Tips for building a better presentation (the NSA way!)

Ed Snowden’s leak last June of the National Security Administration’s PRISM program for electronic communications surveillance exposed the vast reach of our government’s ability to spy on its citizens. But it also exposed something else to an unsuspecting and unprepared public, something far more sinister…


The “PRISM PowerPoint”, a 41-page leaked document explaining the details of the PRISM program, is a textbook case of how not to design a slideshow presentation. Redundancy, mish-mashed colors, and overly convoluted visuals permeate the entire presentation. One example is the original PRISM Collection slide from the leaked deck, shown here.


So how can you avoid these types of transgressions and create a focused, compelling presentation slide? Well, let us walk you through the five steps we’d take, and show you how to go from Powerpoint nightmare to presentation nirvana…or, at the least, avoid some common mistakes.


While visual redundancy, or repetition, is often quite effective across a large project to establish and prioritize certain common ideas and elements, it does NOT work well on a single power point slide. Redundant pieces of text and visual elements take up valuable space and confuse the message. As expected, this single PRISM slide is full of redundant images, so let’s see how we can reduce them…

1. Obvious Redundancies – The same exact element twice is always a bad idea on a single presentation slide, and for our example PRISM slide, it’s the bright red “TOP SECRET” line of text.  One the top…and the same exact line on bottom.  One mention should be enough to get the point across, so let’s remove the other. (Although, clearly the 2 mentions wasn’t enough to keep it from reaching our eyes!)

2. Inferred Redundancies – There are 10 companies that the PRISM program uses for surveillance.  We know that because of their logos along the top…but wait, aren’t these same mentioned as bullet-points in the content area of the slide?  Let’s remove one set of these…it’s wasted space AND confusing to have them both.

3. Already-Established Redundancies – Some redundancies should be removed because they’ve already been established earlier in the presentation.  We already know this is one slide amid a larger PRISM presentation.  So, it’s safe to assume the PRISM logo, the Special Source logo, and the partner companies (Google, Facebook, etc) have already been shown, either on the first page of the Presentation, or shortly thereafter.  There’s no need to remind the viewer every slide, so let’s get rid of those.*


Well, this is a good start!


In 1960 the U.S. Navy started using the design principle KISS or “Keep it simple, stupid”. The KISS principle states that most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complex; therefore simplicity should be a key goal in design and unnecessary complexity should be avoided. Though the original application of this principle was for the design of aircraft, it can easily be applied to communication and interactive design. By removing unnecessary and complex elements of any webpage, slide presentation, or interactive application the user can focus on the main message or function of that application, making it all the more salient and compelling.

1. Let’s take the large PRISM COLLECTION DETAILS Headline, and combine it with both sub headers above the two boxes to create a simpler headline for the whole page – “GENERAL COLLECTION DETAILS”.  With three words, we’ve saved some visual space and reduced the amount of text a viewer has to read. Visually, we can infer that the providers mentioned in the green box will deliver the items provided in the purple box…any extra details can be explained by the presenter.

2. Assuming there is a website, we’ve also streamlined the clunky sentence on the bottom into a simpler one that we’re all used to.

3. Chat, Notifications, and Social Networking – Let’s tighten and pare down the copy to the essential meanings.

4. Microsoft (minus the Hotmail). – Finally, it’s safe to assume everyone knows Hotmail is a part of Microsoft, and keep all 10 brands as simply company names. Why reference one product for one, but not the others?

5. Finally, know when to say when – Let’s not touch TOP SECRET, we don’t know enough about those acronyms to mess around with those (and acronyms are always important, right? RIGHT?)


It’s getting there!


Visual hierarchy is the order in which the human eye perceives what it sees. The order is created by visual contrast between objects in a given space and those with the highest contrast are recognized first by the human mind. These contrasts can be detected by the brain based on their physical characteristics based on color, size, alignment, and character. Designers attempt to control visual hierarchy to guide the eye to information in a specific order for a specific purpose. For example, the most important information will be placed high on the visual hierarchy and may be brighter and larger compared to other elements. Designers not only make the decision on how to make these elements high contrast, but can also have keen insight in determining which elements are the most compelling to the viewer.

1. Let’s assume the audience already knows it’s a top secret document, since the first slide probably had it stamped all over it. If so, we can let them concentrate on the headline and content on this slide, and move the TOP SECRET messaging to the bottom. It’s there, but not so important. *

2. While the arrangement of company names to the surveillance items isn’t bad, another preference it to have a “top down” approach, leading the eye from top to bottom.  In that case, let puts the green box above the purple box, and remove the visually-dominating arrow.  This new approach from the headline down will ensure that both boxes are related without the heavy-handed arrow.


We can see the finish line ahead….


Visual consistency refers to the consistent use of the visual design elements such as color, size, and typeface. These consistencies set up an expected framework that help the user navigate easily through a system. Our brain figures out the visual system the first time and can concentrate on key difference that the designer highlights on future iterations, rather than having to relearn each time. This makes a design less confusing and taxing for a user to understand.

1. Let’s standardize the shape and size of the provider company by making each a circle to differentiate it from the collection type.

2. We’ll make sure all the typefaces are similar for each set of elements. We’ve removed that “Special Request” bold, giving it the same visual weight as the rest of the purple box elements.

3. For any uniform layout, a grid system is often used.  Let’s divide up those purple box elements into three uniform columns to make them easier to read.


Now we’re ready to add some design magic.


With a streamlined, consistent layout featuring only the essential information needed to convey this slide’s message, a designer is now free to finish the job and add in some final “design magic”. Of course, in the hands of a competent designer, there’s no magic to it…but it often seems like it!

1. We’ve changed the background white to an ominous black/grey that projects authority and cool efficiency. Personal choice here, but I feel it fits.

2. In contrast, we’ve changed the text to white, while making the typefaces modern, san serif, and consistent for easy readability. Look at how that white headline jumps out at you.

3. Finally, we’ve replaced those “squashed” company names with their branded icons, all which still give instant recognizability.  No need to squeeze in the full company name.


And there you have it. Our new “General Collection Details” slide #6 for the PRISM Powerpoint Presentation.  Nine companies and what can be collected from them, provided you have the money of course! NSA, you can thank us now.



We would like to acknowledge that we had to make some assumptions and took some liberties when redesigning this slide, simply because we did not have access to the “client” (aka, the government department in charge of this project). They are:

1. We assume there are no restrictions, protocols on creating slideshow documents for the US government. For example, we understand that there could be requirements such as “Top secret notification must appear on top and bottom of slide” that exist, but since I am not privy to these, in this exercise, we assumed there are none.

2. We assume the purpose of this slide presentation is to be a visual aide for in-person/video-conferencing/phone meetings in which a person is explaining the contents of each slide. Of course the actual use could be different, but this does seem like the most likely possibility.

3. We assume this slide is part of an entire set all of which would be presented at one time.


Ray Mancini and his fellow design colleague Patrick Gibson have started their own podcast entitled 301 Design Place, and their second episode deals directly with the PRISM presentation. Listen to their first two episodes here, and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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