Step-by-Step Guide to Creating Accessible PowerPoint Templates

Illustrated man pointing to a slide
In this post, I walk you through creating accessible PowerPoint templates.

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Reading Time: 11 minutes

Introduction

As I mentioned in last week’s post, providing your slides and other materials in advance of a meeting or presentation will help assistive technology users access the information. However, this is only helpful if the materials you provide electronically are accessible. In this post, I’ll walk you through creating accessible PowerPoint templates.

I’ll continue this topic next week to discuss the finishing touches you’ll need for making sure your completed PowerPoint files are accessible. I had hoped to do that this week, but this post is already longer than usual.

Making an Accessible PowerPoint Template

Accessibility should be baked in from the beginning, which means using an accessible template. You could build a PowerPoint template from scratch or start with a pre-designed template. Don’t assume that a template is already accessible; even Microsoft’s built-in templates have issues.

For this walkthrough, I used a free template from Slides Carnival. It’s a nice-looking template with a clean design, but it will need modification for accessibility.

NOTE: I am using PowerPoint for Mac, version 16.51, as part of Microsoft 365. Your version might look different and may have different features. (Microsoft tends to update the Windows versions of their software first. It's almost like they have a preference.)

Step 1: View the Master Slides

The number one rule of making accessible PowerPoint files is to use master slides.

Master slides are made up of two types of templates:

  • Layout masters
  • The Slide Master

The layout masters are the templates you can choose from when you add a new slide to your presentation. The Slide Master is the first slide in a group of layout masters. Changes made to the Slide Master affect all the layout masters associated with it.

screenshot of layout masters in PowerPoint, from a dropdown list linked to the "Insert Slide" option on the Home tab
Layout Masters
The Slide Master

You can have multiple Slide Masters. For example, if you want a different background image for activity instructions, you could create a new Slide Master with that background on it, with its own set of layout masters under it.

SIDEBAR: Whenever I choose the Slide Master, I always imagine Donkey from Shrek saying, “Don’t mess with me. I’m the Slide Master. I’ve mastered the slides.” (If you don’t know the reference, here’s a clip of the “Stair Master” scene from Shrek.) So now you can imagine that too. You’re welcome.

Why Use Slide Masters?

Using slide masters has several benefits:

  • It gives everyone access. Screen readers may skip manually inserted text boxes, so using content placeholders on the layout masters will ensure that people who use screen readers can read the content.
  • It prevents rework. Setting a logical reading order on the layout masters means you won’t have to reorder individual slides. (More on reading order later.) In addition, if you put globally used images (such as a logo or background image) on the Slide Master, you will only have to set the alternative text once.
  • It helps ensure consistency. Once you establish fonts and styles on the Slide Master, they will repeat on all the slides below that are governed by that master. If you also set the text placeholders to “do not autofit,” then your text size will also be consistent.

To access the master slides, choose the View tab, and then select Slide Master.

screenshot of the View tab in PowerPoint with the Slide Master option highlighted

Step 2: Adjust Fonts If Needed

If you want to change the font, select the Slide Master and make your changes.

Be sure to choose a legible style. Users with low vision or learning disabilities will have a harder time reading ornate fonts.

Step 3: Verify Color Contrast

WCAG 2.1 Success Criterion 1.4.3 requires a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1 for text (with a few exceptions), so you will need to determine whether your text styles pass that requirement. There are many free color contrast checkers available, including this web-based tool from WebAIM. In the examples below, I’m using TPGi’s free color contrast checker. I like that it includes an eyedropper tool for selecting colors. It’s a free download for both Windows and Mac.

The Salerio template I chose from Slides Carnival uses a pleasing blue and orange color palette. For most slides, the title appears in white text over a dark blue background, and body text appears in very dark gray (near-black) text over a white background.

Both these combinations easily pass a color contrast check. You might even say they pass with flying colors. (Please don’t unfollow me.)

Color Contrast Analyzer Results for white text on a dark blue background showing a 7.7 to 1 contrast ratio. WCAG 2.1 results show that it passes all requirements.
Color Contrast Analyzer Results (7.1:1 Contrast Ratio)
Color Contrast Analyzer Results for dark gray text on a white background showing a 12.9 to 1 contrast ratio. WCAG 2.1 results show that it passes all requirements.
Color Contrast Analyzer Results (12.9:1 Contrast Ratio)

Some of the text in the template, however, is problematic. For example, on the slide layout below, the subtitle appears in orange text over a dark blue background. In addition, the slide number appears in white text over an orange background.

