episode 31: What Makes a Real PowerPoint Template Real


PowerPoint templates are a real thing, not a collection of slides. A real template is an aide to everyone by establishing styling options, consistency parameters, and presets to make design time faster. Troy, Nolan, Sandy have an in-depth conversation about what makes a template a template, with plenty of tips and best practices, and why a real template has tremendous value.


How do you define “template?”

  • Nolan: Semantics is definitely an issue, but I explain a PPT template being a custom-designed master or masters + a series of custom layouts, color & font themes, default items and usually example slides, using those layouts. But it very often includes boilerplate slides, icon libraries, image libraries, tutorials & how-to’s, charting examples and styles, designed notes pages, plug ‘n play client logo and shapes pages, etc.
  • Troy: I started using the term “full-featured template” as a way to open the conversation to what is not a real template. To me, a template is a file that holds the style guide attributes in the presets and master slides with the goal of enabling anyone to develop slides consistent with everyone else using the template.
  • Sandy: A completely functional (Troy, I use “completely functional”), easy-to-use PowerPoint template helps ensure ongoing consistency and professional presentation design after I’ve stepped away from the project. With “pre-programmed” fonts, colors and content placement — and a one-hour how-to webinar for your power users, your users can be much further down the path of creating professional-looking slides.


What makes a template vs. a set of slides?

  • Sandy: I right click on the slide background to look at the layouts, which are typically the default Microsoft layouts.
  • Nolan: So, basically it’s a template if it’s using a customized master?
  • Troy: My 5 second test is to look at the slide layout drop down menu and the paint bucket to see the color scheme. If they are default values, or wrong, I know it is not a full featured template and formatting is going to take longer.


Do you develop PowerPoint templates – as client projects?

  • Nolan: I’ve found myself doing a lot of them the last few years at all different levels of complexity and involvement. Honestly, even though I think we’re good at them now, they’re not my favorite things to do because there is a lot of technical non-design work that needs to go into it, so many boxes to check and items to test and so much explaining to clients what can and can’t be done. They just require a lot of discipline. That said, it is one of the few things I do where I charge project rates, so I they can bring in good money. This is definitely one of those areas where my 90-day finalization clause can come in handy.
  • Sandy: Yes, I do a lot of them… more and more if clients come to me to do PowerPoint training using their corporate “template.”
  • Troy: 100+ per year. All are full featured with Microsoft presets, but many do not have design committees approving things after the concept design has been approved. These are templates for 1-off events, so we get approval on the overall look and then build out all of the master layouts, color scheme, fonts, etc. with our own decisions and hand off to client.


How can a template be good for colors in a presentation?

  • Troy: Every template my team develops has a customized color scheme and the distributed template has an information slide showing the color scheme with some notes on importance of using these (and not recent colors) colors throughout. The content across multiple presenters, all using the same template, should look connected, and consistent color scheme use is a big part of that.
  • Sandy: It helps eliminate the desire for personal preference — that is, “I don’t like green. I’m going to use purple instead.” As Troy mentioned, I too include reference to why the color scheme has been programmed into the template — because it is the approved color scheme. I always include a DO NOT USE reference to Standard Colors. And speaking of “custom colors,” you’re talking about Theme Colors.


Do you have any horror stories of color use in a slide deck without a template?

  • Nolan: Can’t think of any myself offhand.
  • Sandy: Client wanted light and dark Masters, but wasn’t willing to change/tweak accent colors to accommodate both, that meant the that certain chart colors wouldn’t be visible.
  • Troy: Template created with no black or white!


The only book in the known universe that covers PowerPoint templates is Julie Terberg and Echo Swinford’s “Building PowerPoint Templates” co-written back in 2012. It is still 100% relevant and a great resource on everything we are talking about. Have you read it, do you own it?

  • Nolan: It’s a bible and Julie and Echo know more about templates than anyone on earth. I would say every couple of months, I learn something new about templates from them and it’s infuriating because then I see what I wish I had done with a past project. I have a few long-term clients where I have to use templates I created for them years ago and I pull my hair out seeing all the mistakes I made.


Page size of template?

  • Troy: Technically we can use any numbers for the page size that are in the correct aspect ratio. For example, Microsoft made a huge change for 16×9 presentations from 10″x5.65″ to 13.333″x7.5.” Both are 16×9.
    • I just had a client using 12″x9″ for their corporate 4×3 template. Yes, it is 4×3, but it created all kinds of layout issues when importing slides based on the Microsoft 10″x7.5″ page size.
  • Nolan: 16:9 or 4:3.
  • Sandy: Right now, I’m working on a 11X8.5 template. They promise me that it’s for print only. Yeah, right.


How about being asked to fix a template designed by someone else?

  • Troy: I always ask if there is a need. I do not attempt the Super-theme thing where multiple aspect ratios are in a single file, too many ways for it to break. If needed, we build out one aspect ratio completely, get approved template, then build out 2nd aspect ratio as a separate task.
  • Nolan: Same here. I’d say my clients are split: 1/3 want 4:3, 1/3 want widescreen, 1/3 want both.
  • Sandy: Right now, it seems like most clients want both. I follow the exact same process as Troy.


What about add-ons for a template project?

  • Troy: Do not use format painter, eye dropper or any third party formatting tools when formatting the master slides or layouts – almost guaranteed to corrupt things.
  • Sandy: I always use Steve Rindsberg’s Hammer (now Thor) tool. It’s necessary, for sure, with the Two Content and Comparison layouts, which don’t follow the master. Why can’t MSFT fix this, by the way?


How do you address the need, or option, for multiple aspect rations, ie. 4×3 or 16×9 presentations on the corporate templates?

  • Troy: I always ask if there is a need. I do not attempt the Super-theme thing where multiple aspect ratios are in a single file, too many ways for it to break. If needed, we build out one aspect ratio completely, get approved template, then build out 2nd aspect ratio as a separate task.
  • Sandy: Right now, it seems like most clients want both. I follow the exact same process as Troy.
  • Nolan: Same here. I’d say my clients are split: 1/3 want 4:3, 1/3 want widescreen, 1/3 want both.


Have you ever had a project where you just said a template is not needed?

  • Nolan: Sometimes I’m lazy and just don’t even bother with layouts or masters for one off decks in which all slides are custom, maybe I’ll create a layout with a consistent background, but master elements are not really needed. I’ve also steered clients towards a MSFT default template or an off the shelf template when it’s clear it’s a low stakes or low budget situation. I also just recently re-skinned a client template for a customized pitch rather than design something new for them–saving them money.
  • Sandy: Not really. I always start with one — even if it’s a standard MSFT template.
  • Troy: Umm, Mac Keynote presentation projects, one-off photo albums, and blog post demo slides (ie. all real projects get a template).


What do you include in your real template?

  • Sandy: In the master: multiple layouts, sometimes multiple masters, font, colors (I usually don’ t mess with Effects). In the slide template: Part A: Overview of layouts and instructions for use, defaults, and other how-to’s. Sometimes how to save charts as templates. Part B: All the blank layouts. Part C: Example content in layouts. Part D: 1 hour training.
  • Nolan: Definitely the default Microsoft layouts. All that, but a few extras: logo plug n play page, icon library, how-to guide, notes on the pasteboard, named title placeholders for layouts…Environmentally friendly printing, .crtx files, .thmx files & consultation with IT, custom macros, etc. I give clients a big menu of things to choose from and then when I submit a proposal I include add-ons they can have in the future–it’s up-selling, but some clients like to be up-sold. My wife complains that I can be up-sold on any purchase and she’s probably right.
  • Troy: I very proudly say we develop full-featured templates, and our template build process goes through something like 290 presets items are customized from the default MS template file. Things go up from there with custom layouts (thank, TOC, contacts, quadrant layout options, theme/welcome, etc.). But the key elements are fonts are preset for slides, handouts, notes, custom color scheme, table default set, and all placeholders adjusted to fit background styling.


How many layouts do you typically include in your template? 

  • Nolan: Our simplest templates will have 6-12, and we always say those are based on typical client content; we’ve done up to 60 or 70 at client requests: usually variations on dividers for multiple programs or every slide with circular images duplicated with square images, but simpler is better and I try to steer clear of endless layouts.
  • Troy: The Microsoft 9 core layouts (we delete the sideways Asian layouts) and then add if any additional placeholders are requested. I would say 80% of our templates have 11 layouts. The MS 9, Full Frame and Theme.
  • Sandy: I recently created a template with 90 layouts.


Any last favorite template tricks or ones you recently learned?

  • Nolan: Divider layouts in master: “Do not use any layouts after this slide.”
  • Troy: Create separate Master slide for grouped layouts, ie. TOC.
  • Sandy: Add “do not use” to layouts that are not to be used, but are MS standard and kept in template file. Add instructions, if needed.


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