How To Pick The Right Colors For Your Next Presentation

Your presentation’s color theme plays a huge role in how your message is received by your audience. You may think the effect is insignificant, but can you imagine how your audience will react if you use green text with a red background on your slides? They’ll probably end up walking out of your presentation! Well, if you don’t want that to happen, then you better learn how to pick the right colors for your next presentation.

An Introduction to Color Theory and the Color Wheel

Let’s start from the very basics of color theory. There are 3 categories of colors: primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. The most commonly used color wheel – the RYB color model – uses Red, Yellow, and Blue as its primary colors.

When you combine two primary colors, the resulting combination is a secondary color. There are 3 secondary colors:

  • Red + yellow = orange
  • Yellow + blue = green
  • Red + blue = purple

Tertiary colors, on the other hand, are a combination of a primary color and a secondary color. There are 6 resulting tertiary colors in the RYB color model:

  • Red (primary) + orange (secondary) = red orange
  • Yellow (primary) + orange (secondary) = yellow orange
  • Yellow (primary) + green (secondary) = yellow green
  • Blue (primary) + green (secondary) = blue green
  • Blue (primary) + purple (secondary) = blue purple
  • Red (primary) + purple (secondary) = red purple

As you can see, the tertiary color names take after the primary + secondary color names. But if you want to get fancy with color names, then here’s an updated tertiary color list:

  • Red orange = vermilion
  • Yellow orange = amber
  • Yellow green = chartreuse
  • Blue green = teal
  • Blue purple = violet
  • Red purple = magenta

Here’s a color wheel which uses the fancy color names:

Color wheel by Kwamikagami

Image source: Kwamikagami [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Common

Hue, Tint, Tone and Shade: What’s the Difference?

Mix and match any of the primary, secondary or tertiary colors, and you have millions of colors at your fingertips. Can you name all of them? I’d wager to say you can’t. But while there’s practically an unlimited number of colors, there are only a certain number of hues. Confused? Well, here’s a simple explanation of the color vs hue debate.

Color is an umbrella or general term that encompasses every hue, tint, tone or shade we see. Hue, on the other hand, refers to primary, secondary or tertiary colors. This essentially means there are 12 hues out of millions of colors.

Hues form the base of any color mixture out there. The only exception would be black, white and gray – these are simply referred to as colors and not as hues.

What about tint, tone and shade? How does it differentiate from hue? Here’s a quick guide:

  • Tint – when you add white to any hue, the resulting color is called a tint. It’s a paler version of the original hue, and are also called ‘pastel’ colors. Depending on the amount of white added, a tint can range from a slightly pale version of the original color all the way to almost white (negligible amount of base color).
  • Tone – when you add gray to any color, the resulting color is called a tone. Gray is a 50-50 mixture of black and white, and is considered a neutral color. When added to any color, it tones down the intensity and brightness of the original color.
  • Shade – when you add black to any color, the resulting color is called a shade. A shade is the exact opposite of a tint as it turns the original color darker (instead of lighter). A shade can range from slightly darker all the way to almost black.

Now that you know what the difference is between hue, tint, tone and shade, I’m going to show you how to pick the right colors that will set the tone for your presentation.

Warm vs. Cool Colors: Which Is Better?

Adding colors to your slides can literally transform your presentation’s look. But you can’t just use any color without knowing how it’s going to impact your audience. This is why it’s important to know the basics of color psychology as well. If you think it’s just a marketing gimmick made up by savvy marketers, you’re mistaken. Color psychology is very much real.

So, let’s begin by knowing about warm colors and cool colors. These two groups evoke different emotions. If you use the wrong kind of colors in your presentation, then you may very well turn your audience against you. Instead of drawing them in, you’ll be pushing them away.

With that said, I drew a line on Kwamikagami’s chart to separate the warm and cool colors:

Kwamikagami's color wheel divided into warm and cool colors

As you can see, half of the color wheel are warm colors while the other half belongs to the cool colors camp.

  • Warm colors: Magenta, Red, Vermilion, Orange, Amber, Yellow
  • Cool colors: Purple, Violet, Blue, Teal, Green, Chartreuse

I know that’s quite a list to remember, so here’s a rule of thumb about these two groups. Red, orange and yellow hues, tints, tones, and shades all fall under the WARM category. Purple, blue and green and all their corresponding tints, tones, and shades are all COOL colors.

