Chapter 7:
Format Design: Using Color

Taking Advantage of Color

Defining Color

Using Color Effects

Enhancing Your Message With Color

Choosing Colors to Suit Your Output

Matching Screen Colors

The Real World: Variations on a Color Scheme


Chapter 6

Chapter 8

Chapter 7:
Format Design: Using Color

Color is an extremely effective tool for presentation graphics. Unlike printing color pages, which is often prohibitively costly, producing a color presentation is relatively inexpensive. Because of the way slides are imaged in a film recorder, the processing cost for a slide with two colors is exactly the same as that for a slide with two thousand colors. This makes it possible to use a far wider range of colors than is available for printed graphics.

This chapter provides the information you need to design a color presentation. It explains the mechanics of color and how you can achieve the effects you want by using it properly.

Taking Advantage of Color

The primary purpose of color in a presentation is to create an attractive environment for your message. Studies show that a color presentation is more memorable and effective.

The use of color can contribute to your presentation in several ways:

  • Color choices can influence the mood and receptiveness of your audience.
  • In a darkened room, audience attention can wander; color provides the visual variety necessary to maintain audience interest.
  • Color can focus audience attention on a particular point in an individual slide.
  • Color can be used to enhance meaning and clarify information.
  • A presentation color palette establishes a consistent environment for your information.

Many computer programs allow you to select from a palette of millions of colors. But when asked to name as many colors as possible, most people cannot come up with more than a couple dozen. The gap between what colors the average person can name and the millions he or she can actually see is the gray area (no pun intended!) where taste and personal style influence the way we use and talk about color.

Keep in mind that color is very subjective; no two people perceive a color in the same way. Even the words we use to describe colors are very indefinite; one man's violet is another man's purple; what you may call turquoise someone else may call cyan.

Many people have very strong opinions about particular colors. If you are designing a presentation for others, try to get an idea of their likes and dislikes and allow for their preferences in your design. If a speaker particularly dislikes a color, use it sparingly or not at all. If he or she has favorite colors that would work well in a presentation, use them.Different cultures ascribe distinct values to colors. For example, in Islamic countries, green has very strong religious connotations and should be used carefully. If your presentation is to be given overseas, check with local consulates or embassies for guidance about color customs.

Defining Color

You don't have to know how color works to appreciate a painting or to choose a color for the kitchen walls. But in order to produce a color design, you need a basic understanding of color, as well as tools to describe and manipulate color. The tools used to define and work with color are called color models. The types of color models you may encounter while working with presentation graphics software are described in this chapter.

RGB Color Models

The color model most commonly used in presentation graphics is RGB (Red, Green, Blue). The color monitor on your computer uses red, green, and blue phosphors to create the colors on your screen. A color film recorder uses red, green, and blue filters to expose the 35mm film that goes into your slides.

The RGB Color Model (Additive Color)

The RGB model is based on the mixture of colored light. It is often called additive color because colors are formed by combining lights. When the three primary colors (red, green, and blue) are projected together as beams of light on a white background, the beams mix to create a white light. Where any two of these colors overlap, a secondary color is created. For example, where the red and green lights overlap, yellow is created. By varying the brightness of the red, green, and blue, you can create millions of different colors.

Each secondary color is the complementary color of one of the primary colors, and vice versa. The three complementary pairs are red-cyan, green-magenta, and blue-yellow. If you project a mixture of a primary color and its complementary color on a white background, the resulting color is white.

CMY Color Models

The CMY (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow) color model is used mostly in printing. The CMY colors are the complementary, or secondary, colors in the RGB color model. Cyan, magenta, and yellow are the process colors used in four-color printing (the fourth color is black).

The CMY Color Model (Subtractive Color

The CMY color model is based on the mixture of pigments viewed under white light. It is often called subtractive color because the pigments absorb some of the colors from the white light, and the ones they reflect result in the color you see. For example, the reason a splash of paint looks yellow under white light is that the paint absorbs the blue portion of the white light and reflects the red and green portions, which your eye perceives as yellow (as with the RGB color model).

