What is VisualBee?
VisualBee is a tidy little program that promises to “automatically enhance your presentation, creating an exciting and powerful showcase”, available as freeware, or with premium and enterprise options available by monthly or annual subscription. VisualBee embeds itself into the Ribbon in PowerPoint versions 2007 or 2010 (earlier versions are not supported) and connects you with an online database that contains new layouts, background designs and photographs to beautify your slides automatically via an ‘Enhance Presentation’ button. It presents itself as a quick and simple way to make your existing presentations more impactful without any design knowhow or PowerPoint expertise.
Starting from Scratch
VisualBee is every bit as simple to use as it promises. Clicking the Enhance Presentation button brings up a palette of different styles, categorised by different industries and artistic themes. The free version allows you to choose from a limited (but still varied) selection of styles, with the full range being unlockable upon upgrading to the premium or enterprise versions. Once you’ve chosen your style, VisualBee very quickly converts all of your slides and provides a preview of what each one will look like. You can modify each enhanced slide by cycling through a few different layouts and by cycling through a selection of images to illustrate the slide. Again, the free version provides you with two or three options for each, the premium version gives you more choice about the final look of your slides and the choice of images to illustrate them. Once you’re happy with the makeover, you can save the new presentation and continue editing it in PowerPoint if you wish, or just go ahead and start rehearsing!
The makeover consists of a new Master background design, with the appropriate colour palette and fonts embedded. VisualBee essentially leverages the SmartArt functionality in Powerpoint 2007 and 2010 to create new layouts or diagrams on the slides that include your original bullet-point text embedded within the graphics. The slide is also animated, with simple fade animation effects applied to the title, accompanying images and the SmartArt layouts, which are easily modified if the user has a basic understanding of PowerPoint animation.
When a layout is chosen that complements bullet-points with pictures, VisualBee’s text analysis engine makes it surprisingly adept at selecting images that connect to the text. Yes, the images on offer are your standard stock fare, but a million times better than ClipArt and cheaper and simpler than a subscription to stock library websites. When I asked VisualBee to revamp a slide that was titled Cost Savings, it illustrated the slide with a picture of gold coins. A bullet-point about delivering on budget was illustrated by an image of a balance sheet. The algorithms at work behind this process are clearly quite sophisticated, and VisualBee’s developers are always working to refine them, which makes the process of tweaking the ‘madeover’ slides very quick and rather satisfying.
The output file, once saved, opens up in PowerPoint and you are then free to make whatever modifications you like, provided you don’t export the images to use in other applications. The free version also embeds a VB logo onto every slide, which can be easily deleted on the Slide Master view if you don’t want it there, or replaced with your own logo if you purchase the premium version.
The template designs available for you to choose from are not the most impressive in the world, but they are definitely a cut above the native PowerPoint options and they are always being updated. Add to that the automatic addition of good-quality and context-sensible imagery, simple but constructive animation, and complementary colour schemes and fonts, and VisualBee packs a rather impressive punch for a very fast and simple program. PowerPoint novices will be overjoyed to find that beyond switching between different layouts or images in the preview dialogu, there is nothing more to do design-wise, and the Wizard-based process is quick and easy to move through. More experienced PowerPoint users will want to tinker, and they will find VisualBee gives them a head start by putting all of the graphical elements in place so that animations can be modified, text resized, and layouts rejigged until the slides are working as they want them to. The images inserted work as PowerPoint shapes rather than photographs, so if you can’t find an appropriate image in VisualBee’s library you can always change it yourself after you save the enhanced presentation.
Enhancing an Existing Presentation
VisualBee’s demo movie encourages you to begin your presentation by starting with a blank template and “focusing on the text”. Start from scratch in PowerPoint, click and type up your headings and bullet-points, then click on enhance to choose different styles. It’s a slightly different story if you have an existing presentation that already has a template design and maybe also some graphics, charts or images. Enhancing a halfway-developed presentation sometimes results in more work rather than less, as it’s more difficult for VisualBee to accommodate the infinite variations of existing graphics, pictures and layouts. So, if you’re not careful, the enhanced presentation could show clashing colour schemes and an untidy arrangement of design elements that must then be resized, recoloured and repositioned manually. So, if you’re really starting at the very beginning, and you still don’t know why typing up bullet-points is not really the ideal way to start, then you’ll probably be quite delighted with your makeover. If you have a deck that you’ve already put some work into and included some graphs and pictures, and you’re just looking to further enhance its visual appeal, you might find VisualBee leaves you with quite a bit of tidying up to do. Still, unless you’re an expert, it should still be a quicker process than doing all the design yourself.
While the free version will give users everything they need to enhance their homemade decks to a decent standard, users with more specific needs may find an upgrade is good value. The premium version of VisualBee unlocks all of the templates (147 in total, which includes the restricted selection of 76 free templates), and a much-expanded library of images (over 15,000). Shelling out for the premium version also allows you to store your company logo and your own images on the server, so you can add your logo onto the master of your enhanced presentation and add your favourite images to the stock. This gives you more scope to make your presentation personal and gives you a (somewhat long-winded) way of inserting your own images onto slides without having to learn how to do it in PowerPoint or using a SharePoint online library or similar. The custom image library is activated from the same Ribbon frame as the enhancement function and opens up as a pane in the PowerPoint interface, linked to the VisualBee online database and your personal image folder. If you’re a company with a dispersed group of mixed-ability PowerPoint users and you’ve already invested in a specific set of graphics and images, it’s definitely something to look into.
For what it aims to do, VisualBee is a surprisingly competent and user-friendly plugin. The custom online image library is an interesting feature that I haven’t seen in other PowerPoint add-ons, and could be a very useful application for SMEs who create a lot of customised presentations and have a preexisting library of images. Of course, you’d have to consider whether it’s worth buying the premium version for the sake of a secondary feature, so I’d recommend trialling the primary makeover functionality to see if you can make it work for your existing decks.
While it’s essentially a shortcut to finding a nice template and some stock images to illustrate your slides, with its text-to-image analysis and intelligent use of layouts, VisualBee shows a lot of promise. It delivers a reasonably attractive presentation very quickly and without fuss, and even a bullet-point driven presentation that looks visually appealing is going to have an advantage over one that isn’t. We can’t say it enough times: attractive slides are not necessarily effective slides, and especially so if bullet-points are your standard fare. But as a quick and easy way for even complete novices to create a lively-looking deck, VisualBee has real potential – and with some more development it could evolve into a must-have for all amateur slidemongers.
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Brian Fenix, Client Principal, Hewlett-Packard
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