Three ways to structure visual information

How often does it happen that a piece of information we want to talk about in a presentation is far too complex to be put on one slide? The slide would be so confusing that it could put the listeners off rather than helping them to understand what we are talking about. Complex illustrations in a printed document can be taken in and digested by the reader in her own time; and they can be revisited at leisure. A presentation is a life event. The presenter sets the pace. All the listeners can do is follow that pace. It is our responsibility as presenters to break down the information density and simplify content so we can present it in chunks that our listeners are able to digest. When it comes to visual information, there are three ways to do that effectively: layering, highlighting, and zooming.


A good way to present complex information is to organize it into layers of related chunks that can be presented and explained one at a time. The layers are placed next to each other and appear in logical order. They can be organized in different ways, according to the relationships they illustrate.

Linear layering follows a simple chronological order with clearly defined beginning and end. Non-linear layering depicts relationships, starting at a top (hierarchical) or center point (web), or several points simultaneously (parallel), spreading out in more than one direction. This approach is often used in flowcharts of corporate structures, user guidance in software, or navigation of websites. Since all layers are placed next to each other this approach is called 2D layering.

3D layering is the process of adding opaque or transparent information layers to an existing object. The layers sit on top of each other and show several fragments of an illustration at a time. That approach can be used to deliver additional information or to show relationships inside a homogenous object with the advantage that more than one information layer is visible at a time.


When presenting complex information by revealing layer by layer of an illustration it might be necessary to give the audience additional visual guidance to direct their attention exactly to the point that is being talked about at the moment. Fragments of an object can be emphasized by highlighting them in a different color, making them lighter or darker, or outline them differently. That allows the presenter to “move” through an illustration by highlighting one fragment after the other.

Of course, text and numbers can be highlighted as well. Typographical highlighting can be done by coloring, by different font styles (italic), or font weights (bold). We should avoid using different fonts. Text, numbers, or illustration — the virtual movement from one fragment to the next should appear logical and smooth so that is easy for the listeners to follow; “jumps” in unexpected directions can be irritating. In order for highlighting to be effective, only a small fragment (no more than 20% of the slide real estate) should be highlighted — highlighting everything means highlighting nothing.


Sometimes, especially in technical presentations, it might be necessary to provide more specific information and explain a certain detail of an illustration. If the detail is relatively small, layering might not be the appropriate method since it does not allow a change of scale. We might want to “zoom in” the illustration to enlarge the detail. The most elegant way to do this would be a real zoom in one smooth move as often seen in documentaries on TV (i.e. zooming in on a detail of a satellite photo, or zooming into a group photo onto one person). That cannot be done easily with common presentation software at the moment.

So, it has to be done in a sequence of steps. Step 1: displaying the whole illustration (anchor). Step 2: highlighting the section containing the detail in question and “zooming” in by adding an enlarged version of that section to the anchor (zoom 1). Step 3: highlighting the detail in zoom 1 and “zooming” in by adding the enlarged detail to the sequence (zoom 2). This way even small details can be explained without losing orientation. Making the anchor object relatively small gives us the opportunity to make the zoom object bigger and allows us to “drill” even deeper if necessary.

Layering, highlighting, and zooming are three ways to visualize highly complex objects and relationships and present them in logical steps. Breaking down complex information into a sequence of slides makes it easier to present and gives the presenter the opportunity to make better use of the notes in the presenter view. Don’t be afraid of creating too many slides — there is no such thing as too many slides. Yet, there is such a thing as too much information on a slide.

Axel Wendelberger