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Visuals are a key element of any e-learning course. They help attract the learner’s attention and reinforce key messages. If you don’t have a graphic designer on your team—or access to an asset library like Content Library—you may be struggling to find or create the visuals you need for your course. If that’s where you are, don’t worry! In this tutorial you’ll learn how to create your own illustrations in PowerPoint using freeform shapes.

What Is a Freeform Shape?

On the Insert tab of PowerPoint, you have access to a whole host of default shapes to help you create your own illustrations:

Screenshot: Freeform Shape

But did you know that hidden among those default shapes is a freeform shape that allows you to draw your own personalized shape? It looks like this:

Screenshot: Freeform Shape Icon

In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to use this super-powerful feature to create your own illustrations—even if you have zero artistic ability.

Set Default Shape Format

When you draw a freeform shape, PowerPoint automatically applies the default shape format—meaning the fill and outline colors—to your shape. And while you could just use that and change the style afterwards, I recommend changing the default style to something with a contrasting border and no fill color. Why? If you’re tracing over a photo, the contrasting color makes it easier to see where you’re drawing. And with no fill color, you can still clearly see the image you’re tracing.

So how do you set a new default shape style? It’s easy! Just insert any shape, format it however you’d like, right-click on the shape, and select Set as Default Shape:

Screenshot: Set as Default Shape

Now, when you draw your freeform shape, it’ll automatically take on the format you’ve defined.

Find a Photo to Trace

Let’s say you want to include a visual of a hand holding a phone in your course. Unless you’re already a gifted illustrator, it’s going to be difficult to draw that freehand. The easiest thing to do is search for a photo of what you’d like to draw and trace it. Here’s a good example of a photo you could use as a starting point:

Screenshot: Photo to Trace

Tracing a photo is also a great solution for times when you’re not sure whether you have the right to use a given photo in your course.

Draw a Freeform Shape

Now that you have your photo, you can insert it into PowerPoint by clicking on the Pictures button on the Insert tab. Then, also on the Insert tab, click on the Shapes button, and select the freeform shape tool.

Screenshot: Insert Freeform Shape

There are two main ways to draw using the freeform shape tool in PowerPoint.

1. Press and hold your mouse: Use this technique to draw an illustration freehand. This option is best for people who are comfortable drawing and have a pretty steady hand on their mouse (or access to a graphic tablet).

Animated Gif: Press & Hold Mouse Technique

2. Press and release your mouse: Use this technique to draw an illustration one point at a time. This option is best for those of you who (like me!) are not comfortable drawing freehand. It allows you to create a shape by connecting a series of points.

Animated Gif: Press & Release Mouse Technique

But you don’t have to choose one or the other; you can actually combine these two methods while drawing the same shape. It’s up to you to decide what works best!

To create a closed shape, continue drawing until you are back to your starting point. To create an open-ended shape (or a line), double-click at any point to exit the freeform shape tool.

Edit Points

Once you’ve finished drawing your shape, you can fine-tune it by editing each individual point. To do that, just right-click on the shape and select Edit Points:

Screenshot: Edit Points

When you’re in Edit Points mode, you can see all the places you clicked to create your shape and adjust them as needed.

Screenshot: Edit Points Mode Activated

To move a point, just click on it and drag it to the place you want it to be.

If you want, you can take it a step further by right-clicking on a point and choosing one of the following options:

  • Add point: If you messed up when you were drawing your shape, you can add in extra points afterwards and position them as needed instead of starting over from scratch.

Screenshot: Add Point

  • Delete Point: If you want to get rid of an unneeded point.

Screenshot: Delete Point

  • Open Path (if it’s closed): If instead of a closed shape, you want to create an open-ended path, choose this option to unlink the first and last points you drew.

Screenshot: Open Path

  • Close Path (if it’s open): If you meant to create a closed shape, but accidentally created an open path, choose this option to link the first and last points you drew.

Screenshot: Close Path

  • Smooth Point: To make a point more rounded, choose Smooth Point or Straight Point. When you choose Smooth Point, the handles on the point will stick out straight, instead of forming a corner. When you drag on one side of the handle, the other side will automatically adjust, creating a symmetrical curve. By playing with the length and angle of these handles, you can change the shape of the curve.

Screenshot: Smooth Point

  • Straight Point: This option also makes your point rounded, but this time you’ll notice that the handles work independently, meaning that if you drag on one side of the handle, the other side of the handle doesn’t move. This allows you to create an asymmetrical curve.

Screenshot: Straight Point

  • Corner Point: By default, all the points on your shape are corner points. If you change your point to a smooth or a straight point and aren’t satisfied with how it looks, choose this option to revert to the default setting.

By adjusting your points, you can smooth out your drawing considerably, as you can see in the before and after photos below:

Screenshot of Points Before

Before

Screenshot of Points After

After

Format Shape

Once your shape looks exactly the way you want, you can hide the image you used to trace your shape and change the color as needed.

Screenshot: Format Shape

If need be, you can draw another freeform shape or use a combination of default shapes to complete your illustration. For this example, you could create a cell phone out of a combination of shapes. Start by inserting a rectangle with rounded edges to make up the base of your phone:

Screenshot: Add Rounded Rectangle

Now, as you can see, the part of the thumb is now hidden by the phone. To make it look like the thumb is on top of the phone, add a second rectangle with rounded edges that starts below the thumb and goes until the bottom of the phone, like this:

Screenshot: Add Second Rounded Rectangle

Now, right-click on the first rectangle you created and select Send to Back.

Screenshot: Send Larger Rectangle to Back

Your illustration should now look like this:

Screenshot: Image After Rectangle Sent to Back

Now repeat this process with two gray rectangles with square edges to create your screen:

Screenshot: Add Screen

Finally, insert a circle for the camera, a rounded-edge square for the speaker, and a rounded-edge square for the home button of the phone. Here’s what your finished illustration should look like:

Screenshot: Finished Illustration

And there you have it! Thanks to PowerPoint, you can create your own custom illustrations without being a professional illustrator. Thirsty for more PowerPoint illustration tips? Check out these tutorials:

Questions? Comments? Drop me a line in the comments section below! And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more e-learning tips and tricks.

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Gerry McAteer
Gerry McAteer