I’m no designer, but I have had my fair share of painting classes and they’ve affected the way I think about color and in turn, the way I think about making slides. Color theory is one of the foundational concepts in fine arts, but it also has great relevance in many other areas, including presentations.

One of the first things you think about when making a presentation is how to effectively communicate your message so that your audience pays attention to the right things at the right time. By using color to your advantage, you can strengthen your message and in turn make it easier to understand, this translates to more effective presentations that won’t leave your audience confused. So, here are three ways to use color to your advantage in a presentation.

Making elements “pop”

One of the ways to utilize color in a presentation is to use it to draw the audience’s attention to certain areas you’d like to highlight. This helps direct their attention so they can effectively follow your train of thought. A great way to do this is to develop a color scheme that uses contrasting colors. Though many color combinations contrast, one of the most powerful ones you can use is a complementary color scheme.

The colors that are located directly across from one another on the color wheel are called complementary colors. For example, red and green, blue and orange or purple and yellow. If you put two complementary colors next to one another, you’ll notice that they create a lot of energy. If you look at a red and green square sitting next to each other, for example the border between the two color fields almost seems to vibrate.

All complementary colors will create this type of vibrancy when you put them on a slide together. Therefore, you can use complementary colors to draw attention to certain areas of your slides. For example, if a slide uses mostly blue tones in its color scheme, you can make elements that are meant to stand out be orange and this will make them obviously stand out. This concept will hold true for any pair of complementary colors.

You can also get elements on your slide to pop by using a limited color palette, for example a monochromatic color scheme, and then adding in splashes of color to draw emphasis. Achieving this effect is fairly straightforward. Let’s say your brand colors are a blue and white for example. By sticking to a palette consisting of those colors and some neutrals (beige, grey, black) you can ensure that your presentation will look like it fits within your brand. You can add a couple of accent colors to this palette if you would like certain elements to stand out, for example an orange, which is the complement to blue. The elements that appear in orange will then “pop” on screen and your audience will focus their attention to them.

The important concept at work here is that unexpected elements will capture the audience’s attention. By using a contrasting color to highlight what you want to stand out, you can ensure that people watching your presentation will pay attention to what you want them to.

Using color associations

Most people aren’t actively thinking about what colors mean on a daily basis, but in reality color associations are impossible to escape. For example, if you’re driving to the store you might pass a traffic light which turns from green, “go” to red, “stop” or see a yellow caution sign alerting you that there may be geese crossing the road ahead. These kinds of color associations make up a huge part of society, and affect how all of our infrastructure and media are created. Because of this, it is easy to apply color associations to presentations and have them be understood.

When I’m creating a slide I usually use a lot of the same colors consistently to mean the same things. For example, if I’m using a checkmark to show something has been successful I will many times color it green. Similarly, I make X’s red, and caution symbols in yellow. By making obvious color choices you eliminate any chances of confusing the audience with their meaning.

You can also use these types of associative coloring for elements like arrows (showing negative or positive effects) graphs, or even just objects themselves. For example, by animating a green arrow to move upwards you reinforce the idea that there are positive effects occurring. If the arrow was grey, for example this message would not appear as obvious.

Bear in mind that there is a difference between a genetic and societal association of color. Some color associations are found in nature and therefore we are programmed to recognize them, for example yellow and black stripes being dangerous. However, other associations are learned from living in a specific area, like red being negative in Western cultures but positive in Eastern ones. It’s important to remember this when making presentations because not all color associations will be obvious to others depending on where you are.

Create a mood

Creating a ‘mood’

The last way you can use color to make your presentations more effective is by using it to create an atmosphere that relates to your brand, your message, or your topic. Colors don’t just exist to look pretty: all brands understand this concept when they’re designing their logos, and you can think about it in the same way when you’re designing a slide. If you want your slides to talk about how your company is eco-friendly, stick to greens in your background; if you’re making a presentation for a modern or high-tech product, stick to a black background with pops of color. Even if your presentation needs to be on-brand, let the other colours in your palette do the heavy-lifting. For example, combining two brand colors (let’s say red and white) and putting them on a black background immediately makes the slides look more sophisticated.

I’m sure most people agree that color is important in many contexts, but when it comes to PowerPoint a lot of them seem to forget this. So, the next time you’re making a presentation, don’t just use the defaults, think a little about how you can use color to your advantage, may it be through emphasizing certain visuals with “pops” of color, using common color associations to enhance meaning or by using colors to create a feeling that matches your brand. You’ll be surprised how much of an impact it can have on how well people pay attention and also how much they’ll understand your presentation.

If you’re struggling to come up with some great colour combinations, head over here to COLRD, and use their free color palette generator to do all the hard work for you. And if you’re looking for more ways to make your presentations pop, read these tips here.

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Written by

Kieran Chadha

Principal consultant; Head of BrightCarbon Academy

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