Table Makeover: How Do I Avoid that Checkerboard Effect?

It’s easy to create tables in PowerPoint. But it takes some thought and design skills to create a really attractive and effective table. In this blog article, I want to show you some principles for creating better tables.

This post was inspired by instructional designer Craig Hadden at Remote Possibilities, who asked for my comments on how to approach this table.

In particular, Craig wanted my ideas on how to solve the contiguity problems. That is, how to eliminate the checkerboard effect, where highlighted cells are adjacent to non-highlighted cells, creating “holes”. 

First, let me tell you what I like about this table.

1. It’s well-conceived. The main point is you can create a great presentation by starting with a presentation title that combines a question and/or an action and/or mentions the audience directly. This table provides examples of presentation titles and indicates which approach(es) each demonstrates.

2. Smart color choices. The light blue background holds the table together without being obtrusive. The gray lines whisper in the background while helpfully guiding the eye across the table. The overall mood is calm, confident and visually elegant.

In the interest of helping you build your table design muscles, here’s how I would approach this table.

Step 1: Say NO to “Yes”. Each cell is either highlighted (“Yes”) or non-highlighted (“-”). But this table uses text for the highlighting. Reading is slow and doesn’t take advantage of things like color and contrast which the visual system can process instantly. And instead of using the repetitive word “Yes”, which requires the reader to scan up to the column header to see what the “Yes” refers to, you can insert that word directly into the cell. Now we have a table like this.

Step 2: Address contiguity. Now we deal with the contiguity issues. Actually, Craig has done a nice job of minimizing the contiguity problems already. But since there is only one row with all 3 cells highlighted, contiguity problems cannot be 100% avoided . There will have to be some rows with 2 cells highlighted and some with 1 cell highlighted, guaranteeing some checkerboard effect.

But here’s where it gets interesting. I notice the table has two different rows where both “Action” and “Mention” are highlighted. Strange. But there’s no row where “Question” and “Mention” are combined. Now I see what Craig has done. He has selected example titles, not only for their value to the reader, but to avoid the checkerboard pattern.

It occurs to me that we could include an example of every type of presentation title — a total of 7 possible combinations. Now the contiguity problem has not been solved, but there is a predictable logic to it.

Step 3: Discourage side by side reading. One reason contiguity is a problem is the cells, butted up against each other, encourage the reader to compare them side by side. A dark box next to a light box makes the checkerboard effect very obvious.

But what if we increase the distance between the cells? We can do this by using circles instead of squares, separated with a healthy dose of whitespace and a vertical line. Instead of the full word in the circle, we only have the first initial. Now the reader is encouraged to read across and not read up and down.

Step 4: Intelligent chunking. Finally, we make this table intelligible by grouping the rows into 3 groups: titles that use all three approaches, titles that use two approaches and titles that use just one approach. We use heavier lines to separate each group and remove the horizontal rules within each group.

Now the contiguity problems are completely solved. The heavy horizontal rules limit contiguity problems to whatever is in that section, where the blank cells have a logical and predictable order.

My thanks to Craig Hadden, for allowing me to use his table as an educational example. What do you think? Leave your comments below.

About the author: Bruce Gabrielle is author of Speaking PowerPoint: the New Language of Business, showing a 12-step method for creating clearer and more persuasive PowerPoint slides for boardroom presentations. Subscribe to this blog or join my LinkedIn group to get new posts sent to your inbox.

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3 Responses to Table Makeover: How Do I Avoid that Checkerboard Effect?

  1. Thanks Bruce – good ideas here. I particularly like the use of initial letters rather than just “Yes”.

  2. Very intetelligent makeover. The last step is the best. I see that tables can be taken to next level by doing some simple (but deep) tweaks.

  3. Donna Cunningham says:

    Wow. Great example of visualization at work. Edward Tufte would be proud! I would have stopped before the last step, but that last step was the icing on the cake. Thanks for sharing!

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