How to Add Meaning and Logic to Your Timelines

Project visuals can be a highly potent way to communicate important data, display key achievements, or convince stakeholders, but many fall short of their potential either because they are too complex or too vague. The most effective PM graphics are simple, coherent and attention-grabbing, allowing the audience to quickly understand the information presented without requiring further clarification.

Using Office Timeline’s customization options and a touch of creativity, PMs can build clear and expressive visuals that successfully achieve their purpose. Here are a few tips to make the most out of the PowerPoint add-in and add meaning and logic to project presentations:

          Customizing Tasks

Office Timeline allows users to personalize task designs for more visually-appealing graphics, but this function, used wisely, can have greater potential than just improving aesthetics: it can enhance clarity and help project managers emphasize important data. Here are just a few ways smart task customization can improve project visuals.

          1. Portraying task hierarchy

Most project plans, whether big or small, are usually broken down into multiple tasks and subtasks. To make this hierarchy visible at first glance, PMs can not only customize the tasks’ colors, but also tweak their shape, size, spacing and other details, for an even stronger distinction. The image below can be a good example in this regard:

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When viewing the graphic, the audience can instantly see that Requirements specification, Request for information and Shortlist software are main tasks, while the rest of the items are subtasks. This was achieved by:

  • Using darker colors for the main categories and lighter shades for subcategories
  • Increasing the main tasks’ bar size
  • Using a left-right arrow for all the main tasks to further differentiate them from subtasks
  • Adding vertical task connectors and matching their colors to the main task bars to emphasize which activities belong to which main task

Finally, it can also be noticed that the titles describing the major tasks are bolded to make them even more prominent, but text customization will be discussed in more detail a little later.

          2. Adding Context

Task customization can also be used to add context, illustrate special circumstances, or differentiate particular tasks. As an example, the timeline below is, first of all, color-coded to show the status of the activities included in the project plan. In addition, it can also be noticed that some task bars are shaped differently from the rest – and there is a logic to this choice.

For instance, the QA check is displayed as a left-right arrow because it is a critical step that can either send the product back into development or move the project forward. Similarly, the Risk management step is shaped as a right arrow pointed towards Implementation 3 as it directly impacts this task, while Marketing points to Secure customer base because the latter depends on the success of the marketing campaign.

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          3. Highlighting selected groups

To add further meaning and logic to their project presentations, PMs can use colors to highlight selected items or mark them as “active” or “current”. However, in many cases, a project plan or schedule is not as simple as that. For instance, the schedule below is already color-coded, using orange to depict unavailable team members.

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If the PM or team leader were to change the colors to highlight the group working from 8 am to 12 am, the new marking color would hide the original semantics and Shay would lose his flagging as unavailable:

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Such issues can easily be avoided using a few simple tricks. First of all, simply darkening or brightening the original colors of the selected items can highlight the group without losing important information:

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In addition, as noticed in the image above, PMs can:

  • increase the respective task bars’ sizes
  • tweak the spacing between them
  • bold the text
  • slightly thicken task connectors for the specific group

to make the chosen elements stand out even better.

          4. Think outside the box

Although this is their original purpose in Office Timeline, task bars do not necessarily need to illustrate tasks or work hours. They can also be used to add related information or explanations. For example, the schedule below uses a task bar – colored and shaped clearly differently from the rest – to display the peak time on the graph. In addition, thick task connectors were used to help the audience quickly notice which team members will be on duty during the busiest hours.

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          Customizing Milestones

Just like tasks, milestones, too, can be personalized to create more viewer-friendly presentations. Here are just a few ways milestone customization can make project visuals more effective:

          1. Differentiating and highlighting events or deliverables

Using the same shape, color and size for all milestones on a timeline may create a harmonious effect, but, in many cases, it might not be a very practical choice. Project plans and schedules oftentimes contain many various types of events or deliverables that may also differ in importance, and the audience should be able to spot all the essential details and understand their meaning at a glance. This can be achieved by coding the milestones using color, size and shape to add logic to the graph. For example, the timeline below differentiates and highlights the various items presented as follows:

  • Milestones related to development are marked with Chevron arrows.
  • The wheels represent important reviews, and their yellow coloring suggests possible obstacles.
  • The Go No-Go Decision is of critical importance to the continuity of the project and is, therefore, highlighted through a red arrow.
  • Star-shaped milestones represent releases.
  • The Public Beta Out marker is larger to denote a higher importance compared to Alpha and Private Beta, while Final Release is even bigger and uses a distinct color, as it is a major milestone in the project’s life cycle.
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          2. Creating categories

The customization suggestions such as the ones above can be very effective in grouping similar items and creating categories, but they may not be enough in some cases. For instance, if there are many different milestone classes, illustrating them clearly may require more than just tweaking colors, shapes and sizes.

Let’s take the image below as an example. It can be noticed that the milestone markers are already grouped into two categories through colors, while selected deliverables are highlighted using distinct shapes. As a result, there are not many options left for further classifications that might be needed.

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However, there are answers to such scenarios as well. For example, if the presenter wishes to classify the milestones in the previous graphic into solution-related deliverables and PM-related items, grouping the former above the timeband and the latter below it can help the audience to distinguish them quickly:

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          Customizing Text

Diligent readers have surely noticed that slight text customization has already been used throughout the visuals exemplified here. Now it’s time to go into detail and see how tweaking texts can help projects managers create more meaningful timelines and Gantt charts.

          1. Sending the desired message

Font styles have their own personality. Research conducted by Washington State University has revealed that different fonts can have a different emotional impact on the audience, and project managers can use these findings to set a desired tone or strengthen the message they want to convey.

As an example, all images presented here up until now use the Calibri font, which is the standard font in PowerPoint and is familiar to everyone. According to the study, this typeface belongs to the category that suggests stability, trustworthiness, and comfort. Since Calibri is seen very often in PowerPoint presentations, PMs who don’t want to overuse the font can switch to a less common typeface belonging to the same category. Examples include:

  • Georgia
  • Verdana
  • Janson Text
  • Century (used in the graphic below). How to add meaning to your presentations 10

Presenters who wish to express solidity, masculinity, or strength can choose fonts with strong serifs, weightier lines, or harder corners and edges. Examples include:

  • Middle Ages
  • NewYorkDeco
  • Helvetica Bold
  • Impact
  • AR Julian
  • Adobe Garamond Pro (used in the image below). How to add meaning to your presentations 11

Finally, there may be cases that call for a more delicate or feminine tone, such as the family-oriented event plan below:

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The font style used here is Segoe Print, a curvier typeface with richer ornaments, evoking warmth, softness and harmony. Other options belonging to the same category include:

  • Mission Script
  • Lavanderia
  • Informal Roman
  • Brush Script
          2. Tweaking date formats to reveal the right details

Date formatting may not seem that important, but it can help project managers keep the timeline clean. For instance, if a project spans less than a year, using a date format that displays years all throughout the visual not only is unnecessary, but can also overcrowd the slide. With graphics that include many milestones or tasks, even a few extra characters can make a significant difference.

Date customization can also help PMs emphasize important details. To give an example, in the project plan below, the Beta Test 2.2 milestone is scheduled outside of work days. To ensure the audience is clear about this aspect right from the start, the milestone’s date was formatted to display the day of the week and its color was changed to red to make it stand out even better.

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Last but not least, presenters can also tweak date formats to conceal information. For instance, as detailed in our product roadmap presentation guide, showing specific dates may be hazardous in certain circumstances, as is the case with the Project close milestone in the timeline above. Because the exact day when the closing phase will be complete isn’t certain, the graphic displays only the month instead of a specific day.

          Connect them all

After personalizing tasks, milestones and texts to fit their purpose, presenters can further tweak the timeline to make it more cohesive. As seen in the graphic below, milestone markers and titles can be colored to match the tasks they are linked to, while adding vertical connectors where appropriate makes the correspondences between items even more visible.

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The tips presented here provide a good start for beginning PMs who wish to create more effective project visuals. With imagination and attention to detail, presenters can find their own tricks to add meaning, logic and clarity to their PowerPoint slides and ensure the audience quickly grasps the message they want to convey.

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