When you mix any two CMY colors together, you get a primary RGB color. If you mix all three CMY colors, the resulting color is black.

HSB Color Models

Creating colors with the RGB or CMY color model can be difficult because you must mix the right amount of primary or secondary colors. Another approach is to use HSB (Hue, Saturation, Brightness) color models, which contain a specific number of colors. You can create other colors by manipulating the intensity of the colors in the model.

The HSB model (also called HSL for Hue, Saturation, Lightness or HSV for Hue, Saturation, Value) defines primary colors, or hues, throughout the spectrum in the form of a wheel. The wheel starts with red and then travels in a circle through orange, yellow, green, cyan, blue, violet, and magenta, ending back at red. The number of primary hues can vary from a few to thousands. For example, the Apple Color Picker on the Macintosh supports up to 65,536 hues.

Figure 7.3: The HSB Color Model

Lighter versions of the primary hues, called tints, are created by decreasing the saturation of color by adding white. Maximum saturation is the pure hue; minimum saturation is white.

Darker versions of the primary hues, called shades, are created by decreasing the brightness by adding black. Maximum brightness is the pure hue; minimum brightness is black.

Mixed colors, called tones, are created by adjusting both the brightness and saturation of a hue. This is equivalent to adding various levels of gray to the primary hue.

Specialized Color Models

There are several other color models available to computer users, most of them designed for matching screen output to printed output. The most common model of this type is Pantone Matching System, which is supported by many drawing and illustration programs.

Figure 7.4: Pantone Color Matching System

The Pantone system uses a palette of several hundred colors optimized for both video display and printing inks. Any color-matching system is imperfect because of the wide variety of monitors and the way users adjust them. But the Pantone system, like most others, includes printed reference materials which show what the final printed colors will look like. Since Pantone colors were developed originally for printing inks, they don't always translate well to the RGB output used for 35mm color slides or other color film output.

Using Color Effects

Scientific studies have shown that specific colors have predictable effects on our emotions and attitudes. But we really don't need studies to point out the influence of color. Our language is full of phrases that reveal our emotional relationship to color:

  • Sadness: "I'm feeling blue."
  • Anger: "She's seeing red."
  • Desire: "He's green with envy."

You can exploit the power of color in your presentations by understanding how colors affect your audience. The following sections describe color contrast, haloing effects, and the differences between warm, cool, and neutral colors. These color effects are also illustrated at the end of this chapter.

Format, Highlight, and Text Colors

The color choices in a slide can be broken down into three main areas: format, highlight, and text.

Format colors are those used in the basic design of your presentation. These include the background colors and any colors used for recurring items, such as graphics and logos. When you are creating 35mm slides, your format colors will usually be the darkest colors on your palette; on overhead transparencies, they will be a combination of dark and light colors, depending on your format design.

Highlight colors are the colors you add to your palette for illustrations, chart and graph elements, text bullets, and other graphic objects which have meaning and content. These colors should fall in the midrange of brightness - bright enough to stand out from the background, but dark enough to support white or lightly colored text. Similar highlight colors are used for 35mm slides and overhead transparencies.

Text colors include your basic text color, headline and subhead colors, toneback text colors for reveal series (see Chapter 9), and special colors for highlighting body text. In 35mm slides, these colors should be the lightest in your palette so they will stand out against your format and highlight colors. On overhead transparencies with clear or light backgrounds, these will be your darkest colors.

Color Contrast

Color contrast is the relative difference between two adjacent colors. The difference may be in hue, as in red and green; it may be in saturation, as in light pink and primary red; or it may be in brightness, as in brick red and primary red. The difference may also be a combination of both, as in yellow and dark blue.

Figure 7.5: Color Contrast

Contrast is defined in terms of foreground and background objects. In presentation design, your text and graphics are the foreground objects that rest on the slide background color.

Figure 7.6: Foreground and Background

High contrast is essential to readability and clarity in slide design, so it's important to select highlight colors for text and graphics that contrast strongly with the background. The best way to provide contrast is through a combination of brightness and hue.

