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Does Microsoft Office SmartArt Make You Smarter?

Does Microsoft Office SmartArt Make You Smarter?

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I'll be speaking in a webinar, Creating Better Presentations with Microsoft PowerPoint, on May 24 at 11 a.m. Pacific time. It's free, but be sure to sign up ahead of time. It should be a great discussion.

One of the things we'll be covering is the SmartArt feature, which Microsoft introduced with Office 2007 and improved in Office 2010. SmartArt lets you quickly transform your bulleted lists into attractive visual designs.

I'd never really used SmartArt before, so I've been trying it out in preparation for the webinar. And it's brought me to a startling realization: over the course of my career, I've wasted a lot of time building visual aids for my PowerPoint presentations.

When you build a chart or diagram in Photoshop to insert into a PowerPoint deck, you can't change the text or color scheme without going back into Photoshop. You can't even resize it too much without making the text look blurry. And since the text is inside an image, you can't search it or include it in your session outline. In short, your visual aids are stuck. That's what makes SmartArt so cool. You can quickly edit the text or change the color scheme to match your PowerPoint template.

All of this comes with a big caveat, though. SmartArt won't make you smarter. As PowerPoint Ninja bluntly put it, SmartArt is dumb.

By "dumb" I don't mean "stupid." When I refer to SmartArt as dumb, I mean […] "Not having the capacity to process data." In other words, SmartArt is not going to intelligently guide you to a diagram style that is appropriate for your content.

Have you ever seen a diagram that doesn't make any sense? We all have. The danger in a tool like SmartArt is that you might get excited by the attractive designs and forget what you're actually trying to communicate. Oh look, arrows! Are those arrows denoting a causal relationship between points, or are they just decoration?

I hope you can join us for the webinar on May 24. In the meantime, here are some worthwhile resources on PowerPoint and SmartArt.

Learn More About SmartArt Graphics: This page is a great introduction to SmartArt. It shows how to format your lists to convert them to SmartArt and offers some common sense on choosing graphics.

PowerPoint Blog: There's a lot of good information and ideas on the official blog of Microsoft's PowerPoint team. Browse the SmartArt tag for SmartArt ideas and downloadable templates.

PowerPoint 2010: Choosing SmartArt Graphics: Easy video introduction to SmartArt.

Creating Your Own Custom SmartArt: If you're an advanced user and you'd like to see how SmartArt works under the hood, then this is an interesting read. Otherwise, steer clear.

Office 2010 (TechSoup): Browse TechSoup's Office 2010 resources and, if you haven't already, find out how to request a donated copy for your nonprofit or public library.

Elliot Harmon
Staff Writer, TechSoup

  • Hi, This is a really cool , idea, I do power points for a living, and have a hard time getting customers to view some of my concepts.  The use of Smart Art, 3d charts, graphs and word art  can really spice up a powerpoint.

    Thanks for posting,

    Kevin Elliott

  • I JUST got an invite to this webinar that is dated May24th. Is this because I'm a new customer? Just curious what the mix up really is. ~Mona

  • Hi Mona - I wanted to apologize for the inconvenience; all invitations and outreach for this event were conducted prior to the webinar.  If you just now received it, it was most likely a technical error.  Thanks!