A Palette Primer: Picking Colors That Make Your Presentation Shine

With sight dominating our senses, it is no surprise that colors have come to hold so much meaning and importance in our culture. Consciously and unconsciously, we use color to signify our feelings: a red rose for our love, a yellow one for a good friend.

With colors so closely tied to emotion, and emotion so effectively increasing memory retention, it follows that colors are instrumental to powerful and memorable communication.

When selecting a main color for a presentation template, take into account the emotions that the content or brand should produce. Is the material meant to excite the audience, rile them up for a new product? Use a bright warm color (red, orange, yellow) to capture the energy of your message. If the material is about a trustworthy medical or financial service, use blues to convey reliability and fortitude. For more ideas on the right colors for your content, check out this awesome infographic from The Logo Company on how brand colors speak to our emotions.

Whether the starting point is a predetermined brand color or a color selected for its emotional qualities the next step to building a palette involves color theory.

Color theory starts at the color wheel, where our main hues are laid out showing the relationships between primary (red, yellow, blue), secondary ( orange, green, purple), and tertiary (red-orange, yellow- orange, etc) colors. The outer ring of the wheel is the fully saturated intensity of the color. As we move toward the center, the colors become less saturated.


There are several different methods used to combine colors from the color wheel to produce a pleasing look & feel. These methods for mixing and balancing colors are called harmonies.


Different color combination methods, or harmonies, produce a different feel. Here’s a look at some common harmonies, how they are constructed and how they can be used.

Complementary & Split Complementary color palettes are vibrant and striking. Complementary colors are across the color wheel from each other and provide high contrast. Split complimentary colors are those on either side of the hue directly across from your main color.


Analogous color palettes are pleasing to the eye and feel comfortable because they often occur in the natural world, like a sunset of pinks, reds and oranges. Analogous colors are next to each other on the color wheel.


Monochromatic color palettes are built by selecting different saturations of the same color. They feel simple and elegant, but lack contrast.


Triadic, Tetradic & Square color palettes use simple geometric shapes (triangle, rectangle & square,respectively) superimposed over the color wheel to determine color harmony. These palettes offer rich contrast and balance.


Putting Your Palette To Use

So now that the palette is selected, how do we use it?

Once you have your main colors selected, create a palette by adjusting saturation in your two main colors and adding in a neutral. This supplies some variance in the intensity of your colors, but you don’t want to go overboard. Using too many colors can dilute the cohesion of your palette. A limit of 5 or 6 is generally plenty.

Take the split complementary harmony, which is both pleasing to look at and easy to work with. This palette has three main colors. To create an intentional and polished look, one color should be dominant. The other two will be used as secondary and tertiary accent colors. To flush out this palette we can add variances of our main hues and a neutral for balance.

A built out split complementary palette might look like this:


Adding more hues of your main colors doesn’t change the harmony that you’re using, but you will want to make sure you’re establishing balance. Color balance in the composition will create a more polished and professional-looking piece.

One easy rule of thumb for balancing your colors is the 60-30-10 Rule. Using this compositional guideline, sixty percent of the color on a given slide will be the dominant color. Use it for big shapes or recurring elements. The secondary color should make up about thirty percent of the color, while the tertiary color is used only for small accents and “pops” to grab attention.


Of course, not all content or brand guidelines will fit nicely into the 60-30-10 rule, so don’t be afraid to use your judgment. The best and worst thing about working with color is that there are very few hard & fast rules. The main tenets are: not too many , not too few and do it if it looks good to you.

Whether designing for website, marketing collateral or presentation, a good color palette begins to tell the story immediately and subliminally. Evoking emotion through color increases the effectiveness and memorability of the content. Selecting the right color palette for the message and the content is vital to communicating to the audience on both an intellectual and emotional level. Working with a color palette is a subjective matter, but starting from a solid palette and keeping balance in mind will set you off on the right track.

To read more about design theory in general and presentation design in particular, visit our blog, Visual Sugar.

About the Author:

Bethany Auck is the founder and creative director of SlideRabbit. SlideRabbit designs killer custom presentations and infographics.

3 Steps to Choosing the Best Presentation Colors

Poor color choice in presentations results in ugly visuals, bad feedback, and negative feelings from your audience. A good color palette makes a good presentation better, elicits positive feedback and increases audience acceptance of your content.

