Must-know Presentation Design Tips to Avoid Problems When Projecting

Sometimes presentations that display beautifully on your monitor just don’t look that great when projected. We’ve pulled together some of our best presentation design tips for using graphics, colors, and fonts that will help your presentation look great on the big screen.


Placement: In some venues, sightlines can be obstructed by rows of seats. As a result, the lower portion of the slide may not be consistently visible to much of the audience. Avoid placing your most critical content too low on the slide.

Images: Big images are easier to see and can have more impact. Make sure the resolution is sufficient and that images are not blurry or pixelated. For more tips, check out our post about how to avoid blurry images in your PowerPoint file.
Text on photos can be striking, but make sure the text isn’t obscured by the image. Sometimes adding a subtle text shadow helps. You can also try adjusting the photo with PowerPoint’s picture tools or with a photo-editing program.


Vibration: Certain colors can seem to vibrate when projected, even causing nausea or headaches for some viewers. The vibrating effect tends to happen when bright, saturated colors are used (alone or in combination):
These are extreme examples—you probably wouldn’t actually use these colors together. It’s not “wrong” to use any of these colors, just exercise caution. A neutral, complimentary background can help; the dark gray background in the above illustration serves to reduce the vibration effect. Run projection tests ahead of time. We’ve found that bright blue (like this blue) can be especially problematic when projected, appearing “hot” and jarring when used in large areas.
Contrast: Subtle color variations do not always project well and may appear washed out—it depends on the room, lighting, and equipment. High contrast colors are a safer bet for presentations. Background and text need to have enough contrast for readability.

Color palette: Think through your PowerPoint color palette carefully, especially with how well the colors work in combination. Create test files and experiment with projection in different room and lighting environments. For help with color selection, try out Adobe’s new tool for creating color palettes: If your company requires the use of specific brand colors, be sure to test how they will project. Colors that work beautifully together in print may be less effective when projected—appearing muddy or washed out, for example, or with not enough contrast. If this is the case, consider tweaking the RGB values on selected colors—just enough to display better and still remain within the brand look.


Viewing your carefully-formatted Windows presentation on a Mac—or even on another Windows computer—can sometimes be a bit of a shock: What happened to the text layouts? Why is the word wrap so different? More than likely the culprit is the font you’ve used: the other computer or OS just doesn’t have the same font. If PowerPoint comes across a font it doesn’t recognize, it will provide a substitute. Often, the substituted font is of a very dissimilar style or size, creating formatting havoc with carefully laid out text:

Original text formatting (left) and formatting after font substitution (right)

Windows and Mac operating systems provide quite different font sets, often with little overlap. Newer software versions can install fonts that aren’t available in earlier versions. And the computer in the conference room or event space may have software you don’t have, making your font lists even more mismatched.
Standard fonts: To avoid formatting issues and be completely certain your presentation will look fine no matter where it’s displayed, choose a standard or “safe” font—one that is available on all platforms and software versions. Font substitution will be one less thing you have to worry about when you take your presentation on the road, and that’s no small thing. Here is a list of safe fonts, with Windows and Mac equivalents:

Windows Fonts Mac
Sans Serif
Arial Arial, Helvetica
Arial Black Arial Black
Impact Impact
Lucida Sans Lucida Grande
Tahoma Tahoma, Geneva
Trebuchet MS Trebuchet MS
Verdana Verdana, Geneva
MS Sans Serif MS Sans Serif
Georgia Georgia
Palatino Linotype Palatino Linotype
Times New Roman Times New Roman, Times
Courier New Courier New
Lucida Console Monaco
Comic Sans MS Comic Sans MS
Symbol Symbol
Webdings Webdings
Windgings Zapf Dingbats

It’s not a very big list (there are probably a few other safe fonts we haven’t tracked down). But we’re pretty confident you won’t run into any font substitution issues with these fonts on most operating systems.
Non-standard fonts: While the best tactic is to just use safe fonts for your presentation, we don’t want to discourage choices or creativity. There are many, many more fonts available—hundreds of them—and sometimes there are excellent reasons to use non-standard fonts. Just be aware of the risks. Here are some workarounds to the font-substitution issue:

  • Embed fonts: PowerPoint for Windows gives the option of embedding fonts in your presentation. This may resolve many font substitution issues but your presentation file size will increase substantially. Embedded fonts may not always translate successfully from PC to Mac, so test carefully. Note: You can’t embed fonts in the Mac version of PowerPoint.
  • Save as .pdf: You can also save the presentation as a .pdf, which eliminates font display issues. The .pdf file cannot display animations, however, and will not be editable.
  • Copy font TTF files: To completely eliminate any font substitution issues, you can copy your font’s TTF file to the font file of other computers— if permitted by the font’s End User License Agreement (EULA). All fonts are licensed, so let’s take a quick dive into what this means:
    • Fonts installed as part of an OS or software package are governed by the same license agreement as the OS/software they came with. Usually this means you can install the font on XX number of computers or for XX numbers of users. The number will be defined by the EULA.
    • Fonts you purchase yourself (such as a branded corporate font) also have license agreements explaining what you can and can’t do with the fonts. These fonts will also have limited distribution rights (in some cases quite restrictive), and will be defined by the EULA.
    • Free or open source fonts that you’ve downloaded from the Web (any of the Google fonts, for instance) generally have less stringent license agreements, but you will still need to check the terms. For example, a free font EULA may state you can distribute it as long as you give other people the same license.

Two more notes on distributing font TTF files:

    • If you’re on-site, make sure event staff actually follows through on installing your custom fonts on display laptops. This task can be a low priority with everything else going on. Definitely run projector tests.
    • With the introduction of Windows Vista, Calibri became Microsoft’s default font and as a consequence is in wide use. There is no exact Mac equivalent, but if you have installed Office for the Mac then no problem—you’ll have Calibri as well. If not and you have a licensed copy of Calibri, then you can copy the font TTF into the Mac font file. If all else fails, the Mac font Lucida Grande is a good Calibri substitute. With any substituted font, be sure to check for text-wrap and formatting changes.

Readability: Choose a font your audience can easily read. The sans serif fonts may be the better choice for presentations though this is a matter of taste. Some serif fonts can be more difficult to read under certain lighting conditions or in large rooms. For the same reason, avoid overusing narrow fonts (such as Arial Narrow) and extra light fonts. In general, it’s a good idea to stick with just one font for headings and content, though there can be beautiful exceptions with the right template and thoughtful design.
Font size: Big, bold text is the best choice—it’s easier to read and less fatiguing for your audience. While we’re quick to provide recommendations (“no text under 12 points” or “limit bullets to 7,” just for example) we know from experience how quickly slide content becomes stuffed with facts, figures, charts, and graphics, and recommendations become impossible to follow. And for a technical audience accustomed to complex data, massively detailed presentations may be the only way you can go. But for most audiences, the best solution on so many levels is to move away from content-heavy slides. Simplify your storyboard, reduce verbiage, open up the slide, and go BIG to help get your message across:

Can you read the text on the left slide? Fewer words, bigger text, simpler graphics are best.

In the end, the best advice is to test your PowerPoint in the room and with the equipment you will be presenting on well ahead of your presentation. But if that’s not possible, follow these best practices for PowerPoint presentation design to avoid problems when projecting on screen — and save yourself time and headaches down the road. Your audience will be able to get your message without straining to decipher what’s on your slides!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *