episode 81: Grids, Guides and Gutters

  • Grids and Guidelines are two hidden PowerPoint features that few know of, or use. Most do not know they originate from traditional print design and are very powerful design tools for slide design. Even if you cannot immediately recognize them, chances are that virtually every professionally designed print layout is making use of a grid in some way. Gutters are a standard print design element, adapted as “Safe View Area” for video projects, and often overlooked and not addressed in presentation design. Join Nolan, Sandy and Troy, as they get a bit design geeky and talk about how these three traditional design tools can be leveraged in presentation design.

 Let’s explain the concept of grids, guides, gutters, etc. in design.

  • Troy: I come from a print design background, so to me grids, guides and gutters are all just a part of professional design. You need them for continuity across a multi-page document – or a multi-slide presentation, or across all elements in a large campaign, similar to the way a proper template keeps consistency across multiple presenters.
  • Sandy: Grids help bring order to visual design and I’m surprised at how many trained designers forget about grids when it comes to creating slides. Not only do grids create order for a slide, they create order from slide to slide, which helps eliminate cognitive overload and over stimulation. Grids are usually invisible to the viewer.
  • Nolan: Leaving gutters for later, in PowerPoint guides are what most people are familiar with. PowerPoint gives you those dotted lines that you can move to help in aligning your content. Those guides can be used by themselves or they can be used to create a grid system for your whole deck or on particular slides. OR, use PowerPoint’s built-in grid feature, which it is helpful to know can be customized (go to the view tab and click the little corner icon for the grids dialogue box which allows you to customize that grid box size). Note: grid customization and even visibility is only on the PC. On the Mac, you can snap to the built in grid, but you can’t see it.

Where are Guides, Grids and Gutters found in PowerPoint?

  • Guides are the most common element of the three and PowerPoint starts every file with 2 preset guides, at the 0 X and Y axis’. To see them:
    • Right-click the edit space, outside the slide, and there is a “Grids & Guides” menu
    • From the Ribbon, go to VIEW > SHOW section
    • Or, for me (Troy), because I use them so often, the view Guides button is one of the elements on my QAT
  • Grids are turned on with either the same right-click or VIEW tab > SHOW section
  • Gutters are not really a baked in feature of PowerPoint, so the design concept is executed with the creative use of Guides. They only place they show up, under a different name, but the same concept is if a text box is set to be multicolumn.

What do you consider when setting up a grid? 

  • Troy: There are a lot of design rules for the grid to use, but taking a step back further, we are talking about presentation design and the medium, in this case a projected slide, has a set of technical considerations before the grid can be decided on; is the audience 20-40-100′ away? Another consideration is the content is not going to be visible for long. Both of these are considerations for not using a dense grid, which promote a lot of content on the layout.
  • Nolan: I think the main thing to think about is how complicated you want your grid to be.
  • Sandy: I look at the storyboard/content as a guide then build the template based on a grid. Sometimes when I get a clean up project, I will create a grid using the client’s existing “Title and Content” placeholder as the basis.

What types of grids are there?

  • Nolan: The simplest grids are made up of equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines, and the simplest of those is probably a two column grid in which you bisect a slide into two halves. Generally I think of the grid as the vertical columns rather than rows, because that is how a newspaper is set.
  • Sandy: A Baseline Grid establishes margins. Multi-column. Modular. Hierarchical. All types of grid systems that can be implemented.
  • Troy: One of the problems with using the PowerPoint grid, is that it cannot be modified for margins around the outer perimeter of the slide, then the uniform grid inside those margins. The perimeter margin is important because it creates that “safe view area” understanding that if this presentation is going to be projected, there’s a very good chance that some of your edges will be cut off, of “over-projected” as is very common. This keeps real content from being in the safe view area and nothing important is cut off.
  • Nolan: There are also some non-standard grids that involve lines that are not horizontal and vertical. The big one most people know is the golden ratio. This uses a curved line, but in the end it still chops up the page into small differently sized rectangles. There was a new grid created a few years ago that Julie Terberg turned me on to. The Golden Canon Grid is very cool.

Why grids are important in PowerPoint?

  • Nolan: Consistency, but also grids can end up giving you a lot more ideas as a designer than you would have without them.
  • Sandy: They introduce the concept of hierarchy, which allows you to move the audience through a slide consistently.
  • Troy: They create a uniform structure to design within across the presentation.

Do you use the default grids in PowerPoint?

  • Nolan: As I mentioned, I never use PowerPoint’s built-in grid.
  • Sandy: Never. And if you look at Microsoft’s templates that come with PowerPoint; they don’t either. I wonder though, if these could be helpful in setting up a custom grid using Guides.
  • Troy: The default .08″ option is never used.

Discuss setting up guides in PowerPoint to create a grid

  • Nolan: I’m going to have to give a plug for the YouTools add-in that we’ve discussed before. It has an absolutely amazing grids feature. It is only on the PC. It allows you to numerically set grids including margins, gutters and whether the grids are on the slides, layouts or master. It has changed the way I create grids. You can set them up in seconds and do it with pixel perfect accuracy.
  • Troy: Our office loves this add-in! And has made setting up designs based on a uniform grid so much faster to put in place.
  • Sandy: I can’t believe I’ve never used it. Please don’t judge, but I use tables to get up my grids. I’ll build the table the way I want the slide layout to be then add Guides to match.

What type of grids to you use in PowerPoint?

  • Sandy: Mostly hierarchical
  • Troy: I don’t really use grids, but use the grid as the basis for setting up guidelines that work with the slide layouts. So the guidelines are based on a grid, but the grid is turned off. As I mentioned earlier, the PowerPoint grids cannot account for a “safe view area” or the ability to decide where the grid offset originates.
  • Nolan: I don’t use grids as much as I should. But in general, I’m very partial to 3 column grids. When we do portrait print documents in PowerPoint, we almost always do a three column grid and have text in two columns or spanning two columns. I just find 3 columns to be very flexible and simple.

Do you use the color coding for guides that is a more recent feature?

  • Nolan: I tend not to. I can see how it would be helpful, but usually not. It just ends up feeling more cluttered than keeping to one color.
  • Sandy: I apply color coded guides to differentiate Title, Section and Closing slide layouts.
  • Troy: I love this feature. It gets even a bit more in depth when you realize you can have Master Slide level guides as a color, Master Layout level guides another set of colors and finally slide level guides as their own color. We do a lot of guides, all based on a grid, at the Master Layout level so they show up only when using that layout (and do not clutter other layouts with gridlines that are not relevant).

Default column settings in PowerPoint vs. setting up multiple columns in layouts

  • Nolan: Okay, are we talking about columned text within a single text box? Because PowerPoint makes it very difficult to setup and use, which should be addressed.
  • Sandy: This is a nightmare to manage and I try to avoid using multicolumn text boxes.
  • Troy: This is a problem to setup and use. I feel it is a feature where I feel the Program Managers on the PowerPoint team had it listed as something to integrate but did not really understand the purpose or how industry standard programs implemented them. Multi-column text boxes are so awesome to have for design, and so finnicky to setup and use in PowerPoint, they are something a lot of people avoid because they can cause as many issues with content reflows as they help solve.

What about gutters?

  • Nolan: I think gutters have a few definitions, and I don’t think you’ll find the word gutter anywhere in the PowerPoint UI…
  • Troy: For print design, on something like a bound book, gutters are critical to setup ahead of the actual content layouts. You need to know what the safe area for content is before it is too close to the spine and will not be visible because pages do not lie flat on a book. For PowerPoint slides, projection at the outer edge is a consideration. Because PowerPoint does not address Gutters or Margins, I am grouping them together in this conversation.
  • Nolan: So you’re defining gutters essentially as margins, right? I generally talk about gutters as the space between columns. PowerPoint calls that “spacing” in the dialogue box when you’re setting text columns. The YouTools add-in, in the Guides setup dialogue box calls that spacing “gutters.” So you grouping them into the same topic is works as no one really seems to name these what they are. Gutters are also the spacing between columns in a newspaper grid. Critical and easy to setup in most programs. In PowerPoint for three vertical columns of text we are manually adding 3 text boxes and manually spacing them apart where the automated gutters are in every other layout program.

If a designer uses a Grid, or sets up Guides in a template, how do you ensure that your clients are aware of them, and know to use them?

  • Sandy: When I hand off the template and hold training, I very briefly discuss the concept of a grid and that every single element on the slide is where it is because of the grid and all the work is already done for them. I also tell them (and write in template instructions) not to move placeholders as this will directly impact the overall grid setup.
  • Troy: We often include a tutorial slide in the master template that explains the guides, their colors, what the rules they create. I don’t think we use the term “grid” and the goal is to simplify the concept of a grid into just a few guidelines and rules that when used create that consistency of a grid across all presentations and slide layouts.


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