But how do you pick the best colors for your subject matter and audience? For example, which piece of pie below would you rather eat?

Choosing a color palette seems simple until you take into consideration how your audience perceives color and how those colors relate to your topic and goals, because colors elicit an instant and strong emotional response. For example, the color red could signal “danger” to some and “love” to others.

What is your favorite color? Why?

Know your likes and dislikes before selecting a color palette to guard against your color biases. Next, follow the three steps that follow to pick the best colors, improve the quality of your next presentation  and boost your success.

Step 1: Determine your goal.

If your goal is get “buy in” (e.g., make a sale or gain trust), use a color palette your audience knows and trusts—even if the palette is not what you like. When applicable, use your audience’s corporate, agency, or organization colors. People trust that which is familiar, and they want to see themselves reflected in your slides. For example, if you presented to the U.S. Army, which color palette do you think would work best—A or B?

If your goal is to increase mindshare and market your company or organization, use your colors. Consistent exposure to your company’s colors will, in time, breed trust. (Think branding.)


If you want to play it safe, use blues and greens. (Most Western cultures vote blue and green as the most appealing colors.) With that in mind, you want to know your customer and their culture. For example, the color green is associated with luck in the Middle East but is connected with death in South America. Know what each color means to your customer when you choose alternate color schemes.

Still need help? Here are some free online palette tools that aid in color selection:

• http://colorschemedesigner.com
• http://kuler.adobe.com
• http://www.degraeve.com/color-palette

Step 2: Know basic color theory.

Ignoring color best practices results in unsightly, illegible, or confusing presentations—guaranteed. Color is the first thing people see when they look at your presentation and helps or hinders your success rate. The following are essential color theory concepts.

Color consists of three variables:

 Hue – where the color appears on the color wheel (blue vs. yellow)
• Saturation – the intensity or vibrancy of the color (neon vs. pastel)
• Value – the lightness or darkness of the color (adding black to darken your color or white to lighten your color)

To simplify things, there are two color “families” of which to be aware:

• Analogous – colors that appear next to one another on the color wheel like blue, green, and yellow
• Complementary – colors across from one another on the color wheel like red and green

Avoid using complementary colors. Complementary colors—for example, red and green or blue and orange—vibrate when next to one another or placed over one another, such as orange text on a blue box. You’ll give your audience a headache! Analogous colors are a better choice when developing your color palette. It is safer to use two or three analogous colors with multiple shades (or tints) of each.

The colors you choose do not have to be analogous, but when choosing your colors make sure they work well together (are harmonious when side-by-side). Add additional colors to your palette, but save these colors for special circumstances. For example, you might choose blue as your primary color and green as your secondary color with various shades of each. You could then use their complementary color of yellow or orange to highlight special boxes or features.

When it is time to set up your template avoid the following:

• Strong gradients. It is difficult to read overlapping content.
• “Cheesy” effects (strong bevels, bright highlights, dark shadows, and other “fancy” effects). It looks amateurish and undermines your company’s professionalism.
• Large color jumps in your palette (dark blue to light blue with no options in between). Large color jumps limit your options.




Step 3: Be flexible.

Printers, monitors, projectors, and different paper styles rarely show a single color consistently. Your audience will not have a point of comparison, so the color is correct as far as they are concerned. As long as you follow steps one and two, the eccentricities associated with color display are negligible. Your slides will be cleaner, more attractive, and more consistent, and your audience will pay closer attention to your presentation.

Color is a powerful tool and must not be devalued. According to independent research:
• Color improves comprehension up to 75%.
• Color increases recognition up to 78%.
• Color increases motivation and participation up to 80%.

Use these three steps to choose the right colors for your next presentation and maximze its impact on your audience.

About the Author:

Mike Parkinson is an internationally recognized visual communication expert and multi-published author. Visit Billion Dollar Graphics (http://www.BillionDollarGraphics.com) and BizGraphics On Demand (http://www.BizGraphicsOnDemand.com) for more helpful presentation tools. Contact Mike at info@billiondollargraphics.com or call 703-608-9568 for exclusive graphics training. Mike is a partner at 24 Hour Company (http://www.24hrco.com), a premier proposal and presentation graphics firm.

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