A Question of Color

Your presentation will appear more unified and professional if you consistently use “theme colors” (“color scheme” in PowerPoint 2003).

“Theme colors” are shown in the top row of the color selection panel; the idea is that you will select these colors for consistency as you build your presentation.

color selection pane

An array of variations of the theme colors are presented below the theme color row – more about this later.

Microsoft and others provide tons of advice on color and a bewildering array of predefined theme color sets; I’m sure you can find hundreds of other choices on the web.

But how do you decide what colors to use?

Your guess is as good as mine on how to choose one of these predefined schemes.

Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to define your own theme colors; of course, you still have to pick colors.

In the face of these difficulties, I have developed a formula that works pretty well for the work that I do.  It may help you, too, or at least provide a starting point.

My Biases

I am pessimistic about theories that assert an inherent link between emotions and colors, and some authorities agree, saying that individual reactions to colors are largely determined by cultural background and context (for another view, see colorvoodoo.com).

Often, color likes and dislikes are intensely personal, usually because of a past experience.  Your boss or your client may be a victim of this.

I find it hard to create a consistent look using 6 or 8 different colors (hues) – so I am inclined to work with a small number of hues and variations on those hues.

I do serious business presentations for others.  Fortunately, this usually makes the color problem easier since the company will likely have a complete “look and feel”/branding scheme which includes color guidelines based on one or a few colors.  Even small companies without explicit guidelines often have a logo, website, and printed collateral that reflects a color scheme.

Your client or company may even have a standard PowerPoint “template” although it may not include a consistent color palette.  My experience with existing “standard” corporate templates has not been good.  I’ll discuss issues with templates in another post.

So, for your company or a corporate client, you need a palette that is consistent with the corporate scheme and is flexible enough for variety and emphasis where needed.  I suggest you try my recipe and then create your own variations as you gain experience with it (just like cooking).

Theme Color Basics

The Colors button on the Design tab includes the Create New Theme Colors… option at the bottom of pane; this pane will appear:

create theme colors pane

There are 10 colors available:

Text/Background Dark 1 and 2
Text/Background Light 1 and 2
Accent 1 through 6

Two additional colors (hypertext and followed hypertext) are available for definition but these are not available in the top row of the theme colors pane.

PowerPoint 2003 provides 8 colors in a “color scheme,” similar to the theme colors.  The recipe given here can be applied (with obvious changes) with PowerPoint 2003.

The variations presented in the color selection pane (below the theme colors) are created from the theme colors by varying the luminance by certain percentages, relative to the luminance of the associated theme color.  These are occasionally useful when you need a color with a slight contrast to one of the theme colors (for example, a shadow or gradient).

color selection pane with variations

For creating and adjusting colors, the HSL (hue, saturation, luminance) color model is more intuitive than the RGB model.  That is, I have no idea how to modify a color by changing the red-green-blue mix.  On the other hand, changing the hue (base color), saturation (grayness) and luminance (lightness) gives fairly predictable results.  Of course, creating a pallete is an iterative, experimental process.

Theme colors are used automatically by PowerPoint for various objects, ranging from simple shapes to SmartArt and WordArt objects and charts.  For the more complicated objects, a range of “styles” are offered, using the theme colors in different variations. In all cases, you can change the colors automatically selected by PowerPoint.

The Recipe

Companies typically have one or two corporate colors that they use with white, or occasionally black.  The basic recipe assumes two corporate colors:

  1. Choose pure black for Text/Background Dark 2 and pure white for Text/Background Light 2.  I have found that I always need these colors, so put them in the palette for convenience.
  2. Choose a dark gray for T/B Dark 1 (e.g., HSL = (51,51,51).)  Choose a very light gray (248,248,248) for T/B Light 1.

These are the default colors for dark text on light backgrounds and light text on dark backgrounds.  Using these grays rather than the pure black and white for text is a little more elegant to my eye.  You may not agree.

  1. Set Accent 1 and 2 to the corporate colors.
  2. Set Accent 3 and 4 to variations of the two corporate colors.  You can increase the luminance to “lighten,” adjusting the saturation if the color is too bright.  Occasionally, if the corporate colors are light, you will want darker (less luminance) variations.  Make sure these colors are clearly different than the base colors.  You can use these colors and remain consistent with the overall scheme.
  3. Set Accent 5 and 6 to colors that contrast (usually opposite on the color wheel) with the corporate colors. These colors will be used sparingly as accents.  If possible choose both a dark and light accent.


Here’s an example based on a client (see Acme logo) with blue and green corporate colors.  The two corporate colors are included along with a lighter (higher luminance) version of each.  Red and orange are high contrast accent colors.  Of course, the accent colors will be used sparingly.

theme colors example 1

The background in these examples is a light gray gradient.  The subject of backgrounds will be treated in another post.

Here’s a more subtle variation that replaces one accent color with a lighter shade of the corporate blue, and selects a bright green for the remaining accent:

theme colors example 2

Here’s a very restrained version that uses only variations of the corporate colors:

theme colors example 3

Here’s a variation for single corporate color (blue) – I added grays and a third variant of the corporate color, along with a contrasting accent.

theme colors example 3

Use these ideas as a starting point and don’t be afraid to modify the theme colors as you work through the early stages of presentation design.  Don’t select theme colors and get them approved without trying them out.


Try your scheme with the end display device. What looks good on your desktop or laptop may look a lot different on other devices, particularly portable projectors.  If your target device is a computer or TV display, you’re probably in good shape.  Projectors, on the other hand, may have problems accurately producing particular ranges of colors, particularly near the red end of the spectrum.


3 Responses to “A Question of Color”

  1. 1 old black and white photographs September 6, 2012 at 10:20 pm

    Excellent post however I was wondering if you could write
    a litte more on this subject? I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Appreciate it!

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