One of the things that differentiates professional design from “throw-items-on-the-screen” design (rookie design) is how well items align with each other. Alignment is one of the four major principles of visual design that Robin Williams discusses in her terrific book, The Non-Designer’s Design Book (read it, if you haven’t already!).

In that book, Williams says, “…nothing should be placed … arbitrarily. Every item should have a visual connection with something else…”

She explains that alignment between items that are physically separated connects these items in your mind via an invisible line. It tells your mind that they belong together.

In the rest of this article, I’ll discuss how to use PowerPoint alignment tools to make the placement of slide items look more professional in preparation for pulling the slides into an eLearning authoring program (the same principles obviously work for preparing presentations, too). Throughout the article, I’m using PowerPoint 2010 and showing PowerPoint 2010 screenshots. PowerPoint 2007 works almost identically.

Arrange Me

Because alignment is such a critical design concept, PowerPoint provides a set of positioning tools that you can reach from the Home tab (Drawing group) and also the Drawing and Picture tabs (Drawing group) when either of these context-sensitive tabs are activated. Figure 1 shows the Align menu and the positioning options that are possible using this menu.


drowdown align menu offerings in powerpoint

Figure 1 - Arrange menu in PowerPoint 2007/2010


Figure 2 shows menu buttons built in PowerPoint for an eLearning time-management course and placed on a slide. See a problem? They’re not lined up. Not even close.


Buttons: labeled; Where does it go?, Planning, Execution, and Tools

Figure 2 - Menu buttons for a time management course, not aligned


To align them, I selected them all, and from the Arrange menu, I selected Align?Align Middle. I then selected Align ?Distribute Horizontally so they are evenly spaced, horizontally. Much better! (Figure 3) Because these settings are often confusing, I briefly explain how each alignment setting works in Table 1.


Figure 3 - Menu buttons for a time management course, aligned


Table 1. Arrange menu settings


What it does

Align Left

This setting lines up the left border of the objects.

Align Center

This setting lines up the center of the objects vertically.

Align Right

This setting lines up the right borders of the objects.

Align Top

This setting lines up the top border of the objects.

Align Middle

This setting lines up the center of the objects horizontally.

Align Bottom

This setting lines up the bottom borders of the objects.

Distribute Horizontally

This setting evenly spaces out the objects horizontally.

Distribute Vertically

This setting evenly spaces out the objects vertically.



Another way to align objects is to turn on gridlines. If you look at Figure 1, you’ll see a menu item for turning on gridlines near the bottom of the Arrange menu. Figure 4 shows an example of gridlines turned on and objects placed on the screen using gridlines for guidance. I used the gridlines to center the clock and the planner between two of the navigation buttons and to align the clock and the planner with each other (when I took this screenshot, I wasn’t sure whether these two images should be aligned at the top or through the middle).

You can also change the size of the grid by changing the grid spacing (Arrange menu?Align?Grid Settings). This is especially helpful when you want finer placement control of if you have a lot of small items that you need to align.


the aformentioned buttons, plus clock and notebook icons

Figure 4 - Gridlines turned on


PowerPoint also allows you to add guidelines to your slides and use these to align objects or divide slides into areas. Guidelines are vertical and horizontal lines that you can place wherever you like on the slide. To add them, go to the View menu and check the Guides checkbox. By default, one vertical and one horizontal guideline appears at the center of the slide (Figure 5). (If you have eagle eyes, you may notice that I decided that the clock and the planner look better aligned through the middle and changed this in Figure 5.)


same image as previous with the addition of toolbar shown

Figure 5 - Guidelines turned on (default)


But here’s where guidelines really start to get cool. You don’t have to leave them where PowerPoint places them by default nor do you need to have only two of them. You can drag them where you need them and you can add additional guidelines by holding down the Ctrl key while dragging them. Then position them where you need them and place items on the slide using them as a guide.


finally adding the text Time and Priorities under the respective icons

Figure 6 - Guidelines turned on, with additional guidelines added


In Figure 6, I left the center vertical guideline and added two addition vertical guidelines to center text and images vertically. I moved the horizontal guideline up through the middle of the images and added another below it to center text. I used the ruler (which can be turned on from the View menu) to guide placement of the additional guidelines.