White is the New Blue

What do GE, Cisco, Apple and HP have in common? If you drew a blank, that’s exactly the right answer. That’s because they’re among a group of visionary companies that have chosen white as the background color of their corporate PowerPoint template. white

Why is that brilliant news? Because their simple color choice marks the beginning of clear changes in the way all of us see PowerPoint.

For years, a dark blue background with yellow text — and endless Photoshop variations on the theme — has been the format of choice for corporate PowerPoint templates. This was the standard setup for 35mm slides back in the days of carousel slide projectors, and it seemed to make sense at the time to mimic the same look in PowerPoint.

But times have changed, and the same old approach doesn’t work anymore for a growing number of companies. Here are a few reasons why they’re making much more than a good design decision when they choose white as the new blue:

1. White gives your mind space to think. We know from cognitive science that the mind needs space to consider new information and integrate it into memory — a concept called active processing. The related research-based coherence principle indicates that people learn better when extraneous material is excluded rather than included. So if you fill your background with busyness, it makes it much more difficult for your mind to get to the business of understanding. When you remove the colorful swishes, swirls and swiggles off of your PowerPoint background, you clear space for the mind to process and gather and connect information. Less really is more, because white space gives us mental breathing room.

2. White keeps your creative options open. Why keep your visual options confined, when you can stay free to choose the best solution? Starting your PowerPoint with pre-defined color backgrounds actually limits your choices, and your answers. It’s like asking someone to create a painting, but you give them only a blue canvas and yellow paint — every painting, and every answer, will turn out blue and yellow. What if the best solution was white? Or a full-screen image? You’ll never know. The default workspace color of other software programs like Word, Photoshop, Illustrator, QuarkXPress and Flash are all white. Ironically, PowerPoint opens up in white too, but for some mysterious reason we purposely go out of our way to handicap ourselves by changing the color of our backgrounds before we even get started. Let’s stop.

3. White sets a tone of openness, expressiveness and conversation. The corporate communications trend these days is toward simplicity, not complexity; toward conversation, not lectures; toward informality, not formality. White is a good match for these qualities, because it brightens up the room and creates a much more sociable environment than the dark. White backgrounds display images much better, especially if the photo background is cut out so the image "pops out" crisply on the screen. And white encourages people to use more images in the first place because there’s the perception of more space — people are less likely to select images if they have to conform, or clash, with a pre-colored background.

4. White is the most flexible foundation for cross-media design. PowerPoint is not just for projectors anymore. The same PowerPoint file might be displayed on a handheld computer, a laptop, a browser, and a monitor, and it could extend offscreen across paper, where people are pushing the PowerPoint envelope with printers. The most versatile background that can work across multiple media is white. Of course, no background color is going to work in every situation, and there are times when white is not such a good idea, for example, using white on a rear-projection screen can create glare for an audience. Start with white, test it out, and you can always go back and colorize. If you colorize when you start, you’ve already limited your creative palette.

Don’t expect white to go out of style anytime soon, because when your background is clean and clear, your communications are more likely to be too.

Tip: If you color your PowerPoint background before you get started, don’t. Instead, strip away everything from your background that might stand in the way of the message. Then you can start with a tabula rasa — a set of clean, blank, white slides. View them in Slide Sorter so you know what you’re starting with. When you figure out your ideas, your story, the structure and your techniques to engage your audience, then think about your visuals and your background colors. When you get white right, the rest of your message is more likely to have the space it needs to unfold.

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3 Responses to “White is the New Blue”

  1. Hi Cliff, While I agree with many of your points, I believe there are sometimes other considerations. I certainly agree with point 1, but I’d say it points towards a plain background, not necessarily a white one. I use plain black, for two reasons: first, it gives me more colour choices on those occasions when I have to use words; and second, the projection has no edges. In a dark room, a black slide with a picture in the middle is perceived to be simply the shape of the picture, rather than a bright rectangle containing a picture. The message is then the only thing visible.

    I also understand your point 4 about other media, and I prefer to prepare separate version(s) for those occasions.
    Cheers, Kevin

  2. Cliff says:

    Good point, Kevin – black sometimes can be the best solution for the background of a particular slide, allowing the edges of the screen to dissolve and the image to become the focus. On other slides in the same presentation, the right solution might be any other color, combination of colors, pattern, texture, or gradient. And across any and every sequence of slides in a presentation, a variety of backgrounds is important to ensure visual interest and avoid putting people to sleep.

    The key question here is about the color we choose as the background of the template, which determines what every slide will look like and whether we think we have the ability to change the backgrounds at all.

    Try this experiment: open up two PowerPoint files, create 10 blank slides in each, and in one file make all the backgrounds white, and in the other make all the backgrounds another color. View each of them in Slide Sorter. They present two very different views, and we’ll approach them differently. If we start with white, we’re more likely to see the slides as blank pages that we can color individually according to the context of the elements of the slide, and the slide’s place in the context of other slides. But if every single slide already has its color chosen, we’re less likely to think we can vary them, and we’re more likely to try to make the elements conform to the background, rather than make the background conform to the elements.

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