Presentation Design for Medical Educators

By Resa E. Lewiss (@ResaELewiss) and Ellen Lupton (@ellenLupton)

Design is everywhere. And design matters. More specifically, slide design matters to the medical educator, who seeks to deliver effective, interactive, high quality, and memorable content. Consider a well-lit room. You may not consciously take note of the sparkling warmth created by a mix of natural light and well-placed fixtures, but good lighting promotes healing and productivity. When a room is dark and gloomy or blasted with harsh glare, people don’t want to spend time there. The same is true for graphic design. Users feel confident and engaged when content is presented with legible typefaces, accessible color contrast, and logical layouts. A little beauty and grace help convey the designer’s care for their audience.

A quick internet search for “presentation design” yields countless lists of tips and tricks. Our list is different. Written by Resa E. Lewiss, an emergency medicine physician and medical educator, and Ellen Lupton, a graphic designer and author, this tutorial is customized for medical educators. We chose examples designed in a variety of medical contexts, and we have highlighted some new behaviors prompted by online teaching. Our tutorial reviews the basics of typography, color, and layout. We used Google Slides to build our presentation examples, but the concepts explored here are equally relevant to PowerPoint, Keynote, and other programs.

1 | Typography

Selection of typefaces available with Google Slides; these all work well in presentations

Choose your fonts. Fonts are broadly categorized as “serif” or “sans serif.” Serifs are the little feet or endpoints that complete the letter stems in traditional typefaces such as Garamond. Sans in French means “without,” so a sans serif font is without serifs. Many serif fonts are too frail to function well in a presentation. Some designers insist on never using serif typefaces in presentations, but we disagree. Merriweather is drawn with sturdy strokes and chunky serifs, so it holds its own while bringing warmth and detail to a presentation design. Various studies have tried to prove that sans serif typefaces are more legible (or less legible) than serif fonts; measuring concrete differences in performance is slippery, however. As a designer, you need to evaluate what works well with your content and audience. Consider, again, the lighting of a room: you would light  your home dining room differently than a breakfast cafe or a hospital waiting area. Some design choices come down to personal preference and the ambiance you are seeking to build.

Helvetica, Arial, Futura and Avenir are other functional, inviting typefaces. Although these fonts may appear similar to each other at first glance, each one has distinctive shapes; they also fill space differently based on their proportions. Try a few fonts and compare them. Comic Sans MS and Papyrus are the typefaces designers love to hate. Unless your audience is young children or wannabe superheroes, these fonts are not empowering choices for medical educators.

Proxima Nova is one of several excellent typefaces available within Google Slides. It has a range of weights: Normal, Semi Bold, Bold, and Extra Bold. Proxima Nova is clean and modern but also friendly—note the round “o” and curvy numerals. Once you pick a typeface, decide on a few sizes to use for headlines, supporting text, and captions. Apply sizes and weights consistently throughout your presentation.

Where do fonts come from? Google Slides is a web-based application; although users are limited to the fonts listed in the font menu, any collaborator will have access to those same fonts, which makes Google Slides an ideal tool for collaboration. Programs such as PowerPoint and Keynote have access to any font installed on your local device. (If you share your presentation with another user, however, your fonts won’t display properly if your collaborator hasn’t installed them on their device.) Some software programs come with a library of fonts, and every operating system automatically installs a selection of fonts. You can download additional typefaces from a variety of sources and install them on your own devices, and then use them in Powerpoint, Keynote, Word, Photoshop, and other software.

2 | Color

Natasha Blum, Blumline and Emergency Design Collective

Choose appropriate colors. Consider color in a similar fashion to how you choose typefaces. Just as you should start your project with two weights of type (light and dark), you should start with two colors (light and dark). Choose a third color as an accent. The slide shown here pairs black with a delicate pastel green, accented with red. You could also use ivory, pale grey, sky blue, or yellow as a light background. White backgrounds are okay, too! Not every presentation needs to feature exciting or personalized color choices.

Miya Osaki, Diagram Office

Use color to highlight content. This slide deck presents the viewer with many different kinds of content, including photographs, illustrations, and screenshots of diverse web pages. In order to add titles that separate clearly from this mixed content, the designer has placed each headline in a yellow box. These bright bars serve to “flag” the voice of the presenter. The strong color bars separate clearly from any background. The color is consistent and unites a wide range of content. The yellow bars become functional branding elements.

Avoid distracting and illegible colors. When choosing colors, remember that the purpose of every design element is to support and enhance the content of your presentation. The complex background in this slide overwhelms our senses. The colors don’t have sufficient light/dark contrast. Instead of emphasizing key points, the color palette muddles the message and confuses the audience, especially those with color vision deficiencies (CVDs) or “color blindness.” If you aren’t sure if your colors have sufficient contrast, use a tool such as to see if your color choices meet accessibility standards for color contrast. (This requires typing in the color’s hex code, a number used by web designers, for your text color and background color.)

Have fun with color. On the website, you can access interesting color possibilities. Remember, your presentation only needs a few colors, such as dark, light, and one accent color. If you are feeling adventurous, choose a pale background color or a deep, rich tone for your main headlines. What’s essential is maintaining contrast between light and dark.

3 | Layout

Break your content into chunks. The process of dividing text into digestible units is called chunking. You may not even realize you are using this foundational design method. Basic bullet lists and numbered lists are the easiest ways to break up content—you can quickly apply these formats to any block of text. Standard list formats put too much space between the bullet and the text, and it is difficult to customize this feature in most presentation software.

How much text should you put on one slide? The six-by-six rule is a good place to start: no more than six bullet points containing no more than six words each. Keep text short to protect your audience from an avalanche of text. But let’s say your deck will be shared with students or colleagues for future reference. In that case, you may touch on a few points when delivering your presentation and allow readers to access additional content in more depth later.

HKS Architects

Design a custom numbered list. Here, dividing the text into two columns allowed the designer to create shorter lines that are easier to read. The large numbers—which become dramatic page elements—were positioned by hand in this layout. This particular presentation was designed to be circulated as a publication that readers can refer back to later, which makes it worth the extra effort to customize the layout.

Natasha Blum, Blumline and Emergency Design Collective

Organize space. The numbered list in this slide serves several functions: it chunks the content, it provides lots of breathing room around each main element, and it provides decorative detail and visual interest. Thin dotted lines organize the space and break up the text. The title and numbers employ a bold serif font, while the main text is set in a simple sans serif. The mix of uppercase and lowercase letters creates texture and variety. Bright pops of color attract the eye and anchor the main points. Note that the main title is placed off to the side, not stuck in the middle. Here, the asymmetrical headline aligns well with the two-column list.

Dr. Ijeoma Azodo, MD. Slide template designed by Lenny Naar

Frame content with shapes. This example uses circles to organize content. The three circles tell a sequential story. The presentation becomes a means of storytelling, and the medical educator is the storyteller. The viewer reads this slide as a map or diagram of the content. Placing additional text beneath the circles makes the deck a useful takeaway for reading later.

Stesha A. Doku, MD

Design a strong title slide. The first slide of your deck is like the cover of a book. It sets the tone of your presentation and tells the audience about you and your content. The title slide can also help people contact you later. (In case they miss it the first time, repeat your contact information on your last slide.) This slide includes a photograph of the presenter as well as her contact information. The portrait makes the slide personal. The tall, narrow headline font is distinctive and fun. The large, left-justified headline serves as the dominant point of entry.

HKS Architects

Use an image as a background. In this title slide, a dramatic photograph fills the entire background. Because the image is quite dark overall, the white type stands out clearly and remains legible. If your background image has more variation in light and dark tones, you can place your type in a color box to separate it from the image. The HKS logo, located in the upper left corner, could be repeated throughout the deck without using up valuable space. (Add it to your master slide.)

Apply your knowledge. The examples discussed above are quite sophisticated. How do you get started with limited knowledge and experience with graphic design principles? The examples shown below demonstrate simple ways to improve slides created by a medical educator.

Before | This title slide doesn’t have much style or personality. The font Gill Sans is used in just one weight, and all the type is centered, so the content runs together visually. Gills Sans was designed by Eric Gill, an artist with a troubling history. Alternative typefaces include Avenir, Arial, Century Gothic, Frutiger, Futura, and Lato.

After | The new slide uses Avenir, whose letterforms are more open and readable forms. The new slide is easier to read, even at this reduced size. The typeface appears in two weights, Heavy and Medium, making essential content stand out. The presenter’s name and affiliations are left-justified to separate them from the title.

Resa E Lewiss, MD

Before | The image is small, and a border is needed because the black ultrasound image melts into the black background. The image, title, and caption are center aligned. The title box is bright blue. The centered caption at the bottom is very wide.

After | To improve the initial design, we cropped and enlarged the image. Changing the background from black to gray helps the image stand out. Instead of putting the headline in a big, centered box, we created a band running across the top edge, which uses less space. We replaced the harsh blue tone with a softer hue. The asymmetrical layout allowed us to create a narrower, more readable text box.

Tips for using images

—Select an image or video with clear details and strong contrast.

—Ensure that all images and videos are de-identified and cropped so no patient identifying information is shared.

—Enlarge the image or video to fill the slide space.

—Ensure high enough resolution so that the image quality is maintained.

—Loop videos so that viewers have plenty of time to study them.

Resa E Lewiss, MD

Create your own template. We applied some of the ideas from the basic text/image slide to the title slide. Just as writers bring a tone of voice to text (friendly, conversational, bureaucratic, authoritarian, etc.), graphic designers create a tone of voice through typography, color, and layout. The tone of this presentation is serious and professional but approachable. Now, we can copy these slides and reuse the parts to make more slides for our presentation. That’s a template!

As a medical educator, you can apply basic design principles to your presentations in order to engage your audience and communicate your mastery of your material. Using typography, color, and layout in a functional and aesthetically pleasing way will make your presentations more comprehensible, memorable, and enjoyable.

Slides used with permission from the designers.

Header photo courtesy of mohamed hassan, via pxhere

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