A Question of (PowerPoint) Color – Updated

(This is an extended version of an earlier post.)

Your presentation will appear more unified and professional if you define and consistently use a small number of colors.  PowerPoint helps you do this with “theme colors” (“color scheme” in PowerPoint 2003).

When you select a color for an object Fill, for example, “theme colors” are shown in the top row of the color selection panel.  The idea is that you will consistently select from these colors 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 or modify the colors of a canned scheme; of course, you still have to decide on the actual colors in the theme.

I don’t have a universal formula for defining theme colors but I have developed a recipe that works pretty well for the work that I do.  It may help you, too, or at least provide a starting point.

My Perspective

I am skeptical 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, experience 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 and actually outlaw some colors.

Some color combinations evoke an immediate association in US culture: red and green for Christmas, orange and black for Halloween, primary colors for children, pastels for babies, etc.; I’m sure there are similar associations in other cultures.  I don’t think it’s advisable to try to use these combinations in other contexts.

I also  find it hard to create a consistent look using 6 or 8 different colors (hues) – so I am inclined to work with a smaller number (3 or 4) of hues along with variations on those hues.

If, like me, you create business presentations for your organization or other enterprises, the color problem is usually more easily solved since the company will likely have a “look and feel”/branding scheme.  This will include color guidelines based on two or three colors.  Even small companies without explicit guidelines will have a logo, website, and printed collateral that reflects a color scheme.

Your client or company may even have a standard PowerPoint “template” provided by the company’s creative agency.  Usually, it won’t actually include a custom theme since “graphic designers” are often not PowerPoint literate.

My experience with existing “standard” corporate templates and templates purchased from third parties has not been good.  I discuss issues with templates in another post.

So, for your company or your 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 ribbon will list available color schemes – built-in schemes and any “custom” theme colors that you have defined.  At the bottom of the list is the Create New Theme Colors… option.  Selecting this option will display this pane:

create theme colors pane

This pane displays the current theme colors and provides tools for changing each color.  Once you have Saved a theme, it will show up in the Design/Colors list.

There are 10 theme colors available in PowerPoint 2007 and 2010:

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 and consequently are not easy to use.

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 (lightness and darkness) by certain percentages, relative to the luminance of the associated theme color.

color selection pane with variations

Note that there are 48 colors available here – 8 theme colors and 40 variations. Also, the complete color selection pane also offers 10 “Standard Colors” and a number of “Recent Colors:”

So, there are 60+ colors in this pane – I think this is too many choices.  Once you, or your client, start to use too many variations,   it becomes difficult to match colors that have already been used.  Consistency begins to deteriorate.  Also, since the theme color variations are created by adjusting luminence, they may not be visually consistent with the basic theme colors.  For example, the first three blue variations under the first (dark) blue in the array above seem too “bright”(over-saturated)  to my eye.

And, for obvious reasons, the “standard” and “recent” colors should be avoided.

When you create new theme colors, you will probably use the More Colors… option.  You can choose the Standard (fixed color wheel) tab or the Custom (color model) tab for more control:

I have selected the HSL (hue, saturation, luminance) model – for creating and adjusting colors, the HSL model seems 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.

In this tab, the color last selected is represented by the three numbers (Hue, Sat and Lum); you can modify the color by adjusting these values.  Within the color space, moving the cross-hair symbol horizontally changes the hue; moving vertically changes the saturation.  Notice that all colors with zero saturation are gray (like cats in the dark).  The slider on the right changes the luminance (lightness or darkness).   You can change the value windows directly for more control.  Experiment to get a feel for these controls.

Of course, creating a palette is an iterative, experimental process.  You should work experimentally with a palette over a few variations before declaring it “official.”  Naming your theme color sets will help you keep them organized.

If  you let your experimental/trial palettes “escape” to other users before you finalize,  you will have some maintenance issues – I need another post for that.

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 choose your colors or change the colors that have been automatically selected by PowerPoint.

The Recipe

Companies typically have one or two corporate colors that they use with white or black.  My 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 useful for shadows, gradients and some other situations.

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.  Usually I use a lighter variation –  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 (lower 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 “complementary” – 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.
  4. Alternatively, pick just one accent and create three variations on the dominant corporate color.

As you work with this recipe, other variations will occur to you (see the examples below). That’s fine but I recommend that you don’t introduce an entirely new color that is not a variation on the corporate colors or a contrasting accent.

In some cases, you may not have an RGB/HSL specification for the corporate colors.  In this case you can “sample” colors from the company’s website or marketing materials using the Eyedropper tool – create a rectangle and on the Fill menu, use the Eyedropper tool to click on the color in an image (previously inserted). You can now select the rectangle and select the More Colors pane to determine the RGB value. Obviously, this may not be 100% accurate.

You may have a PANTONE™ color specification (used for printing); there are websites that convert PANTONE numbers to RGB.  I’m not sure how reliable these are.  You might also have a CMYK spec; again, converters are available on the web.


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

Here’s a sample slide showing the colors and demonstrating how they might be used in text and graphic objects:

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.


2 Responses to “A Question of (PowerPoint) Color – Updated”

  1. 1 imacbain October 10, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    Having used powerpoint for years in a church setting and also for live broadcasts, I would probably advise a check of the situation with the lighting in the area where it is to be used. For instance, without lights in the sanctuary the colours through the projector are close to what they are on the laptop slide which is being projected. However, turn the lights on and they destroy much of the colour in the projected image. It is always best to use as little lighting as possible close to the screen. For us we just have to switch the main lights off. However, the live broadcast does show up the vivid colours and I have picked up several tips for this post which I will bear in mind as I come to require backgrounds in the coming few months. Thank you for this information.

  1. 1 Warning! Defective “Template!” « powerpointy Trackback on December 19, 2012 at 1:17 pm

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