Let’s look at the results of the color contrast check for those two combinations.

Color Contrast Analyzer Results for orange text on a dark blue background showing a 3.6 to 1 contrast ratio. WCAG 2.1 results show that it fails all requirements except for 1.4.11 non-text contrast (AA).
Color Contrast Analyzer Results (3.6:1 Contrast Ratio)
Color Contrast Analyzer Results for white text on an orange background showing a 2.2 to 1 contrast ratio. WCAG 2.1 results show that it fails all requirements.
Color Contrast Analyzer Results (2.2:1 Contrast Ratio)

Technically, the orange text on the blue shape passes because it uses a 20-point font. However, I’d rather use color combinations I know are safe for all text sizes.

There are color contrast tools that suggest alternative colors for you, such as the tanaguru contrast finder. I didn’t like the options they gave me, so I experimented with some different combinations until I landed on one I liked. For the subtitle text, I replaced the orange with a light peach and darkened the blue a bit. This combination passes WCAG 2.1 levels AA and AAA with a contrast ratio of 7.5:1.

White on orange fails across the board, so I changed the page number formatting to black text, which gives me a contrast ratio of 9.7:1.

Transition slide showing light peach subtitle text on a dark blue background and black text on an orange background for the slide number

TIP: After you adjust the colors, close the Slide Master view, and then select the “Design” tab to customize the color palette for the template.

Step 4: Add Alt Text

Add alternative text to any images on your slide master that convey meaning. If images are purely decorative, such as the shapes used in this template, mark them as decorative.

For grouped objects, select the entire group, NOT the individual parts, and add the alternative text there (or mark as decorative). For example, the house icon shown here is made up of seven shapes. Grouping it and adding alt text to the grouped image allows screen reader users to view it as a house rather than three rectangles, a triangle, a trapezoid, a small circle, and a plus sign.

Step 5: Create Layout Masters

Remember, a screen reader user may not be able to access text that’s not in a placeholder layout on a slide master. This means you’ll need to create a layout master for every type of slide you’ll use. To do this, follow these steps:

  1. From the Slide Master tab, select “Insert Layout.”
    • If preferred, you can duplicate an existing layout to modify. Select CTRL (or Command + D on a Mac), or right-click on the slide thumbnail and choose “Duplicate layout.”
    • Rename the duplicate layout (choose “Rename” from the Slide Master tab, or right-click and choose “Rename”).
  2. Make sure the “Title” checkbox is checked. Each slide requires a unique title, to help assistive technology users navigate the slides.
    • For topics that span multiple slides, I add parentheses with numbers like “(1 of 3).” I avoid “Continued” because sometimes a topic continues for more than one additional slide.
    • If a slide contains only an image that fills the screen, I put the title behind the image so it’s still accessible to screen readers. To be honest, I’m not sure whether this is a good or bad practice, so I’d love some input.
  3. Select the “Insert Placeholder” button on the Slide Master tab and choose the type of placeholder you’d like. I use the “Content” placeholder almost exclusively because it provides the most flexibility.

When I’m setting up a template, I first make a list of all the slide types I think I’ll use. Then I create a layout master for each one. Even so, I almost always end up creating a few new layout masters as I’m developing.

Example 1

For example, let’s say I’m using the three-column format included in the template, but I want to add a source note across the bottom. Instead of inserting a text box, I’ll duplicate the three-column layout master and then add a fourth text placeholder across the bottom, naming that new layout master something like “Title + 3 columns with footnote.” Next, I’ll close the slide master view and choose the new layout from the “layout” dropdown menu on the Home tab. Then I type the source note into the placeholder.

Slide master showing three columns for inputting text and an additional text placeholder across the bottom
Slide titled Introduction to Ents with three columns of text and a source note across the bottom. See text description.

Introduction to Ents

Column 1: Origins

  • Created upon request from Yavanna
  • Taught to speak by Elves

Column 2: Characteristics

  • Tree-like appearance
  • Immortal
  • Very strong

Column 3: Notable Ents

  • Treebeard
  • Leaflock
  • Skinbark
  • Quickbeam
  • Beechbone
  • Fimbrethil

Source: http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Ents

Example 2

Let’s say I want to include a graphic organizer that lists the titles of the lessons in my course. I’ll reuse the slide in each lesson and add a car icon to indicate the current lesson (with alt text like “car stopped at Lesson 4: Facilitating an Entmoot”).

