How to Choose a PowerPoint Aspect Ratio: 4:3 or 16:9?

When designing a PowerPoint presentation, one of the first choices one makes is the slide size. PowerPoint has switched to default 16:9 aspect ratio of the presentations a couple of years ago, which follows the trend of “wide-everything”, including smartphones, computer monitors, TVs, and projectors & beamers. But with the craze to wide-everything, is 16:9 slide presentation aspect ratio the best choice for all circumstances? Here are my thoughts.

I do presentations for a living and with close to 300 days of doing PowerPoint presentations in the last decade, here are my thoughts.

  1. Match the ratio of the projector/beamer. Ahead of your presentation, check the ratio of the projector at the venue and match that.
  2. Use 4:3 ratio as default. If you can’t get information on the ratio of hardware ahead of the presentation, or if you will be doing many presentations with the same slides, 4:3 ratio is a safe bet.
  3. Use 16:9 ratio and increase font sizes. If you want to have the 16:9 ratio, but want to be safe for multiple presentations, then increase all font sizes.

    Let’s look at the arguments.

    1. Match the ratio of the projector/beamer.

    For best result, always match the slide aspect ratio to the hardware. Everything will be as intended, the wall/screen area covered will be the largest, which gives the best immersion effect for your audience. Most new projectors have a wide ratio, but check if possible. This is my first recommendation.

    2. & 3. Use 4:3 ratio or 16:9 ratio with increased font sizes.

    Here, it is important to discuss what happens if there is a mismatch between the aspect ratio of your slides and the one of the projector. There are obviously two situations, both illustrated below.

    Your slides are 4:3 and the projector is 16:9

    In this situation, your slides are going to fit the projection vertically (in height). Horizontally, there will be a black (invisible) edge on each side. Therefore, all of the sizes in slides will be as planned, nothing is going to be squeezed.

    Your slides are 16:9 and the projector is 4:3

    Your complete 16:9 slides are going to be visible, however, they will be squeezed to fit the 4:3 screen. There will be a dark (invisible) edges at the top and the bottom (see image above). This means that the text is going to be smaller than it would be on a 4:3 projector.

    My experience is from the scientific and educational world of universities and research institutes. Among the projectors I encounter in 2019-2020, approximately 70% are already wide (supporting the 16:9 ratio). For a long time, I just used the 4:3 ratio slides for my presentations, however, as I believe the ‘immersion experience’ is best when the slide and hardware aspect ratios match, I have recently redesigned all my slides. I’ve found that the font sizes have to be approximately 20% larger on the 16:9 ratio slides to accommodate for the situations when my now 16:9 ratio slides encounter an older projector. If I were in an environment, where the hardware was still mostly 4:3, I would have kept with my good old 4:3 slides.

    In any case, I don’t find the more vertical space to be an added value. Most presenters put too much content on their slides anyway, and the 4:3 ratio can be a valuable constraint for them 🙂

    So how do you approach this dilemma? I’m interested in your thoughts, just put them in the comments below!

    • Lauren
      October 19, 2020 (4:36 am)

      thank you this is exactly the thought process I needed!

    • Trividh Patel, CBAP
      July 22, 2021 (7:01 am)

      I too have lot of 4:3 presentation and want to convert it to 16:9 but I personally find 4:3 to much more readable (when it is mostly text) while 16:9 much more viewable (when it is mostly videos or pictures).

      • Jernej Zupanc
        July 22, 2021 (7:04 am)

        Dear Trividh, thanks for the comment. I’d say that readability is not that much in the format but in how you use it. If you use the negative space amply on a 16:9 and adjust your typeface and font size into a nice hierarchy, you can make it as readable as 4:3.

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