For example, on identical blue backgrounds, a yellow letter will be easier to read than a red letter or even a light blue letter. The light blue letter may be brighter than the background, but its similarity in hue diminishes its contrast. The red letter may be extremely different in hue, but its lack of brightness makes it difficult to read. The yellow letter contrasts in both hue and brightness, increasing the contrast and improving readability.

Figure 7.7: Enhancing Contrast

Haloing Effects

When two objects with high color contrast (such as red and cyan) touch each other on a slide, you may see a thin white line where they touch. This effect is called haloing.

Figure 7.8: Haloing

The electron beam used to expose the film in a film recorder is slightly fuzzy. Each line of the film recorder slightly overlaps the next to create a smooth color field. However, when two complementary touch each other, the slight overlap of the beam causes the colors to mix, creating a white edge. This effect varies greatly depending on the quality of the film recorder, which means that haloing is more likely to occur with inexpensive desktop film recorders.

You can eliminate most haloing in slides by including a thin black border around complementary-colored objects, or giving the text a drop shadow (see Chapter 8). The black line will interrupt the overlap in the film recorder, lessening the halo effect.

Warm, Cool, and Neutral Colors

Color can be divided into three main categories: warm, cool, and neutral. As you might expect, the warm colors are the colors of fire: reds, oranges, and yellows. The cool colors are those of water and air: greens, blues, and violets. The only truly neutral colors are white, black, and grays. However, for design purposes, subdued versions of warm and cool colors such as browns, tans, and slate blues, also serve as neutral colors since they usually have a lot of gray in them.

Warm colors, such as reds, oranges, and yellows, are the attention-getters in a presentation design. Slides with a preponderance of warm colors stimulate the audience and cause feelings of heat and energy. However, warm, bright backgrounds are much too flashy for slides; the intensity of the colors will tire the audience. Dark reds and oranges can be used in backgrounds, but carefully, since it is difficult to find cool, contrasting colors that work well with them for foreground objects.

Figure 7.9: Warm, Neutral and Cool Colors

Cool colors, such as blue and green, have a more relaxing effect on an audience than warm colors. In general, slides with mostly cool colors make an audience more receptive and passive. Dark, cool colors are ideal for backgrounds because they contrast well with warm color highlights, forcing the audience to pay attention to your content rather than the background. You also can use brighter cool colors, which would be overwhelmed by a warm background, as highlights.

True neutral colors - black, white, and gray - act as a blank slate for the highlight colors you use with them. Without an addition of some color (either with a logo or format graphics), neutral backgrounds can be very boring. You also can use "warm neutral" colors, such as brown and tan, or "cool neutral" colors, such as blue gray, to avoid the bland gray look. Neutral tones are the perfect background for a full range of highlight colors, both warm and cool.

In your presentation, you can use various combinations of warm, cool, and neutral colors to influence your audience. The background, because of its large area, will have a more profound effect on the general mood of an audience than the highlight colors used with it:

  • Warm backgrounds are generally suitable for presentations that are intended to excite and stimulate the audience, such as sales and marketing meetings.
  • Cool backgrounds are best suited to presentations that require the audience to be relaxed and receptive to information, such as business and scientific presentations.
  • Neutral backgrounds (especially gray) serve as a backdrop for the other colors you choose, so your highlight colors will have more effect on the audience.

As shown in Figure 7.10, you can control the audience response to your presentation by various combinations of background and highlight colors.

Figure 7.10: Audience response to warm, cool, and neutral colors

Enhancing Your Message with Color

In a presentation, anything that helps your audience concentrate on the speaker and the slides is a plus. Color is one of your strongest tools for guiding an audience. The following sections describe some techniques for using color to enhance your message.

Use Color to Increase Legibility

As you create your presentation, you are viewing it on your computer screen from 2 feet away. The audience may be up to 100 feet from the screen, and they need all the help they can get to see your information clearly. Strong contrast between your text and background colors will increase the readability of your slides.

