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Presentation Design Lessons from Bristol Cathedral

March 15, 2010

I am a hardcore simplicitist, I am almost sure that such a word does not exist in any recognised dictionary, however I am sure you can understand its meaning. (It is better than the alternative word which popped into my head, which was simpleton)

I like all things clean, I like all things simple and I like all things that are easy to understand. When I think of simplicity, phrases like “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away” come to mind. I whole-heartedly agree with this way of thinking. I hate superfluous decoration for decoration’s sake (especially when it comes to presentations).

However a few weeks ago, while I was on a short holiday to the UK, I found myself eagerly snapping some photos on my phone of a structure that was quite clearly not as “simple” as it could have been. But I simply loved what I was looking at.

It suddenly dawned on me that perhaps there are instances and occasions where high levels of decoration, frills and the like are not only acceptable… but perhaps… attractive? Strange I know, but true. As I walked around the Cathedral in Bristol city centre I noticed that I did quite like the style of the building both on the inside and out. I thought of how drab the Cathedral might be if it been designed with Apple-esque simplicity. The carved sandstone pillars being replaced with flat, shiny, white or metallic materials… it just wouldn’t have the same appeal.

And then, as happens to me all the time these days, I started to think about how this might apply to presentation design.

When I looked a little closer I realised that this highly decorated building did share a number of key traits with more “simple” designs. Although much of the decoration was essentially superfluous it still adhered to a number of important rules.

Consistency – The type of decoration throughout the Cathedral was very consistent. Consistent colours, style, shapes, patterns and features. The shape of windows, height of columns, width of columns, distance between features etc were kept consistent and designed to be perfectly consistent and harmonious.

Symmetry – There was a great sense of symmetry to the building with all the features and decorations being mirrored by identical features, I think that without this strong sense of symmetry the collection of decorations would have appeared much less attractive

Appropriateness – The type of decoration was appropriate for the popular style of the time. What’s more, it appropriate for the type of building it is, a Cathedral. I suppose that if you didn’t build an adequately lavish building to praise God he might drop some type of giant boulder upon you… and nobody wants that.

Purpose – I would think that the purpose of a building like this, apart from being a place to worship, is to leave people with a sense of awe about “the house of God” etc, I am sure that when this was built hundreds of years ago it most certainly achieved this goal with its size and decor.

Perhaps this is a checklist we can all use to guide us when designing our presentation slides. It is well and fine to add decoration to your slides so long as you address the following questions.

  1. Is it consistent with the rest of my presentation
  2. Is the design symmetrical
  3. Is the design appropriate – pictures of cute kittens might work for a presentation on kittens, might not for financial projections
  4. What is the purpose of adding this decoration, image, colour etc. Is it to inspire awe, promote understanding, distract from some awful piece of info… what is it?
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