Let’s go to the next section to find out more about how you can use this knowledge to influence your audience’s emotions.

What Your Favorite Primary and Secondary Colors Mean

Let’s say you have life-changing information you want to share with your audience. You know your topic like the back of your hand, and you’re absolutely sure it’s going to help a lot of people. However, if you use the wrong color scheme on your slides, you may be pushing people away instead of getting them to see the ‘light.’ This is why color choice is so important – you want to use the right colors to your advantage.

The exception to this is when you’ve got no say when it comes to colors. If you’re doing a corporate presentation, then you’d probably be required to use your company’s brand colors. Or you’d have a pre-existing color template that needs to be followed. In that case, feel free to skip this section. But if you have the liberty to use any color scheme, then this section will benefit you greatly!

So, here are some of the most common interpretations or meanings of the 6 primary and secondary colors:

Red - warm primary color
Photo by Matthew Hamilton on Unsplash

Red (warm color | primary color). Red is a passionate, intense, and aggressive color. It grabs people’s attention. This is why warning signs and danger signs are usually in red. It’s because our eyes gravitate to red. When people go into a rage, they’re said to have “seen red.” Red evokes a range of emotions in us – from intense longing and desire to danger and violence. When it comes to presentations, use red whenever you want to capture people’s attention. Use it to highlight the most important points your audience should remember.

Yellow - warm primary color
Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Yellow (warm color | primary color). Yellow represents sunshine, happiness and hope. Just like the color red, yellow is also highly visible. This is why you’ll see most taxis and school buses are painted yellow. Use yellow in your presentation to make your audience feel hopeful and positive about your message. But be careful about using too much yellow though. Some people perceive yellow as a childish color and even a sign of cowardice. So, if you don’t want your brand to be perceived as such, then you may want to consider using other colors.

Picking the right colors for your next presentation - orange is a warm secondary color
Photo by Ambrose Chua on Unsplash

Orange (warm color | secondary color). Orange is a secondary color, achieved by mixing red and yellow together. It inherits red’s passion and yellow’s optimism, and is perceived to stimulate creativity and enthusiasm. Just like the fruit itself, orange can make you feel fresh and healthy. It’s a warm and youthful color, so if you’re reaching out to a younger demographic, then you may want to use more orange in your slides.

Blue - cool primary color
Photo by Stefan Gunnarsson on Unsplash

Blue (cool color | primary color). Blue is the color of the sky and the ocean. Imagine passing by beautiful landscape where the sky is oh so blue. Don’t you just want to stop by for a moment and feel the calmness envelope you? Blue is also well-loved by companies that want to make their customers feel they are reliable and trustworthy. But too much blue can make people sad and depressed. It’s why you “feel blue” when you’re down in the dumps.

Green - cool secondary color
Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

Green (cool color | secondary color). Green is often associated with life, nature and the environment. But at the same time, it’s also used to denote money and wealth. If you want to use green in your presentations, then you need to consider which particular tint, tone or shade of green you want to use. Lighter greens are usually perceived as a more calming and positive color. Darker greens, on the other hand, can evoke feelings of greed or jealousy since it’s associated with the color of money.

Purple - cool secondary color
Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash

Purple (cool color | secondary color). Purple is the product of blue and red. It therefore inherits its parent colors’ properties and is perceived as both a calming and energizing color. It’s not as frequently found in nature as, say, the color green or blue. Purple is said to represent power, wealth and royalty. This is because back in the old days, only the wealthy could afford to buy expensive purple dyes. So, if you want to make your audience feel special or you want to lend an air of exclusivity to your brand, then consider using purple in your presentation slides.

Obviously, these aren’t the only colors on the color wheel. If you want to read up on what other popular colors mean, then you may want to check out this article.

