Article Category: Visual Aids

How to Improve Your PowerPoint Slides with the Rule of Thirds


How to Improve Your Slides with the Rule of ThirdsDesigning 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:

Rule of Thirds - Blank Grid

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!)

Rule of Third - Grid with Power Points

How do Photographers Use the Rule of Thirds?

Rule of Thirds - Tree on Power PointRule #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 of Thirds - Horses on LandscapeRule #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 of Thirds - slideologyRule #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 of Thirds - Woman in BikiniRule #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?”

Rule of Thirds - PowerPoint Slides

The result?

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Rule of Thirds - PowerPoint Slide WithText

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.

Rule of Thirds - PowerPoint Slides with Text

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.

Further Reading: Rule of Thirds

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Comments icon37 Comments

  1. Wow! This is a truly great post. Great reading. Very usable information. Excellent examples.

    I look forward to exploring this site in greater detail.

    Roger

  2. Great post, Andrew. Makes the concept of slide design a little easier to grasp.

  3. Aliya says:

    These are some really great tips – I knew about the rule of thirds before, but these are some great ways to implement it into my visuals for my presentations. Another excellent way to enhance presentations that I’ve stumbled across recently is using technology, things like polls or trivia questions to the audience.

  4. Jim Cronin says:

    great stuff,truly great.a muust read(and action!) for all speakers

  5. Joey Asher says:

    Interesting article. In order to use this type of compositional style, you need to make sure that you simply limit the amount of stuff you put on the slides. The key is to start creating your presentation by focusing the message on a few key points. Then decide what you need to do to illustrate it.

  6. Great post! I was familiar with this tip before, but this really helps drive home the point.

    Great work!
    MR

  7. Michelle says:

    Very cool. You made this uber easy. Thank you!

  8. Oliver says:

    Hi,

    thanks for the nice post!

    Funny coincidence, I had a very similar post on my blog just last week http://www.rethinkpresentations.com/the-rule-of-thirds-and-your-slides/

    Regards,
    Oliver

  9. Great post! I’m working on a preso right now and I had forgotten all about the rule of thirds. Yeah, I’m going to have to go back and do a lot of work to make everything line up now, but the final product will be worth it!

    Thanks for taking the time and providing so many examples!

  10. Ven says:

    Hi,
    It’s a great post. I did not know the rule of the thirds before. I will implement in my next presentation.
    Thanks.
    Ven

  11. Alex says:

    great article! i want to use the tips.

    however, i have difficulties setting the guides properly in Power Point.

    i can move the guides only to pre-set position which make it impossible to set up the guides according to the rule of thirds.

    can anybody help?

  12. Tess says:

    Great post, which I’ve put into use already.

    Powerpoint has a default grid running horizontally and vertically through the mid point of slides.

    To create the grid of thirds, press the Ctrl key while selecting a gridline and it will create a copy.

  13. Anthonie says:

    Hi

    I am driven to your article buy the great ideas that you have proposed – thankyou very much.

    Please explain my confusion within Rule #2 against Rule#3
    Rule #2 – Place Key Elements of Your Composition Along Horizontal Lines…
    Rule #3 – Place Key Elements of Your Composition Along Vertical Lines – which one is the one?

    Thankyou

    Anthonie

  14. These indepth theoretical blog posts are thought provoking and enormously useful. Although I don’t have any Powerpoint projects cooking at the moment, I’ll be able to re-evaluate my slides against this advice next time. Many thanks. Rgds Vince

  15. Allyncia says:

    That sure forces one’s eye to a new critical level. Excellent article! I will do my best to apply this to my finished works to see if some can be improved.

  16. Ed says:

    Great post Andrew, I recently put together a short video explaining how this can be achieved in powerpoint by manipulating the drawing guidelines.

    Here is it: http://clearlypresentable.wordpress.com/2009/11/23/the-rule-of-thirds-part-2-how-to-do-it/

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      Thanks for that, Ed!

  17. Diane Carlson says:

    Very nice presentation .. And then we see Andy’s picture sans the rule of 3.
    Is this a topic for another post?