Unless you are deliberately trying to create a watermark effect (where an object is subdued so that it appears as part of the background), use enough contrast to create a visible edge where any object touches the background. Without proper color contrast, objects will appear weak and out of focus.

Use Color to Maintain Audience Attention

A darkened room, a big lunch, and a monotonous speaker can all add up to a comatose audience. To keep your audience awake, use occasional splashes of color throughout your presentation. Color can provide the visual stimulation your audience needs to remain alert and interested.

Here are some ways you can use color to add variety to a presentation:

  • If you have several slides that consist of a single line of text, place that text in a colored box.
  • Use color charts and graphs wherever possible.
  • Add a color graphic or photograph to illustrate your point.

Figure 7.11: Using color to add variety

Use Color to Emphasize or De-emphasize Points

During a presentation, you may want to call attention to a line of text or part of a graph. When you use color as a pointer, your audience will have no trouble distinguishing the special elements from the rest of the text or graph. You can also use color to draw attention away from certain information. Large, low-contrast elements will seem less important than smaller, brighter ones.

Here are some ways to use color to highlight elements:

  • Instead of underlining important words within a text block, put them in a bright, contrasting color.
  • Put the most important element of a chart or graph in a bright color to direct the audience's attention to it.
  • In a graph, use darker colors for data that is unfavorable to your message to diminish its impact.

Figure 7.12: Highlighting elements for emphasis

Use Color to Link Related Presentation Elements

Color can link elements that are used repeatedly throughout a presentation. For example, if your speech contains references to different departments in your organization, select a "signature" color for each department and use it in charts and graphs throughout the presentation whenever that department name appears. The audience members will identify the color with the department, and it will be easier for them to read and understand the charts and graphs.

You can also assign unique highlight or format colors to different sections of a long presentation to distinguish them without sacrificing a consistent appearance. For example, if you have several speakers, use the same slide layout for the entire presentation, but give each speaker a unique color palette.

For a large presentation, you can combine color linking techniques to define a strong, overall color strategy. The color strategy for a presentation with six speakers from different departments might be as follows:

S. Schellberg
Dark Blue Violet
D. Morgan
Research & Development
Dark Violet Magenta
M. Nilsson
Dark Rose Gold
J. Flannery
Dark red Orange
J. Forsayeth
Dark Teal Yellow
J. Schoonover
Dark Orange Tan

The color scheme could be expanded to include colors for the company's eight geographical divisions:

DivisionHighlight Color
NortheastLight Blue
MidwestLight Green
Mountain StatesTan
Pacific RimMagenta

Use Color Motion to Explain Processes

Graphics that depict a complicated process or series of events can be confusing. You can help the audience understand what you are illustrating by guiding them through a graphic or text sequence with moving highlights.In a moving highlight, the entire graphic or text is visible at all times. As the speaker talks about individual elements, that element is highlighted and the rest of the sequence is toned back (made darker than the highlighted text), usually with a lighter shade of the background color. Figure 7.13 illustrates a moving highlight on an organization chart. See Chapter 9 for details on creating moving highlight series.

Figure 7.13: Moving highlights in an organization chart

This effect can be applied to any type of slide: text, charts, and diagrams. As an introduction to the overall process, begin with a slide in which all the elements are highlighted. Then you can proceed to use moving highlights to describe the process in detail.

Use Gradient Fills for Depth and Realism

You can add drama to a presentation by using a gradient fill for your background. A background with a gradient fill is shaded from a light color to a dark color or black. The shading gives a feeling of depth to the slide frame. It will also enhance contrast between your background and foreground elements since much of the background will be in dark shades.

As illustrated in Figure 7.14, there are a variety of gradient fill types. When choosing a gradient fill, make sure it fits the style and mood of your presentation as much as your other colors. The most traditional is a top-bottom gradient with the brightest part at the bottom of the frame. Other types, such as left-right or diagonal are a little more stylish. Element-weighted, title-weighted, and radial fills are the flashiest, and should be used with care.

