Dark or light backgrounds in Powerpoint?

powerpoint logoThis is one of the most frequent questions I've been asked over the years. Whether you are using one of the templates that come packaged with PowerPoint, or you're creating your own layout design, this is one of the first decisions you will need to make. And as is true with most things that involve your computer, the answer is: It depends. The best place to start is by asking yourself where and how your presentation is going to be used.

1) You are showing your presentation on an overhead screen using a video projector:

It is almost always easier to see your presentation on an overhead using a dark background and light text. As you're not printing anything here, there's no cost associated with using color. So go for it!

PowerPoint background color 1

2) You are showing your presentation on an overhead screen using an overhead projector and transparencies:

While it is probably still easier to see these using a dark background and light text, trying to print a solid background on a transparency using a color laser (or worse yet a color inkjet) can be very difficult and very expensive. If you're just printing one or two slides you may be OK, but if you've got a 30+ page presentation you'll be sorry if you attempt this. Printers will jamb, ink will smear, and you'll be going to the nearest office supply store to buy more inkjet cartridges. I had a $30,000 HP color laser printer start smoking and almost catch fire one time doing this after a transparency got stuck in the fuser cartridge. If the office sprinkler system had engaged I would have been looking for a new job that same day!

3) You are just printing out the sheets to distribute, and not giving an overhead presentation:

There's a reason why books are always black text on white paper: It works. Any documents that will be printed and distributed should always be dark text on a white or light background. Your printing costs are lower, and it is easier to read. End of story.

You may want to consider using something other than PowerPoint if this is what you're doing. Word or Excel (or a combination of both) may be better choices for a printed document.

PowerPoint background color 2

4) You are showing your presentation on an overhead screen with a video projector, but your also printing handouts to give to the attendees:

This is the most common scenario, one for which there is no clear-cut answer. I usually approach this by trying to determine which of the two (the overhead presentation, or the printed documents) is the most important.

If the overhead presentation is going to get the majority of the attention, and the handouts are just supporting documentation, I will usually still go with the dark background / light text style, with these modifications:

[Easy] I'll print the handouts using the 4 or 6 slide per page option. This will greatly reduce the time and expense involved with either in-house or outsourced printing.

PowerPoint background color 3

[Hard] I'll create a copy of the presentation just for printing, and change the background to white and use a dark text.

If the overhead presentation is just a cursory exercise, and the printed docs are the most important I will use the light background/dark text combination. It's not going to really matter that much if you're just quickly going through the slides, and your audience has the handouts they can refer to if they have trouble reading the screen.

Also, remember that when you are printing your handouts, in addition to being able to select the slides per page, you can also select whether to print in color, grayscale, or pure black and white:

PowerPoint light or dark backgrounds print options

The option you select will vary with your content, printing in grayscale or pure black and white will definitely save you money.

5) You're going to be showing a high percentage of images, with a relatively low percentage of text:

Regardless of whether you are showing this kind of presentation on an overhead or printing it, most times you should use a light background with dark text. There are a couple of reasons for this -

There are several different types of images available to place in your presentation, and only some of those will have a transparent background. Placing an image with a white background block on a dark background can look, well, amateurish:

PowerPoint background color 4

Conversely, if you are using images with transparent backgrounds it is likely that at least some of them will blend into your background, making them very difficult to see:

PowerPoint background color 5

A complete discussion of image types is beyond this discussion (and will be handled in other forums on this site), but it is enough to say that unless you've got a graphics department to help you, or a very familiar with graphics programs, getting your images to look good on a colored background can be very difficult and time consuming.

In most cases you'll be better off to stick to a white or light background, regardless of the image type:

PowerPoint background color 6

Here are some additional basic rules to keep in mind:

  1. Whichever style you go with, use elements with a large amount of contrast. In other words, don't use a light orange background and yellow text. If you're going to use a dark background pick a very dark color with a very light text. Or a very light background with a very dark text. The more contrast you have the easier it will be on your audience.
  2. It's not going to look the same on the overhead as it does on your computer monitor. Most video projectors can't produce the same quality image as your monitor can, so it's going to look a little 'muddier' when you show it on the screen. The ambient room lighting can also make a huge difference on how 'readable' your presentation is.

For a detailed list of other things to keep in mind when you're creating a presentation look here.

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