Slide backgrounds: Light or dark?

The big debate

Which are better, light or dark slide backgrounds?

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Surprisingly, designers are engaged in a heated debate over this question; each side claiming one style is easier to read than the other.

The difference in readability matters for texty mediums such as magazines and websites, but is comparatively irrelevant for your slides, as they only contain a few words each.

So, should you make your backgrounds light or dark? The answer depends on the context of your presentation and the tool you use to display it. In this entry, I offer some tips to help you decide which style will be most effective for your next presentation.

Lights + Projector = Dull visuals

Ever wonder why it’s always dark in a movie theater? Projectors can’t make the color black. A black pixel from a projector is really just a small shadow.

Projected images always look better with the lights off because any ambient light in the room fills in those shadows, reducing the contrast ratio between the light and dark pixels and making the dark colors in your slides look dull.

While we usually think of projectors when we think about presentations, people actually use a variety of tools to display their slideshows. Many modern boardrooms have replaced projectors with large, wall-mounted televisions. Traveling sales reps often present to clients from their laptop screens. I’ve even worked with clients who print their slides on heavy card-stock and flip through the cards manually as they deliver their speeches.

Going dark

Dark slide backgrounds look best on electronic displays (e.g. computer screens, televisions, etc).

If you’re using a dark background on a projector, you'll need to make sure the room has good presentation lighting. That doesn’t mean turning all the lights off — nothing encourages nap time more than a meeting in the dark. Good presentation lighting just means there's darkened area for the projector screen.

Dark slide backgrounds are also a strategic choice for long presentations, such as all-day seminars or workshops. When slides are too bright, I’ve heard audiences at these events complain they feel as though they’ve been staring at a lightbulb all day.

Going light

Light slide backgrounds are just the opposite.

First off, they’re much more versatile. Since light backgrounds are brighter, they look good coming from just about any quality display or projector, in any kind of room lighting. Additionally, they’re ideal for printed presentations since they tend to use a lot less ink.

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Solid-white backgrounds make it super easy to add beautiful, dynamic images to your slides. A huge percentage of stock photos portray an object floating over a white background (these are called “isolated images”). A white slide background enables you to seamlessly incorporate these images into your presentation without wasting time in Photoshop cropping out the image backgrounds.

Ultimately there are no steadfast rules for which style to use, just a few flexible guidelines to help you make the best choice for your next presentation. Experiment with different styles, and as always, be creative with it.