Figure 7.14: Gradient fills for backgrounds

Choose a background gradient and stick with it throughout a presentation. Changing the gradient of a slide can be even more jarring than changing the background color. The change in gradient appears as motion in the background, which can be very distracting.

Because gradient fills can significantly increase the time it takes to image your slides, you should use them cautiously. Generally, top-bottom gradient fills take the least time to image, followed by left-right and diagonal, and then radial, which take the most time. If you plan to use a left-right, diagonal, or radial gradient fill for your slide background, have your service bureau pay close attention to imaging times when you send in your test samples. If your slides take significantly longer than average to image, make sure to allot extra time for slide imaging in your production schedule.

Choosing Colors to Suit Your Output

A large consideration in your choice of colors for your presentation is the method you will use to show them to the audience. Overhead transparencies generally have light backgrounds; 35mm slides have dark backgrounds. Colors that work well on 35mm slides can sometimes appear washed out on transparencies. In a presentation to be transferred to video tape, use of the wrong colors can cause problems.

The following sections provide tips on selecting colors for the various types of presentation media. Sample color schemes for 35mm and overhead transparency presentations are presented at the end of the chapter.

35mm Slides

Because they are normally projected in darkened rooms, the following color scheme provides maximum readability for 35mm slides:

  • Dark backgrounds. Light backgrounds should be avoided in slides because they are very prone to dust and dirt. A small dust particle can be enlarged 4000 percent or more when a slide is projected.
  • White or pastel text.
  • Medium hues and tones, dark enough to contrast with your text colors, for graphic elements and charts.
  • Bright, intense highlight colors.

Gradient backgrounds are especially effective on 35mm slides. Cool backgrounds are the most versatile, since they allow you to use the widest range of highlight and text colors. They also make audiences more relaxed and receptive. Warm backgrounds are more exciting for the audience, but they can be overbearing if they are too bright. It is also difficult to pick cool highlight colors that work well unless the backgrounds are quite dark. Neutral backgrounds (especially grays) can be boring unless you perk them up with some exciting highlight colors. Use cool and warm grays to avoid the "plain gray" look.

Overhead Transparencies

Room lights can wash out the intense colors of 35mm slides, which is why they are usually projected in darkened rooms. If a lighted room is required, overhead transparencies are much more readable. An effective color scheme for an overhead transparency presentation includes the following:

  • Light or clear background
  • Black or very dark text
  • Primary, secondary, and other bright, intense colors for graphic elements and charts

The dithering on many color printers makes it difficult to use subtle tints and shades on overhead transparencies. The semitransparent inks used in most color printers are not as rich on transparency film as they are on paper. Pastels and mixed tones will often have heavy dithering patterns.

Dithering patterns are an effect of the dots which create the colors in four-color printing. When an area is pastel or gray, the printer must use very small dots of cyan, magenta, and yellow to create it. These smaller dots are visible when projected on a screen. Primary colors are created by larger dots that blend together and appear more like a solid color.

If you are having photo-quality overhead transparencies made using a dye-sublimation printer or through a photographic process such as Cibachrome, you can use the same colors as you would for 35mm slides. But remember, your room will have to be darkened as if you were projecting slides.

Video and Screen Shows

Generally, the guidelines for using color in 35mm slides can also be applied to computer screen shows:

  • Dark backgrounds for maximum contrast.
  • White, light gray or pastel text. Avoid haloing by limiting Hue contrast with background colors.
  • Medium hues and tones for graphic elements and charts. But avoid primary colors (see below).

If your presentation is to be transferred to video tape or otherwise converted to broadcast-standard video (as for a video projection system), you should avoid large areas of pure primary and secondary colors (red, green, blue, yellow, cyan, and magenta). These primary colors will overload the video screen, causing an effect called blooming, in which the areas of color will appear fuzzy and too bright. If your video tape has a sound track, these colors can create so much excess video signal that they interfere with the sound track on the tape, causing an audible hum.

Haloing is also common in video projection. In fact, it can even appear as a vibrating effect, called video crawl.

