific words.

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The second way is using different fonts for different elements on the slide.

It’s about making it easy for the audience to understand the different purposes of those elements.

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Cause if it was all in the same text, it just makes it way too confusing to read and comprehend.

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The same is true for when you’re displaying code – if you’ve got multiple elements on your slide with different purposes, use contrast to show that they are different.

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Third way to use contrast: size.

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The simplest way of using size for contrast is just grabbing a single element and making it bigger – using it to make a statement about something.

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Or you can play around and make each part of the sentence a different slide. Again you’ll have noticed I tend to use this a lot within my own slides.

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What becomes interesting though is when you start pairing different fonts with different sizes – it means that you can really play around with making a slide look quite graphic.

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These type of slides will stand out more and make it more compelling to people. In these cases the contrast is both within the slide and outside of the slide, making the slide more memorable.

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So those are 3 ways that you can use contrast to highlight key information and make it more memorable for your audience.

Through colour, shape and size.

Two down, two to go. Come back later this week to read about our third principle: Show AND Tell!

Want to hear when the next post goes live? Follow me on Twitter: mseckington.

Enjoyed this post and want more? You might like: Employee Evangelism: Make Your Team Badass, Blogging tips: How to start writing , How I got into conference speaking and Imposter Syndrome: How we act and work together.

Last weekend I gave a talk at DevRelCon Tokyo called The Art of Slide Design. This is the second post in this series, covering the first principle: maximise signal, minimise noise. The series is pretty much the blog post version of my script/speaker’s notes for it, albeit split out over several posts!

Go back to read The Art of Slide Design intro.

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Our first principle is maximise signal, minimise noise.

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This principle comes from the theory of signal to noise ratio (from Universal Principles of Design). This is the concept that in every type of communication we have there is a certain amount of relevant information to us, the signal, and there’s a certain amount of irrelevant information to us, the noise.

With good designs we want to maximise the signal and minimise the noise, ending up with mainly relevant information rather than irrelevant information.

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So how do we maximise signal and minimise noise in our slide designs? How do we make sure that the information on our slides is mainly relevant rather than irrelevant?

I think there are a few things that we can do to achieve this.

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The first is focus on one purpose per slide. This is about maximising the signal.

The moment a slide has multiple purposes it dilutes the relevant information you’re trying to get across. Rather than having a single slide covering multiple ideas or concepts, split them out over several slides. This is about making sure that your slide is as relevant as possible to what you are saying at that point of time.

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One thing I see happen a lot is using bullet points on one slide to cover multiple ideas. For instance take this slide about cat facts. If you’re going to be talking for a few minutes about the history of house cats and then a few minutes about why cats sleep 75% of their lives and then a few minutes about each of the other points, you’re basically diluting the signal of each point you’re trying to make.

Cause while you are talking about the history of cats – your audience is reading and thinking about all the other things that are on your slide already and they won’t be listening to you.

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It’s much better to spit out those ideas over multiple slides. Allow your audience to focus on the one thing you’re trying to get across, the most relevant information for the audience at that time.

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Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t be using bullet points at all, but use them to support the specific purpose of your slide. For instance, in this case the bullet points are used to list a set of names that belong together – all the information together is what makes it relevant.

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Another exception is when you’re using it to recap or give an overview of all the things you’ve said earlier. This slide has the same content as we saw before, but in this scenario, you’ve covered each of points separately already. The purpose is to show stuff you’ve covered before in one single slide – the audience doesn’t have to focus as much on the individual points cause none of it is new information – they’ve each been dealt with separately already.

So context matters a lot.

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The second thing we want to do is make sure our slides aren’t distracting. In this case we’re trying to minimise noise – ensuring we don’t have any irrelevant information.

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One way of being distracting is having way too much text on your slide. The moment you have a slide like this, people stop listening to you. Cause they’re either distracted by trying to read all the stuff that’s on there, or they get distracted trying to read and listen at the same time.

