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Observing the Rule of Thirds in PowerPoint

October 3, 2011

As we build presentation slides, many educators are tempted to center everything. Unfortunately, symmetry is not always pleasing to the eye. The “Rule of Thirds” is a widely accepted design principle that asks you to imagine that images are divided into nine equal parts by two horizontal and two vertical lines. Important visual elements, the rule states, should lie along those lines or at their intersections. In the sample image at right, the top of the building falls along the lower horizontal line and the center of the bell tower follows the line on the left side. (photo by yours truly)

Garr Reynolds, in his instant-classic book, Presentation Zen, encourages presentation developers to follow the Rule of Thirds. PowerPoint obliges by letting you display lines called “guides” and use them to align objects on a slide – or the guides can simply serve as reference points. Here’s how it’s done:

  • First show the guides. View menu > Guides > Static Guides. (Windows: View tab > Guides)
  • The ruler (View > Ruler) can help determine if the guides are positioned accurately. Note that the zero point is the center.
  • Drag the vertical guide from the center of the slide a third of the way to the left. Numbers appear as you drag, indicating your position on the ruler.
  • Likewise, drag the horizontal guide down.
  • Add a new vertical guide by OPTION-dragging the existing guide to the right. (Windows: CONTROL-drag)
  • Use the same technique to create a new horizontal guide.

A handy YouTube video shows how this plays out:

The Rule of Thirds is a convention, an idea most experts agree is basically sound. That doesn’t mean you have to follow it all the time. As I tell my students, knowing the conventions lets you know when you are being unconventional.


Here’s another example, courtesy of Wikipedia

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