Matching Screen Colors to Final Output

Because of the translation and conversion necessary to transfer your color choices from the computer program to the final output, what you see on the monitor may not be what you see in your finished presentation. Color film has a much wider range of color and contrast than is available with even the most expensive video boards and monitors.

A good 256-color monitor (such as the Macintosh RGB monitor or a high-quality VGA screen) will give a reasonable representation of your final film output. If you are going to be working with photos digitized on a scanner, you may need a system that supports millions of colors, and a larger, high-resolution screen. But no matter what hardware you use, what you see on the screen is merely an approximation of your final output. Do not base your color selections on how the colors appear on your screen.

The only way to be sure of what the colors will look like on the final output is to image color samples. Create sample slides similar to the ones shown at the end of this chapter. A single sample could include the entire slide background with format graphics, sample text formatting, and a graphic such as a pie chart to show the main highlight colors you intend to use. Check the color samples before finalizing your slide format design.

Even if you are giving a screen show, the colors on your monitor might look different on the one you will be using for the presentation. There is a wide variety in the quality and mechanical condition of monitors and projection equipment. Test your color selections for a screen show or video on the final projection equipment whenever possible.

The Real World:
Variations on a Color Scheme

Thursday, October 4, 1:00 pm: Jim Gonzalez presses the slide-advance button on the projector, and his first sample slide fills the screen of Hypothetical's executive conference room.

The format is one he adapted from a predesigned template in his software package. He changed it to include some company colors: red boxes with gold borders on a blue-to-black gradient background, white title and text, and a series of bright colors for graphics.

The first comment is from George. "Good work, Jim. This looks better than the last show we had done by Slides R Us."

Victoria approves as well: "A very pretty design."

"It's too bad Alan's in Japan. I'd like to hear his opinion. What do you think of that background?" says George.

"It seems a little...bright." replies Ellen. "You know, Acme Worldwide uses the same colors in their logo."

"These are the colors from our logo," says Jim. "But now that I look at them on the screen, they do seem too much like circus colors. I did a couple of variations. Here's number one."

Jim changes the slide. The second format is the same layout, but with a gradient red-to-black background and a gold title.

"Ouch! Jim, if the Board and I ever expand the company into show business, this will be perfect. What else have you got?"

"One more." Jim is starting to worry about having to start over. He changes the slide. The final format uses a gray background instead of the red, with a white title.

"That's beautiful, Jim." says Victoria

"That's more like it. Except the title looks too plain." George comments."Why don't I use the gold title on this background? That will put a little more color in the slides. I'm afraid the gray background by itself may be too boring," says Jim.

"Fine. Let's go with this design, except with a gold title. Will you do another test, Jim?"

"If that's the only change, I don't think so. We can see in the boxes what the gold will look like on the gray. I'll change the templates I have now, and start working on some more."

Ellen asks Jim to do something special: "Jim, could you print a copy of this sample and mark all the colors on it? I'll fax a copy to Alan in Japan so he can see what's happening."

"Sure, Ellen. I'll have it on your desk this afternoon."

George ends the meeting: "Thanks everyone. I think we're on track."

"And so far, on schedule!" says Ellen.


Color is a powerful tool for presenting your message clearly and forcefully. Here are some guidelines for using color:

  • Allow for personal and cultural preferences when selecting colors for a presentation.
  • Color models such as RGB and HSB allow you to describe and control color through your computer.
  • Warm, cool, and neutral colors have different psychological effects on the audience. Use these differences to enhance and clarify your message.
  • Color contrast is essential to readability. Choose background and highlight colors for maximum contrast, but beware of haloing and dithering effects.
  • Use color to hold your audience's attention and guide them through a presentation.
  • Control the flow of information to the audience by using color to emphasize and de-emphasize presentation elements.
  • Link related presentation elements by assigning signature colors to frequently used topics, divisions, departments, and so on.
  • Use moving highlights to help explain complex processes and time-related events.
  • Never commit to a new presentation design without reviewing and approving sample color 35mm slides, overhead transparencies, and video projections.
  • If you are designing slides for someone else, create a few variations as backup in case your first choice isn't acceptable.