Factors To Consider When Choosing Your Presentation Color Scheme

The right color scheme can make your presentation a smashing success while the wrong colors can, well, smash it (and your credibility) to pieces. According to expert presenter, Nancy Duarte, you must consider the following factors when looking for the perfect colors:

  1. The audience. Knowing who your audience is is important to your success. You want to use colors that will resonate with their beliefs and their values. If you’re trying to persuade a group of highly successful businessmen, you don’t want to use a cartoony shade of yellow as they may not take you seriously. Likewise, you don’t want to use colors you think looks great, but may actually have a more sinister meaning to your audience. Say, for example, the color purple. It may be associated with wealth in many countries, but in Thailand and Brazil, purple represents death or mourning.
  2. The industry. Use colors that represent your niche or industry. If you work for an organic or green company, then you’d want to use green. If you work for a bank or any other financial institution, then a darker shade of green may be worth looking into. Or, if you work in a kid’s-related niche, then yellow may be a good idea. A good tip would be to look at what colors your competitors are using in their branding and marketing campaigns.
  3. Your company. What’s your company’s mission and vision? Use colors that are in line with those, it will be great for your company’s branding. If you’re allowed to use colors apart from your company’s brand colors, then look for those that will actually look great with your corporate palette. You can use ideas from the techniques I’ll share in the next section.

5 Popular Color Schemes Commonly Used In Presentations

Here are some of the most popular techniques you can use to pick the right colors or color scheme for your presentation:

  • Monochromatic color scheme

Earlier in this article, you learned about hues, tints, tones, and shades. This is important because in a monochromatic color scheme, you’re basically working off of a single hue. Say, for instance, you’re using the color red. You can add white to get various tints of red. You can add varying amounts of gray to come up with tones of red. And you can add black to see shades of red.

You can use a tool like to see variations of a single color. I typed in the hexadecimal code for red (#ff0000 or #f00) and this nifty tool gave me a range of red-derived colors all the way from white (#fff) to black (#000).

sample monochromatic color scheme

  • Complementary color scheme

Complementary colors lie on opposite sides of the color wheel. These colors are best used when you want to draw attention to something since they provide a good contrast to each other. Colors like green and red are complementary. In small doses, these two colors play well with each other. Except, of course, for text. It’s a big no-no to use green text on red background, or vice versa. The same thing holds true for all complementary colors, so use this color scheme in moderation.

You can use a tool like Sessions College for Professional Design’s Color Calculator. For step 1, you can use the color picker to pick a color or you can drag around the white dots on the color wheel itself. Then in step 2, select the first icon (see red box in screenshot) and you’ll immediately see the resulting complementary color in step 3. As you can see, you can draw a straight line between the two complementary colors: #3f82ff (blue) to #ff8f3f (orange).

Color Calculator by Sessions College for Professional Design

  • Analogous color scheme

Analogous colors lie adjacent on the color wheel. They look harmonious side by side and are really easy on the eyes. You can have a group of warm colors or cool colors, or have a mixture of both (these colors do sit next to each other on the color wheel). Here are some common analogous color combinations:

  • Red – vermilion – orange
  • Vermilion – orange – amber
  • Orange – amber – yellow
  • Amber – yellow – chartreuse
  • Yellow – chartreuse – green
  • Chartreuse – green – teal
  • Green – teal – blue
  • Teal – blue – violet
  • Blue – violet – purple
  • Violet – purple – magenta
  • Purple – magenta – red
  • Magenta – red – vermilion

Of course, if you want to use a variation of any of these hues, then you should use a color calculator to make your life easier. Here’s a screenshot of Session College’s Color Calculator to come up with an analogous color scheme:

Color calculator - analogous color scheme

  • Triadic color scheme

If you draw an equilateral triangle on the color wheel, you’d come up with a triadic color scheme. The most common and most basic example of a triadic color scheme are the three primary colors (red, yellow, blue). The three secondary colors (green, purple, orange) are also triadic in nature since they are evenly spaced on the color wheel.

To look for triadic color schemes, you can use Session College’s Color Calculator again. Click on the triadic icon in step 2 to get your triad colors:

Color calculator - triadic colors

Normally, in this type of color scheme, you select one color as the dominant color, and use the other two as accents. In the example above, you can use #54ff8a as your main color and use the other two as accents on your presentation slides.

