PowerPoint’s SmartArt feature offers great return for your time. For instance, you can turn a simple but boring bullet list into a visually pleasing slide in only a few minutes. You supply the text and pictures, choose a reasonable color theme, and let SmartArt do the rest. Now, I’m sure you’ve heard some discouraging comments about SmartArt, but try to keep an open mind. In this article, I’ll show you how to create three interesting slides using SmartArt lists. I believe you’ll find SmartArt can hold its own against the naysayers.

I’m using PowerPoint 2013 on Windows 7, but instructions are (mostly) the same in all three ribbon versions. You can’t use SmartArt in PowerPoint 2003, but you can save the .pptx format to .ppt and run the presentation in PowerPoint 2003. For your convenience, you can download the example .pptx and .ppt files.


SmartArt options are simple templates that supply structure by combining simple objects. We’ll control the text, the pictures, and even change coloring schemes and other format options. First, we’ll display each bullet point in a colored rectangle to create a list. Next, we’ll reduce the number of bullet points in each box and display fewer boxes and attach a picture to each box. Finally, we’ll flip the flow of the second example from vertical to horizontal. You might expect this process to be a lot of work, but it’s quick and easy. You could create each from scratch yourself, but why would you want to work that hard!

A simple list

Figure A shows a simple text box with seven bullet points. You can use a simple list like this if you like; there’s nothing wrong with it.

Figure A

Give a bit of visual interest to a bullet list.

Or, you can quickly add a little visual interest using SmartArt as follows:

  1. Copy the bulleted text to the Clipboard by selecting it and pressing [Ctrl]+[C].
  2. Select or add a new slide and delete any placeholders.
  3. Click the Insert tab, and then click SmartArt in the Illustrations group.
  4. In the resulting dialog, click the Vertical Bullet List icon (Figure B) and click OK.
    Figure B
  5. In the Type your text here box to the left, select the text placeholders (Figure C). You can drag to select or press [Ctrl]+[A]. If PowerPoint doesn’t display the type your text box, click the expand icon at the center of the object’s left border.
    Figure C
  6. With the bullet placeholders all selected, press [Ctrl]+[V] to paste the bulleted list (Figure D).
    Figure D
  7. Close the Type your text here box.
  8. Use the move handles in the corners to resize the list and then reposition it (Figure E).
    Figure E

Now, you have a SmartArt list using the default formats. At this point, you can use almost any formatting option to tweak the results. The content is about owls, so a natural coloring scheme would include shades of green, orange, and brown, which we can apply as follows:

  1. With the list selected, click the contextual Design tab.
  2. In the SmartArt Styles group, click Change Colors.
  3. Select Transparent Gradient Loop – Accent 6 (orange) from the gallery.

Now, let’s change the border color as follows:

  1. Press [Ctrl]+[A] to select all of the points in the list. (You can see the resulting selection points in Figure F below.)
  2. Click the contextual Format tab.
  3. In the Shape Styles group, click Shape Outline.
  4. In the resulting gallery, click Black.
    Figure F

Now, let’s add a color to the slide’s background as follows:

  1. Right-click the background and choose Format Background.
  2. Click the Color drop-down, and choose dark green (Figure G).
    Figure G
  3. This will change the background color (Figure H).
    Figure H

You might be wondering if you can animate a SmartArt list. Fortunately, you can. It’s just as easy to animate this list as it is any other bullet list. To illustrate, let’s add a simple animation that displays one bullet at a time, as follows:

  1. Select the list.
  2. Click the Animations tab.
  3. In the Animation group quick gallery, click Appear.
  4. From the Effect Options drop-down, click One by One (Figure I).
    Figure I

That’s it! Did you expect it to be so easy? During the show, a single click will display each bullet point, one by one.

You could continue formatting. For instance, you might want to reduce the weight of the outline. Or, you might want to change the font color. Remember to select the SmartArt list block and then press [Ctrl]+[A] to select all the bullet points before applying changes, unless of course you want to emphasize individual points.

A vertical list with pictures

Our simple list will get the job done, and it’s more than adequate. SmartArt has more to offer though, so let’s look at a more complex list. It isn’t more complex because it’s more difficult to add. Rather, structurally it’s more complex. Before you do anything else, insert a new slide and delete any placeholders. Next, do the following:

  1. Click the Insert tab and then click SmartArt in the Illustrations group.
  2. In the resulting dialog, select Vertical Picture List, and click OK.
  3. From the Change Colors dialog, click Gradient Loop – Accent 6.
  4. Use cut and paste or type the bullet points.
  5. Resize and reposition the list object (Figure J).
    Figure J
  6. To add a picture, click the icon in the center of a picture placeholder. In PowerPoint 2013, choose From a file, click Browse, and locate the picture file using the Insert Picture dialog. In PowerPoint 2010 and 2007, continue with the Insert Picture dialog. Figure K shows all three picture placeholders after inserting files.
  7. Right-click the slide’s background, choose Format Background and choose dark green, as you did with the first slide.

Figure K

Insert pictures in the placeholders.

Don’t worry about the title placeholder in each bullet block. PowerPoint won’t display them during the show. You can delete them, leave them, or fill them with text. You could animate the three bullet blocks as we did earlier with the first list, but we won’t.

A horizontal list with pictures

So far, we’ve turned that simple bullet list into two interesting slides. Let’s try one more SmartArt list; this time, let’s use a horizontal list with pictures. To create the slide shown in Figure L, repeat the steps above with only one exception: in step 2, choose Horizontal Picture list. As before, you could animate these three bullet blocks, but you probably won’t want to.

Figure L

This time, create a horizontal list.

The show

So far, you’ve seen all three SmartArt lists in Normal view. To see them as a slide show, press [F5]. Figure M, Figure N, and Figure O show the finished product. Remember, the first slide is animated, so you’ll need to click to display each bullet.

Figure M

The simplest list.

Figure N

The vertical picture list.

Figure O

The horizontal picture list.

At this point, you might think of more formatting changes you’d like to make. For instance, you might want to left-align the bullet points in the horizontal list slide. Or, you might want to change the outline color for some or all of the placeholders. Changing fonts might be a consideration. The point is, SmartArt generated the layout and gave you a good headstart!

Claims of murder by SmartArt are greatly exaggerated

Most professional graphic designers will find these techniques amateurish and that’s okay. On the other hand, they’re still good enough for most presentations.

Use your best judgement. Let your audience and your message dictate your choices. Never hesitate to hire a design professional if you need one. If you don’t need that kind of expertise, don’t be afraid to add a little visual interest to your message. SmartArt requires no special skill, but don’t go overboard!

Send me your question about Office

I answer readers’ questions when I can, but there’s no guarantee. When contacting me, be as specific as possible. For example, “Please troubleshoot my workbook and fix what’s wrong” probably won’t get a response, but “Can you tell me why this formula isn’t returning the expected results?” might. Please mention the app and version that you’re using. I’m not reimbursed by TechRepublic for my time or expertise, nor do I ask for a fee from readers. You can contact me at susansalesharkins@gmail.com.

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