PowerPoint color themes are key to make your presentation look consistent and professional. Using theme colors correctly also makes it easy to change colors and branding later. And understanding how they work means that you can avoid the annoying way that slides change and get messed up when you copy them from one deck to another. Keep scrolling to find out how you can create your own color theme in PowerPoint, and apply it across Office.

Watch my video tutorial for the full Technicolor demonstration, or read on for the analogue version with extra bonus tips.

First up, what is a PowerPoint color theme? The color theme sets the colors you find in the PowerPoint color palette, under the fill color or text color options. The main colors are set by you, and then PowerPoint creates the various shades underneath each one.

Set theme colors

How do you change theme colors in PowerPoint? To choose your color theme, go to the Design tab on the ribbon, and under Variants, select Colors, which will show you a range of options built into PowerPoint. The colors of the icons on the slide here have all be set using the theme colors and the various shades, and if you watch them, you’ll see how they change color automatically when I preview any of these new color themes. Ooh, kaleidoscopic!

If you don’t want any of the pre-set color themes, you can choose the Customize Colors option down at the bottom of the list, which brings up a pop-up box that allows you to alter any of the colors. Select any of the color scheme options, and then More Colors at the bottom, which allows you to choose anything from the color wheel, or input your own RGB values, which may be useful if you want to use your brand colors in your presentation.

Once you’ve chosen the colors you want, you can save the theme with any name you like. That saved theme can be applied to any other PowerPoint deck, but will also be accessible across all Office programs, so you can set the same color themes in Word, Excel, or Outlook.

  • In Word, go to the Design tab on the ribbon, then Colors, just to the right of centre.
  • In Excel, go to the Page Layout tab in the ribbon, and you’ll find Colors on the far left.
  • In Outlook, compose a new message, then go to the Options tab on the ribbon, with Colors also on the far left.

You’ve got to love the way the same thing is hidden in so many different places. Maybe they’re like horcruxes, or something?

There are three categories of color to select in your theme:

Accent colors: The six Accent colors are the ones that are most useful in the PowerPoint color scheme. These are the main colors you’ll use in your presentation, and all Charts and SmartArt will be created using these colors by default.

Text/Background colors: The four options here don’t have to be dark and light, as the name suggests, but it’s recommended, as PowerPoint will use these colors as the background color for charts, and the text color for labels, assuming that you’ve chosen dark and light colors. It’s changing these to colors that are too dark or too light that can cause problems with poor contrast ratios on charts, so try to keep them light and dark colors as appropriate, which will help with your overall PowerPoint color scheme effectiveness and accessibility. You’ll also be able to access these four colors in the theme colors menus.

PowerPoint hyperlink color: If you want to choose a special PowerPoint hyperlink color, and a color for links that have been clicked, you can, but the colors won’t appear in the theme color menus anywhere, so don’t think you can sneak another two colors into the PowerPoint color palette for general use.

PowerPoint color picker

Selecting specific RGB custom colors can be tricky, but using a color picker really helps – either to ensure you’re perfectly matching your brand colors, or picking colors from an image, webpage, or document that you like. A color picker tool will provide the precise RGB value for any color you can find, which you can then input to create your new presentation color scheme. There’s the PowerPoint color picker – built into the program – available from Office 2013 and later, which you can find by selecting an object (anything works for this), then going to the Home tab on the ribbon, over to Shape Fill on the right-hand side, and then selecting the Eyedropper option half way down the menu. Irritatingly, this PowerPoint color picker only works to pick colors within the PowerPoint slide window, so if you have an object on the slide already (like a logo), or can paste an image into it, then it’s fine.

If not, there are plenty of great separate color picker tools that will allow you to pick up the RGB value of any color on your screen. There are loads of them, from incredibly feature-laden, to super simple pick a color, get an RGB code. Simple generally works for me, so things like Pixie and Color Cop are both good.

Theme vs standard vs custom colors

Now that you’ve set your theme colors, use them. Consistent use of the same family of colors makes your presentation look better and not too garish, which your audience and branding department will thank you for. It also means, as mentioned before, that if you change the theme colors, then all your content will change automatically to match. Not just on a single slide, but through your entire presentation. So if you change brand, or need to repurpose slides to fit a different theme, say for a conference, using the main theme colors, and all the various shades, will save you a lot of time.

If you copy and paste your slides into a different deck, with a different presentation color scheme, then your slides will also change to match the new PowerPoint color scheme, making everything consistent, with no additional effort. Incidentally, if you’ve ever copied slides into a new deck and wondered why everything has changed, this is why.

The standard colors are different to the PowerPoint theme colors, in that they’re fixed, and won’t change automatically when you apply a new theme or copy slides into a new deck. This can be advantageous. Say you want to use color to convey meaning – using red for negative and green for positive is a common combination. Here, you’d want to use the standard colors, rather than theme colors, as the colors won’t change, and your meaning won’t get lost if things alter in the future.

The same is true with custom colors. Sometimes you may want to add a specific color into the slide. This might reflect another brand in the deck for instance. In any of the color menus, you can choose More Fill or Outline Colors from the drop-down menu, which reveals the same color options pop-up as before, allowing you to choose anything from the color wheel, or a specific RGB value. Again, these custom colors won’t change if you alter your color theme, so just be aware of any overuse.

My colleague Amy put together some thoughts on how to use color to make presentations more effective, which is also worth considering.

Transparency, gradients, glows, and other effects

The presentation color scheme also applies to the many other formatting effects in PowerPoint. If you choose a theme color for a shape, and then make it semi-transparent, the shape will change color if you apply a new theme in the future. Likewise, if you add a gradient fill using only theme colors, then the gradient will change if the theme is altered. Other effects like glow and the shadow functions, or the change fill or font color emphasis animation effects also use the theme colors by default (although you can select custom colors).

In general, we recommend using the PowerPoint theme colors wherever possible to promote consistency in everything that you’re doing. But it’s worth noting how far the color theme reaches, so that if it changes, and something goes wrong with your slide, you can more easily identify why.

Try creating your own PowerPoint color scheme. And, while you’re at it, you can download a free PowerPoint toolkit from BrightCarbon, all of which is programmed using a rather nice color theme, which you can use, or alter, and watch as all the objects change color to suit your tastes.

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Richard Goring

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  1. Image of Mike Parkinson Mike Parkinson says:

    Fantastic, tutorial. Brilliant again! 👌🏽

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