  • Tetradic color scheme

If you want to use a colorful scheme for your slides, then a tetradic color scheme may be perfect for you. The 4 colors form a rectangle on the color wheel and are naturally vibrant since it includes both warm and cool colors. The best way to use this scheme is to let one color dominate and the other 3 play a supporting role. Here’s a sample tetrad color scheme:

Color calculator - tetradic colors

In addition to Session College’s Color Calculator, you can also use Paletton. It works pretty much the same way as Session’s tool. However, the awesome thing about Paletton is that it also gives you 4 extra colors (per main color) to work on. So, if you’re looking for a tetradic color scheme, Paletton will give you the 4 main colors plus 4 extra monochromatic colors. In short, you get a total of 20 colors for your palette! Here’s an example: screenshot

That’s my tetrad color palette on the right column. As you can see, for each of the 4 main colors, I also get an extra tint, tone, and shade in my palette. You can hover your mouse over the colors to get the hex code, or you can click on Tables/Export at the bottom right corner to get the complete list, like so:

paletton's color palette sample

Play around with either tool and see which one you like best. In the next section, I’ll share even more color tools to help you pick the right colors for your presentation.

More Tips On Choosing The Right Colors For Your Next Presentation

You’ve obviously got a lot of choices when it comes to selecting the best color schemes for your presentation. Now, it’s not a good idea to use several color schemes in a single presentation. You need to stick to a single color scheme if you don’t want to be perceived as a presenter with zero design skills. But how do you choose the best scheme? Here are a few tips to help you out:

  • Keep it simple

Unless you’re an experienced designer, you want to keep your color scheme simple. Just because you’ve got millions of colors to choose from doesn’t mean you should overthink it.

For beginners, a monochromatic color scheme is a good starting point. You simply can’t go wrong with this scheme because all possible color combinations are going to look good together on your slides. You’re basically just working off of one color and just using various tints, tones or shades to make your slides look easy on the eyes.

For more advanced designers (who don’t consider themselves experts yet), a maximum of 4 colors is recommended. It will not be easy balancing 4 different colors that most likely belong to both warm and cool color categories. So, you’ve got your job cut out for you. A good rule of thumb to remember is to select a dominant color and just use the rest as supporting or accent colors.

  • Choose a color scheme with high contrast

Contrast is important in presentation slides. After all, your slides are your visual aids. Therefore, it is a must that your audience is able to read whatever is on your slides. You need to use a color scheme that will make your content stand out. In most cases, you’ll do either of the following:

  • dark background with light foreground
  • light background with dark foreground

A word of caution though: complementary colors do provide good contrast, but you don’t want to use these in text-based slides. Unless, of course, you want a slide that looks horrible like this:

example of slide with bad color combination

  • Use an online color palette or color schemes generator

Looking for the right colors for your next presentation can seriously eat up a lot of your free time. There are so many options to choose from, it can literally make your head spin! You can easily find yourself obsessing over the smallest detail, and adjusting the brightness or saturation levels of various colors. That does sound like a lot of work, doesn’t it? If you want to save your sanity, and just use color combinations that other people are already using, then check out these sites:

You can save or download the palettes of your choice to your computer. And then you can insert the palette to your PowerPoint slide’s canvas (the space outside the slide itself).

If you’re working on a lot of slides and you think you’ll be referring to the same palette over and over again, then it’s best to add the palette to the slide master. This way, you’ll see your palette every time you add new slides. Here’s a screenshot:

how to add color palette to slide master

To use the color palette, all you have to do is just use the Eyedropper tool on PowerPoint. Let’s say you want to use one of the colors on the palette. Just select the text you want to color, then click on the Eyedropper tool, like this:

color eyedropper in PPT

When your cursor turns into an eyedropper, just click on the color you want to use and PowerPoint will automatically change the color for you. Try this simple trick right now. The ease by which you can change colors will literally blow you away!

  • Follow the 60-30-10 rule

I’ve mentioned earlier in this article that when using 3 or more colors, you want to use 1 main color and the others as secondary or accent colors. Here’s a guideline most designers follow when they use 3 colors:

  • 60% main color – commonly used as background color
  • 30% secondary color – commonly used as shape fill
  • 10% accent color – commonly used in text, borders, and outlines

Note that this is just a guideline. It doesn’t mean you need to strictly follow the 60-30-10 rule, but it’s a good idea nevertheless. If you’re using 4 or more colors, you can follow the same guideline, that is, use the main color in a large percentage of your slides and balance the rest of the colors.

Are you ready to pick the right colors for your next presentation?

No matter which color scheme you choose, it’s important to remember that colors aren’t there to just make your slides look pretty. They serve a much bigger purpose. Think about your audience and how they’re going to react to the colors you use in your slides. In short, make your color theme work for you, not against you!


You might also find this interesting: 15 Fun and Colorful Free PowerPoint Templates