People typically use Microsoft’s PowerPoint to create slide decks, but budget-conscious eLearning designers can leverage the powerful presentation program for other tasks such as print and digital layout, illustration, and the creation of video content.
Bianca Woods, a freelance instructional technologist and senior programming manager with The eLearning Guild, used to work for an international bank where she and her L&D team at times needed to to explore free or low-cost design options. She found PowerPoint to be an indispensable tool.
Below, Woods describes how L&D practitioners can successfully leverage PowerPoint to create more than just slide decks. For additional design ideas when working on a budget, download The Guild report, eLearning on a Shoestring, or register for The Guild’s online Free Tools for eLearning Spotlight on January 30.
“PowerPoint sometimes gets a bad rap, but it’s a versatile tool with many capabilities the talented designer can harness,” Woods says. “Almost everyone in a business situation has PowerPoint, and there’s a lot people can do in the program that they may not realize.”
Woods has been using PowerPoint for many years. “I speak regularly at conferences and rely on it all the time for making slide decks, which is its intended purpose,” she says. But she also leverages the program for illustration, video creation, and the layout of printed and digital documents.
She notes that many are surprised to discover that L&D projects designed in PowerPoint can be both visually appealing and functional. “When you tell people that you built a project in PowerPoint, there is a perception that it’s not as well-designed as something made in another tool,” Woods admits. “You must overcome people’s preconceived prejudices.”
Using examples from her portfolio, Woods shows how cost-conscious eLearning designers can leverage PowerPoint’s versatility to lay out printed and digital documents, create vector illustrations, and build video content. In each scenario below, she explains the advantage(s) of using PowerPoint as the design tool for the project, highlights any challenges she may have faced, provides helpful tips, and then shares an example.
Use PowerPoint to lay out printed material
In 2015, Woods created a series of branded, trifold pamphlets for fellow instructional designers at the bank as part of an internal professional development initiative. “Bank branches commonly have a section for customers with trifold pamphlets about their products and services. The idea was to mirror that in order to make it resonate with our internal audience,” she explains.
Since Woods’ L&D team didn’t have access to traditional design software, she turned to PowerPoint. Her solution was to create two slides, divide them into thirds, and add text and graphics. The PDF files were printed and distributed to onsite staff, and digital versions were made available to offsite personnel.
Advantages: “Since everyone has PowerPoint, it was very easy for me to bounce the project off multiple people while in development,” Woods says. “It was also easy for me to hand over the source files when I left the job. Someone who lacked experience with more traditional layout tools like InDesign could still easily edit or update these files.”
Challenges: With layout tools like InDesign, text automatically flows from column to column. In PowerPoint, designers must manually move the content. The bigger challenge, says Woods, was fitting the necessary content into the limited space she had available. She notes that this problem is not unique to PowerPoint.
Tip: “Be aware that the finished product may appear different on screen than it does when printed out,” Woods warns. “For instance, our office printers couldn’t print edge to edge, so I had to take into consideration the small border our in-house printers would add to the design.”
Example: This two-sided trifold pamphlet gave people a quick introduction to flipped classrooms, and it worked well in both printed and digital forms.
Use PowerPoint to create eBooks
Woods created numerous eBooks in PowerPoint while at the bank. Unlike the printed brochures described above, this content was designed primarily for digital consumption. It required functional interactivity, such as hyperlinks.
“Designing in PowerPoint, it was a cinch for me to insert hyperlinks in the table of contents so readers could quickly jump to different sections of the document,” Woods said. “And using Adobe Acrobat Pro, I was able to incorporate fillable fields.”
Advantages: Woods points out that L&D team members working on different platforms can seamlessly edit and share PowerPoint source files. In addition, since eBooks designed in PowerPoint are exported as PDF files, Mac, Windows, and mobile users can read them without installing the PowerPoint software or app.
Challenge: “The biggest challenge was the same one I faced when creating documents for print—PowerPoint doesn’t automatically flow text from column to column, so I had to manually distribute the text,” Woods says.
Tip: “Consider accessibility when designing digital content in PowerPoint,” says Woods, whose approach to making eBooks in PowerPoint was influenced by Nancy Duarte. She discovered that screen readers processing PDFs created in PowerPoint display elements in the order in which they were put on the slide. “Using Copy and Paste, we would re-assemble each and every slide after the project was finalized so the elements would appear in the order we wanted them read,” Woods says. Obviously, this step is unnecessary when designing for print output.
Example: This table of contents from an internal eBook set the stage for the content, and also provided a quick way to jump to different sections through hyperlinks.
Use PowerPoint as an illustrating tool
A lot of people don’t realize that PowerPoint can be used to create vector images. Woods notes that this comes in handy for budget-conscious designers who lack access to costly tools such as Adobe Illustrator.
Advantage: “PowerPoint offers creative designers an inexpensive way to make their own graphics or icons,” she says. The program has functionality for merging shapes together, or pulling them apart.
Challenges: “No matter how much training one might have in visual art, it can be a challenge to transform an idea into an on-screen design,” Woods says. “Designers must know how compile simple shapes in order to build a complex graphic. They must also understand what colors go together.”
Tip: Practice by deconstructing and rebuilding existing drawings. “Look at your company’s logo or interesting icons and try to replicate them in PowerPoint, using simple shapes. Although you would probably never use the finished file, it’s a fun way to challenge yourself,” she says.
Example: With basic layering and the Merge Shapes functionality in PowerPoint, it’s easy for anyone to put together simple icons.
Use PowerPoint to create video content
Designers can create slides with intricate timing sequences in PowerPoint, and export their work as an .mp4 or .mov video files. Woods has leveraged the process to craft tutorial and explainer videos. The secret involves the Animations tab.
“Instead of having the animations move forward with clicks, they must be set to start With Previous or After Previous and incorporate Delay settings to get the animations to trigger at the exact times you want them to,” Woods explains. “When exported as a video it appears to be standard animation, retaining all the timing and effects you set up in the PowerPoint source file.”
Advantage: Traditional video editing programs can be expensive and complicated to learn. Although there is a learning curve to creating timed slide sequences in PowerPoint, Woods says that the process can be time consuming but is not particularly difficult.
Challenges: “You don’t have a timeline, like you do in Storyline or Captivate. You do have an animation pane, so you can look at your actions in order. But you have to hold a lot in your head,” Woods admits. In addition, like any animation tool, the PowerPoint assets must be meticulously arranged in order for the movement to work the way the designer intended them to.
Tip: “If you’re new to creating complex animations in PowerPoint, a lot will be happening on the screen at once,” Woods says. “For my own sanity, I keep track of the components by carefully labeling them so they don’t get lost among the layers.” She notes that PowerPoint automatically assigns components generic titles. Woods renames the components so she can easily target them when setting up animation sequences. “I learned the hard way that if I want the coffee cup on my screen to move, it is easier for me to find it by that name than by Rectangle 4,” she says.
Example: Woods created a series of design videos in PowerPoint. View them here: