How to Improve Your PowerPoint Slides with the Rule of Thirds
Designing attractive slide visuals does not need to be a painful task. You don’t need to hire a design firm. You don’t need loads of expensive software.
You can design attractive visuals by following simple guidelines. One of these simple guidelines is the Rule of Thirds — a composition technique borrowed from photography and other visual arts that works wonderfully in PowerPoint.
In this article, you will learn:
- What is the Rule of Thirds?
- How do photographers use the Rule of Thirds?
- How can you apply the Rule of Thirds to Your PowerPoint slides?
What is the Rule of Thirds?
The Rule of Thirds is a guideline for composition that suggests placing key graphic elements along lines which divide your image into thirds, or at the intersections of those lines.
What does that mean? I’m glad you asked.
Imagine your PowerPoint slide is divided both vertically and horizontally into thirds, like this:
PowerPoint Tip: You can use the guides feature to draw these four lines into your PowerPoint template. They will then appear on every slide to help you compose your slide.
- The vertical lines divide your image into thirds.
- The horizontal lines divide your image into thirds.
- Together, they divide your image into 9 equal areas.
- These lines intersect at four points — known as Power Points. (Seriously! They really are!)
How do Photographers Use the Rule of Thirds?
Rule #1 – Place Key Elements of Your Composition at Power Points
In this example, the key element is pretty obvious — the tree.
Rather than centering this element in the photograph, the artist has chosen to center it on over the top-left Power Point.
Even in an image with more elements (i.e. not just a “grass” background), the viewer’s eye is drawn to these Power Points. By placing key elements at one or more of these Power Points, you achieve maximum impact.
Rule #2 – Place Key Elements of Your Composition Along Horizontal Lines
Novice photographers are tempted to place the horizon in the middle of the frame. This is generally not the best approach.
In this example, the photograph has placed the horizon (and also the line formed by the tops of the horses) along the lower horizontal line.
Additionally, the upper horizontal line conveniently divides the upper dark blue sky from the lower cloud-covered sky.
The overall effect is balance between the three horizontal bands of color from top to bottom: dark blue, white, and brown.
Rule #3 – Place Key Elements of Your Composition Along Vertical Lines
This example shows the book cover of Nancy Duarte’s excellent slide:ology (previously reviewed by Six Minutes).
This isn’t a photograph, but the designer has (consciously or unconsciously) applied the rule of thirds.
Here, the white silhouette of the presenter is bisected by the left vertical dividing line.
Appropriately, Duarte writes this in slide:ology about the Rule of Thirds:
Composing your photos based on a simple grid of thirds is a trick used by movie producers, graphic designers, and professional photographers. Using the rule of thirds leads to aesthetically pleasing and professional-looking imagery.
Rule #4 – Place Key Elements of Your Composition at Power Points and simultaneously on Dividing Lines
In this example, the upper horizontal line lies across the horizon, separating the sky in the upper third from the water in the lower two thirds.
Simultaneously, the woman in this photograph is placed on the upper-right Power Point.
Furthermore, consider the line that is formed from the top of the woman’s head, down the middle of her back, and right through to the reflection on the water. Where is it? Centered on the right vertical dividing line.
So, this photograph blends elements on two of the four lines and one of the Power Points.
Does the Rule of Thirds Really Result in More Pleasing Compositions?
Are you skeptical?
I was. So, I decided to perform a simple test with the audiences of a PowerPoint seminar that I have given several times.
My test photograph is a landscape photo shown in the upper left of the four images below. By zooming this image slightly, and then moving it up and down on a slide, I created the three slides shown below (without the rule of thirds dividing lines that you see here, of course).
- Slide A shows the tree line down the middle of the photograph.
- Slide B has the tree line lying along the upper horizontal dividing line.
- Slide C has the tree line lying along the lower horizontal dividing line.
Each time I give this seminar, I ask the audience a simple question: “Which of the three slides is most pleasing to you?”
Less than 5% of audience members choose Slide A. Some say “It’s boring.” Others remark that “I couldn’t decide what was important in the photo.”
Slides B and C were chosen roughly half of the time. Audience members found one or the other (or both) to be “pleasing” and “interesting.” Is it a coincidence that both of these slides use the Rule of Three, while slide A did not?
Which of the three do you like best?
How Can You Apply the Rule of Thirds to Your PowerPoint Slides?
- Look for photographs which obey the Rule of Thirds
If you are using photographs which bleed right to the edges of your slides (a good way to achieve maximum impact), try to choose photographs which use the Rule of Thirds.
- Scale, crop, or position photographs to follow the Rule of Thirds
When scanning photographs, use your mental viewfinder to find a small area within a larger photograph that you can use. For example, suppose the tree/grass example above were originally a much larger photograph with a tree in the middle. By cropping asymmetrically, you can create a more pleasing image using simple photo editing tools. This is easily done in Photoshop or any photo editing software.
- Combine images with text so that one or both obey the Rule of Thirds
Two great ways to do this are to choose photographs with either:
- Large areas of uniform color on top of which you can place text with good contrast, OR
- A solid color background (white works best!) so that you can move the photograph around seamlessly on top of the slide background.
The example below is the title slide from one of my presentations. I used a stock photo which provides a visual metaphor for my topic (i.e. the blue piece stands out among all the yellow pieces). Since this photograph has a white background, I was able to place it off-center so that the blue piece landed on the upper-left Power Point. I then placed my slide text (in a matching color) centered on the lower horizontal line, anchored on the right vertical line.
Below are two more examples taken from my presentation design course.
On the left, I cropped a much larger photograph so that the stream of water falls along the right vertical line. Further, it hits the overflowing glass at exactly the lower horizontal line. Since the image background is out of focus, it provides good contrast for black text which I centered on the upper horizonal line.
On the right, I took a photograph of a trash bin and a white background and placed it on top of the lower-right Power Point. The white background of the photograph blends perfectly with the clean, white slide background. The text is positioned carefully with the most dramatic word — disaster — bolded and placed on the upper-left Power Point.
Will Using the Rule of Thirds Take More Time?
When you first become conscious of it during slide design, it may take you longer to choose and lay out your slides. However, it will save time and improve your visuals in the long run.
In Presentation Zen (previously reviewed on Six Minutes), Garr Reynolds writes about the Rule of Thirds:
You need to limit your choices so that you do not waste time adjusting every single design element to a new position. I recommend that you create some sort of clean, simple grid to build your visuals on. [...] Grids can save you time and ensure that your design elements fit more harmoniously on the display.