You might assume that presentations have dramatically changed in the last forty to fifty years. You'd be wrong.

I believe that most people approach designing presentations today in precisely the same way a person would fifty years ago. Don't believe me? Let's have a look at the recent history of presenting.

First Came the Overhead Projector

What is an overhead projector, you might ask? Well, prior to PowerPoint and its digital predecessors, the most common mode of presenting visual information to a large audience was the overhead projector. As a matter of fact, the first versions of PowerPoint (developed exclusively for Macintosh computers) had only one way to share your creation with a large audience: printed overhead transparencies.

Images courtesy Wikimedia Commons: NASA Columbia crew in pre-flight class, overhead projector, students in a German vocational school

If you're not familiar with the overhead projector, it functioned by shining a light through a transparent piece of plastic with either printed or written words and illustrations on it. The light shone upwards and was projected onto the wall using a lens and mirror.

Overhead presentations were either written in real-time while the presenter was speaking, or they were "revealed" by first covering the transparent page with a sheet of paper and then slowly moving the sheet of paper downwards to display stages of the slide.  The Computer History Museum created a great video about these overhead projectors for the curious:

PowerPoint Demonstration: Overhead Projectors (from the Computer History Museum)

Transparencies Inspire a Presentation Revolution

The book Sweating Bullets by the creator of PowerPoint, Robert Gaskins, is full of interesting anecdotes about PowerPoint's origins. For instance, while he was developing PowerPoint, Gaskins had to lobby Apple to enable landscape printing, as a landscape orientation mirrored the layout of computer and projection screens. You can thank Gaskins (and PowerPoint) next time you print something in landscape.

Gaskins also described an early international work trip where he collected overhead transparencies used in sales pitches from tech companies he was visiting. An analysis of these slides ultimately helped Gaskins develop a list of priorities for PowerPoint, but they also give us an interesting insight into what overhead presentations looked like in the early 1980s. Looking at the first batch of 400 transparencies from his collection, he divided the slides into categories based on design elements:

Feature Percentage
Title above a diagram 30%
Title above a diagram above a single-level bullet list 28%
Title above a single-level bullet list 12%
Title only, or diagram only 6%
Title above diagram and a single-level bullet list, side by side 4%
Title above diagram and a single-level bullet list, overlapping 3%
Title above a two-level bullet list (multiple items at top level) 4%
Title above a two-level bullet list (one item at top level) 2%
Title above a three-level bullet list [only one example found] 0%
Title above two single-level bullet lists, side by side 2%
Title above a paragraph of text 2%
Other (including tables) 7%

While Gaskins used this information to help guide the order in which he developed features for PowerPoint, it tells us that, at a broad level, not a lot has changed in how presentations are designed.

As a matter of fact, when PowerPoint was launched in 1987, it came with this fun sample presentation in which Christopher Columbus pitches exploring the New World to Queen Isabella:

30 Years of PowerPoint Evolution

Every now and then, I like to search Twitter for keywords like "conference presentation" and look through the images it returns. Here are some representative (and well-liked) examples I've come across from the last year:

Wait a minute. Do you notice any similarities with the original PowerPoint example slides? While there is a lot we can learn from the history of PowerPoint, perhaps the most important lesson is that many contemporary presentations haven't really come all that far from what shipped with PowerPoint 1.0.

Let me be clear; these are not poorly-designed presentations, they're just models of the classic PowerPoint aesthetic. But if you're willing to take a chance and look at your presentations with a creative eye, I firmly believe that we can leave behind the PowerPoint 1.0 tradition and make room for more captivating narratives and engaging visuals. More on that to come.

Classics Never Go Out of Style

In-browser emulation of PowerPoint 1.0

For those of you who would like learn (or remember) what it was like to design a slide in the 1980s first-hand, I present you with an in-browser emulation of PowerPoint 1.0. Be sure to check out the Columbus presentation above by opening the "Sample Presentations" folder and double-clicking "Columbus." You advance through the slides by pressing the down arrow on the bottom-left side of the screen.

This web emulator is a lightly modified version of James Friend's pce.js in-web browser. Retroweb also hosts a great historically-focused emulation. Finally, for those of you who would like to explore more historical software, check out the Internet Archive's Software Library. I share this emulation in the spirit of fair use for nonprofit, educational purposes. The computer code and software is copyrighted by its respective owners. This website has no connection to the creators and/or owners of this software. If you would like for me to remove any of this content, please contact me.