Rather than allowing your audience to focus on what you’re saying, by having that much text, you’re basically kicking off all these different questions and thoughts.

Think about what information really matters and distill it down to just the very essential.

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A variation of this is having too much code on a slide.

Most of the time you really don’t need all of it. Instead focus on the part that actually matters to the audience at that time – don’t force them to try to read all of that, cause you’re only creating a situation for people to zone out and not listen to you.

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Another way slides can be distracting is when there’s just too much going on in them.

This is an extreme example, but I often feel that people want to use all the space they can on a slide, making things super busy and much harder to process.

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Keep your slides simple and clean, so that they’re not visually distracting.

This shows exactly the same images as before, but because they’re not overlapping and because there’s no text laid over it, it’s easier for the audience to process.

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To recap: you can maximise signal by focusing on one purpose per slide and you can minimise noise by reducing distractions on your slide.

Continue on to read about our second principle: Make Important Information Stand Out!

Want to hear when the next post goes live? Follow me on Twitter: mseckington.

Enjoyed this post and want more? You might like: Employee Evangelism: Make Your Team Badass, Blogging tips: How to start writing , How I got into conference speaking and Imposter Syndrome: How we act and work together.

The Art of Slide Design

August 4th, 2017

Last weekend I gave a talk at DevRelCon Tokyo called The Art of Slide Design. This is pretty much the blog post version of my script/speaker’s notes for it, albeit split out over several posts!

I’ll be publishing the posts over the next couple of days, starting today with the intro (this post) and the first principle Maximise Signal, Minimise Noise.

I’m also planning on doing some followup posts to go into more detail about some of the topics (like choosing custom fonts and creating animations). For now though, this is staying pretty true to the original talk. Check out the full slides on SpeakerDeck.

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As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, for most of my life I hated giving presentations – as a kid, as a teen, as a university student. I was so scared and nervous in front of people that I tried to avoid giving them as much as I could. Whenever I did have to do one, I’d be a bunch of nerves for the entire week before, and often because of my nerves the presentation wouldn’t turn out that great. I didn’t believe it was something I’d ever be able to do well and I really didn’t believe it was something I’d ever enjoy.

Nowadays I actually like giving presentations. For the past 3 years, I’ve been giving talks at meetups and conferences, and part of my role at FutureLearn is to encourage my team to both blog and speak more (read more about that in my post about employee evangelism).

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For me, the secret, the magical solution, came from preparation.

I find that whenever I try to learn something new, it becomes easier for me if I understand all the different aspects, all the different building blocks of what it is that I’m to learn. With presentations it was about understanding my emotions and how my face and body and voice were reacting when I got nervous. It was about understanding how to tell compelling stories and how to keep the audience engaged. It was about discovering how often I need to practice until I feel completely comfortable with what I’m going to say. And it’s about understanding how to use the tools I have in the most effective way.

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Alongside our voice and our words, our slides are the most important instrument in our presenter’s toolbox. And we should learn to use them as effectively as we can.

Nowadays after most of my talks, I’ll often get compliments that people really liked my slides, sometimes with the sly additional question whether I got someone else to create them (nope, just me). Just like mastering other skills, once you know some of the tricks, it does get easier the more you do it.

So that’s what this series of blog posts are about: how to create effective slides.

But what does that mean? What makes your slides effective?

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Let’s take a step back and look at why we are presenting in the first place: what’s the goal of a presentation? At first glance you might think each presentation is different: some will be about teaching a new skill or knowledge, some will be to convince people to use a specific product, some will be to inspire and motivate people to change or do something.

There are endless goals of what a presentation is for and no two presentations will be the same.

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Yet at the heart of it, they all have one thing in common: no matter what your motivation behind the presentation is, your #1 goal as a presenter is to allow your audience to absorb your information. Whether you’re trying to teach, convince, motivate, frighten, sell, inspire – it’s your responsibility to make that easier for your audience.