Lesson Roadmap

Road illustration with six numbered locations marked:

  1. An Onodrim by Any Other Name
  2. Shepherds of the Trees
  3. Fundamentals of Old Entish
  4. Facilitating an Entmoot
  5. Where Have All the Entwives Gone?
  6. Is Groot a Lost Ent?

There are three ways I could build this slide:

  • Option 1: Use textboxes to add the lesson titles. This is not an accessible option, because screen reader users will not be able to read the titles.
  • Option 2: Make a graphic with the lesson titles on it and include those titles on the alt text. This is a better option for screen reader users, but it for screen magnifier users, the text may become pixelated when enlarged so it’s unreadable.
  • Option 3: Add text placeholders on the layout masters for the lesson titles. This is the best option for everyone.

How to Build the Roadmap Slide Template

  1. Insert the roadmap graphic and add alt text.
    • Normally, a graphic that’s used once wouldn’t go on the master, but since I’d use the graphic organizer in every lesson, it makes sense to create a layout master for it.
    • Also, placing the image on the master will help me make sure the text placeholder boxes are in the right place.
  2. Insert text placeholder boxes.
    • Choose “Insert Placeholder” from the Slide Master tab and select “Text.”
    • Adjust the fonts as needed. By default, PowerPoint lists five levels of bulleted text. For the roadmap graphic, I only need lesson titles, so I’ll remove levels 2 through 5 and then set bullets to “none.”
    • Copy and paste the text placeholder box as needed and adjust placement.
Layout Master for Roadmap Example

You might wonder why I don’t just use textboxes on the layout master, since the text will be the same every time I use this slide. Unfortunately, text entered on the master may not be viewable to screen readers.

The Outline view, available from the View tab, will show you a plain text version of your slides. The text you see in the outline pane is the text a screen reader will see. Here’s a comparison of my roadmap slide using textboxes vs. text placeholders.

Outline view in PowerPoint showing two slide titles (All About Ents and Lesson Roadmap).
Outline view with text boxes on the layout master
Outline view with text placeholders on the layout master

(Some assistive technology might be able to read text boxes that aren’t visible in the Outline view; however, “some” and “might” are not the same as “accessible to all.”)

Make sure you don’t type text into the text placeholders on the slide master. It might look fine while you’re working in PowerPoint, but switch over to presentation mode and *poof* your text will disappear. Text has to be typed on the regular slide (into content placeholders), not on the layout master.

Step 6: Set the Reading Order

After creating layout masters, check the reading order to ensure that screen reader users can access the content and keyboard users can tab to items in the intended order.

From the Slide Master view, select the Home tab, and then select Arrange. At the bottom of the dropdown menu, select Selection Pane. Then drag the items into the correct order.

The order in which objects in the list are read by screen readers may vary depending on your version of PowerPoint. In my Mac version, objects are read from bottom to top in the list. However, I believe this is reversed for newer versions of PowerPoint for Windows. Follow these steps to find out:

  1. From the Review tab, select “Check Accessibility.”
  2. Read the “Steps To Fix” text in the accessibility pane. They will specify the reading order of the items in the list. This only appears if problems are found—so you might have to intentionally create a bad slide to get this information.

Some versions of PowerPoint allow you to mark objects as decorative from the reading pane by deselecting a checkmark next to the item. Sadly, my version only allows me to remove the item from both the reading order and the visual view, by selecting an eyeball icon. This is about as useful as you’d imagine. (It’s not.)

If you are using a pre-made template, check the reading order right away, so you can see what you’re dealing with early in the process (and possibly decide to use a different template). The Salerio template uses a great deal of Google Shapes, which are cumbersome to decipher in the selection pane. Because I marked the shapes as decorative, they don’t pose a problem for screen readers; however, they’re messy and make it hard for me to work with as a developer.

For example, on the title slide, the title is named “Google Shape; 22;p2.” I can’t tell from looking at the selection pane what order things should be in. To clean it up, I saved the background shapes as one image and replaced the shapes with that image (which I marked as decorative).

selection pane in PowerPoint showing multiple Google Shapes, some of them grouped
Selection pane for the title slide of the original template
selection pane in PowerPoint showing three items: a picture, title, and slide number placeholder
Selection pane for the title slide of the revised template

Summary

Following the steps presented here will help you create an accessible PowerPoint template, which is the first (and most important) step to creating accessible PowerPoint files.

I’ll continue this topic next week with instructions for making sure your finished PowerPoint is accessible. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss it.

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