  18. Thanks for this article, Andrew. It’s very helpful. I’m a former singer/actress, recently turned public speaker and presentation skills trainer. Although my main focus is on inner confidence and outer stage presence, I do use PowerPoint to illustrate things like what’s going on in the brain when you’re nervous. It’s funny, I use the “rule of thirds” in my own paintings, but it never occured to me to use it in PowerPoint slides. Thanks for helping me make my slides better.

  19. Excellent article. Very clear and to the point. Your graphics and examples are fabulous.

    Thanks!

  20. susan says:

    Awesome! I knew about the rule of thirds for photography, but never applied it to powerpoint slides. Thanks!

  21. JD Ebberly says:

    This is a very helpful article; it will revolutionize the way I set up Powerpoint slides for Slideshare presentations from now on. Thank you so much for sharing! This article WILL be retweeted! You have sure got MY trust! Have any eBooks for sale? I may just buy them! Thanks again! BRILLIANT blog!! Great work!!

  22. muller ted says:

    Thanks for such a great post and great site full of invaluable knowledge.

    -muller

  23. This is an excellent post, I have never thought of positioning slides in this way… will make use of this in the future -thanks!

  24. Outstanding, Andrew!

    I’ve always heard of this rule, but never quite understood it and the impact it can have on a slideshow.
    You explained it exceptionally well and gave great visual examples.

    Thanks for the Post!

  25. Dr James says:

    This was an awesome article. I learned a lot. Thanks.

    Gene

  26. Great, exceptionally useful article, Andrew. Since we have such a great tool in PowerPoint, let’s all look at how we can increase our use of visuals through these guidelines to convey messages more powerfully, and stop cluttering up slides with too many W-O-R-D-S.

  27. Dharamjeet Bucktowar says:

    lidesI have been preparing slides, never thought of the four Power Points.

    I agree they give a better presentation of the slides. I work again on the slides and request comments from the audience.

    Thanks

  28. Great info, Andrew. I knew a little about image composition for photography, but not to this level of detail. Interesting how the rules apply to PPT slides, as well.

  29. Jothi says:

    So Informative! and you’re a great educator!

  30. Michael Smith says:

    Fantastic – Thankyou, Thankyou, Thankyou

  31. Harban says:

    Great article. I learnt something in furtherance to my photography knowledge. Keep it up

  32. This is really a great information. Thanks for sharing. Now I understand the secret behind great slide composition and how to apply it.

  33. Eddie Rivera says:

    Thanks for the insightful advice.

  34. Steven J Fromm says:

    Hey Andrew: Amazing and interesting post. I never knew about this concept but your discussion and examples really explains how it can work to your advantage. Thanks for all the practical and insightful tips. I am going to also pass this on to my wife who does a lot of work in this area. Best to you.

  35. Roger T. Imai says:

    Andrew, in these days when people typically make more personal contact over the phone and Facebook than in person, and no longer know how to conduct themselves in face-to-face interactions, training in presentation will become a valued asset. I shared your Rule of Thirds as it applies to images shared on FB.

  36. Jaime says:

    Another awesome, helpful article! I love it! Thank you!!

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ApplauseInc

@ApplauseInc @ApplauseInc — Sep 10th, 2013

How to Improve Your PowerPoint Slides with the Rule of Thirds http://t.co/IhvRA3W8L8 via @6minutes

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@oelorrieta @oelorrieta — Oct 1st, 2013

Mejora tus Power Points usando la regla de tercios… http://t.co/Y7DC6d3OsP un artículo interesante si tienes que hacer PowerPoints

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@emmadenk3 @emmadenk3 — Oct 25th, 2013

RT @thinkingonrfeet: Check out this article on using a simple method for getting more impact out of your presentations: http://t.co/gUNlFyL…

GaryGenard

@GaryGenard @GaryGenard — Apr 11th, 2014

Use PowerPoint? Read Andrew Dlugan at @6minutes: “Rule of Thirds: Improve Your PowerPoint Slides” http://t.co/Hu1pbN5MDB

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@yamsroun @yamsroun — Jun 4th, 2014

RT @chiseok: PT만들때 황금분할(?) 법칙 ^^ 알아두면 도움이 … http://t.co/VG2cwUjy

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