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This all ties in with the concept of cognitive load: the amount of mental activity – perception, memory, problem solving – required to accomplish a goal.

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This definition comes from the book: Universal Principles of Design and I’ll be referring to it a couple of times throughout these blog posts. It’s a great resource book covering 125 design principles and ties it back to psychology and physiology research.

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In that book we also find this quote about cognitive load: design should minimise cognitive load to the greatest degree possible.

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So when we talk about effective slides, we mean slides that help reduce that cognitive load.

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Slides that help rather than prevent people from consuming your information.

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So how do you create effective slides? How do you create slides that are compelling and help your audience?

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The answer lies in shifting that question to: how do you design effective slides? We can get a better understanding of slide design, by looking at design theory.

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In the next few posts, I want to share 4 principles of slide design, so that you can create more compelling slides and help your audience absorb the information you’re presenting.

One thing to bear in mind here is that I don’t believe there is “one true way” of creating slides. This isn’t about getting you all to create the same type of slides that I do – rather it’s helping you get a basic understanding of design theory and applying it to your own style.

If you’re starting out, don’t feel like you have to attempt changing all of your slides in one go: choose one principle to apply to your next presentation and build from there. Hopefully you’ll be able to hit the ground running with some of the tips in these post and make your slides a little bit more unique and effective.

Let’s start with the first principle: Maximise Signal, Minimise Noise.

Enjoyed this post and want more? Follow me on Twitter: mseckington. You might also like: Employee Evangelism: Make Your Team Badass, Blogging tips: How to start writing , How I got into conference speaking and Imposter Syndrome: How we act and work together.

One of other the reasons why I’ve not found the time to blog here more: I’ve been doing more talks! I have to admit it is a lot of hard work, but getting to travel, see new places and meet new people is definitely worth it for me.

Last month I got invited to speak at Codemania in Auckland and at YOW! West in Perth, and I had an awesome time at both conferences. I also managed to combine those talks with a 3 week trip traveling and sightseeing through New Zealand and Australia – this was the first time since I was 8 that I was back in Australia!

The talk I gave there was about how you should reflect and refactor your own skills, values and behaviours, to help you understand what you want to be and what you want to do with your life. Here’s the video of my (closing!) keynote at YOW!:

I’d love to hear stories from people who have tried some of the reflection and refactoring techniques I’ve talked about. Let me know what worked for you!

Last Thursday and Friday I attended The Lead Developer conference. It’s my third time attending, and it’s my favourite conference of the year. Now this post isn’t about the conference and what I learnt at it – I’m hoping to do that at a later point when some of the videos are available. While at the conference though I was surprised by the amount of people that took their time to come up to me and thank me for not only my past talks (I spoke at The Lead Developer last year), but also for my blog posts. And I realised… it’s been 5 months since I last wrote something here.

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I’ve had this blog for 10 years, and while I still love writing for it, I’m finding it trickier and trickier to find the time to sit down and write.

It’s not for lack of ideas. I think now more than ever I’m coming up with different ideas and opinions and stories that I’d love to share with people. If you follow me on Twitter or have bumped into me at an event in real life, you might know that I recently moved to a sort-of new role. To give a bit of background, I’ve been at FutureLearn now for 4 years, and for the past 2 I’ve been attempting to balance three different roles: being a developer within one of our 6 product teams, being a line manager for 5 other developers and being the evangelism lead for our product team. Emphasis on “attempting”. As our team has grown, it has become harder to do each of these things well and I’ve struggled a lot with prioritising and balancing everything.

A month ago our team introduced a new structure and new roles for several of us. Previously we had 5 line managers (including me), who alongside managing people were within one of the product teams and worked on building our platform. Now we’ve changed to having 6 Technical Leads within each of the product teams to provide and help with technical direction and decision making, and 3 Technical Managers outside of the product teams to focus purely on managing, teaching and growing our developers.

I’ve switched to this latter role of Technical Manager and what it means in practice: I’m not developing anymore. I’m explicitly using the term ‘developing’ here rather than ‘writing code’, cause for the majority of last year I already wasn’t that hands-on with code anymore, but still was part of all other aspects of building a product (stuff like planning and pairing on what, why and how we’re building things, researching and analysing different implementation options, etc). Being a developer is more than just writing code (but that’s maybe a discussion for another time).

I really think this change of roles and structure for our team means that we can be more efficient and focused on what we each are passionate about. It means that I and the other Technical Managers now have time to work on things like figuring out how we do career progression or how to make our hiring process more diverse. It means that we have more time to get better at management: people are hard, and managing people is a hard thing, but it is something that we can get better at.

One thing to note: this shift doesn’t mean that I’m completely stopping with the evangelism aspect. I believe that every (senior) developer should be sharing and teaching what they know with other developers. For some developers that might mean giving a talk, for some it will be mentoring and pairing, for some it will be giving workshops, for some it will be writing blog posts. Our role as managers is helping each developer to figure out how they want to share what they know and helping them learn the skills they need for it.

Going back to the original point I was trying to make: finding the time to write. I want to keep sharing my experiences and ideas and opinions, through both talks and blog posts. But I’ve noticed that in the past year, as I’ve started managing more people, where most of my day is focused on having conversations and interacting with people, by the end of the day I’m drained. I love managing people, but as an introvert I have to admit that it does take a lot out of me. Outside of work, I need to do things that recharge my batteries. For me, that’s disappearing into a book, a video game or a TV show – doing things that disconnect me from my laptop and phone and from people.

I get time during work hours to prepare my talks, but my blog posts have always been something I’ve done in my spare time. And right now? Writing posts isn’t something that recharges my batteries. My mind needs to be fully engaged and firing on all cylinders to want to write. And that’s the main reason why it’s been 5 months since I’ve written something here.

So here I am again writing something. I’d like to promise that I’ll write something else soon again, but honestly? I don’t quite know whether I can keep that promise. Hearing though that people like and find my posts useful? It does make me want to write more and it’s motivation for me to re-examine and figure out how to fit it back into my life.

Fingers crossed it won’t be another 5 months till I write here again.

Given that I love La La Land and most of the TV shows and movies referenced in this, it wasn’t a surprise that I’d love the opening number from the Golden Globes last weekend!

Listening To: La La Land

December 9th, 2016

I got to see La La Land a few weeks back at the London Film Festival and ever since watching it I’ve been waiting frantically for the soundtrack to come out. There’s just so much I love about this movie!

The soundtrack is now available on Spotify and it’s as wonderful as I remembered. Almost every single track on this leaves me grinning like an idiot:

La La Land feels like your old school Hollywood musical with magical set pieces, tap dancing routines and super catchy music, but with a story and sensibilities for our generation. I can’t wait to rewatch it when it’s comes out in January!

Nobody expects the lady code troll:

Trailerrific: The Circle

December 7th, 2016

I read The Circle last year, so have been curious to see how the movie adaption would turn out. The book creeped me out enough, that I ended up tweeting and sharing less online, and I’m still considering the implications of how we interpret and act on transparency and openness.

I’m a little underwhelmed by the trailer though. I don’t think it really captures the interesting parts of the story:

I watched Arrival a couple of weeks back and loved it so much, I really want to check out the short story it was based on, Story of Your Life. It appears in Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others anthology, alongside 7 other short stories.


Here’s the description from Amazon:

From a soaring Babylonian tower that connects a flat Earth with the firmament above, to a world where angelic visitations are a wondrous and terrifying part of everyday life; from a neural modification that eliminates the appeal of physical beauty, to an alien language that challenges our very perception of time and reality. . . Chiang’s rigorously imagined fantasia invites us to question our understanding of the universe and our place in it.

You can get Stories of Your Life and Others on Amazon for £6.99.