Oct 24, 2017

5 Tips to use Colours in presentations [Design secret #1]

I have analyzed 125 ads published in the last 3 years in various newspapers. Why? Newspaper ads are designed by professional designers who get paid for doing this. They put out their best designs in newspapers to help their clients sell more stuff. So analyzing these ads can teach us a lot about good design. You can apply these secrets to design better presentations, posters and leaflets. In this post (Part 1) we will talk about colours.


Colour is perhaps the most critical design element. Use it well and you create harmony which appeals to the eye. Use it badly and you have chaos and you'll repel your audience. When you design a presentation or a leaflet you have to decide on many things around colour. Make sure you decide consciously.
  1. How many colours do I use?
  2. How do I connect colours to create harmony and balance?
  3. Which colours go well together? (colour combinations)
  4. What should be my background colour? (most of your text will come over it)
  5. How do I highlight using colours?

#1 Connect colours to create harmony and balance

Let us look at a few ads to understand harmony.

This ad uses very few colours and the predominant colour at the bottom (green) is used to write the headline at the top. This creates a more pleasant feel. There is a connection.

In this ad we have many colours but the sense of harmony is there. Colours are not clashing with each other. The headline on the top is in the same purple colour which is used so heavily at the bottom. Purple is the main colour here.
This style is very common and I have noticed it in scores of ads. Here again, we see the brand colour blue is used for the headline on the top. The blue headline looks good and creates harmony in design. No wonder the colour of the man's shirt is blue too. Nothing is random and the designer thinks about everything. Lots of brands make sure their models wear brand colours in the ads.
The shirt, the circle behind the product, the colour of FREE are all green. This again is no coincidence. However, excess use of the same colour on the same page can start to work against you.

Key takeaways

  • Make your colours go well with one another
  • Avoid using too many colours in your design
  • Colour your headline with the main colour of your design. The main colour usually is the brand or corporate colour

#2 How many colours do I use?

Whether you are designing a leaflet or a presentation you need to decide on the number of colours. Too many and you will create chaos. Colour tells the audience what is more important. Colour creates a pleasant experience.
This ad uses 3 colours. The main colour is yellow and the background colour is whitish (off white). Red has been used as a highlight colour. Limited use of red catches your eye.
There are 3 colours here too. The main colour is deep blue, the other colour is light grey and red is the highlight colour. Deep blue has also been used as the background colour. How did the designer arrive at this? How did she choose these 3 colours?

All the colours have come out of the bank's logo (it is there on the top). The logo is red and deep blue. Light grey has been used since it creates good contrast with deep blue. The designer has ensured that the red at the bottom is the same as the brand red. This creates harmony and balance.
Look at this ad. You don't know what to focus on. There are just too many colours. Having few colours allows you to navigate and make sense of the design. It tells us what is important and what is not.

Key takeaways

  • Use 3 colours in your design. Not more.
  • Choose these colours from your brand or corporate colour. Else, choose it depending on what feel you want to create.
  • Keep one colour for highlight. Use it only once or twice in your design.

#3 Which colours go well together? (Colour combinations)

Many colours go well together and enhance the experience. Some colours just don't go well together.
Dark grey goes well with light blue here. In fact you can see two different shades of blue here.
Blue and yellow form an energetic combination here. But not so well in the next ad.
Look at the next ad below. Golden orange colour has combined well with blue. Both of them are not too bright (like the IndiGo ad above).
After analyzing 125 ads, I have noticed that two bright colours (as you see in IndiGo ad) are never used together in equal proportions. They start fighting for attention. One bright colour is usually combined with white (light colour) or black (dark colour). It is also important to choose your background colour well. You want the audience to read your text comfortably.
Most ads have a dark background or a light background. That is because our eyes are comfortable with black or white as the background colour. Let us explore background colour in more detail in the next point.

Key takeaways

  • Do not use more than two bright colours in one design
  • If you are using 2 main colours, pick one bright colour and one light or dark colour. You can use a third colour for highlight
  • When you choose your 3-4 colours, make sure they go well together. If they are your corporate colours they will go well together (because your ad agency would have created it that way)
  • Most colours go well with white (light colour) and black (dark colour). Light colours like yellow will never combine well with another light colour (say white). A dark colour like deep blue will not combine well with black.

#4 What should be my background colour?

Background colour is the colour on which most of your text is printed. Designers call this text 'body copy'. Usually the best background colour for your presentation or leaflet is black, white or your brand colour (if it is light or dark).
This ad is a good example of a brand colour being used as a background colour. The background colour has to be comfortable on the eyes because this colour will cover a huge portion of your design.

Imagine what would happen if this Google Pixel ad did not have white as its background colour. Imagine the background was blue or red or yellow or green (the Google logo colours). It would have been a nightmare to look at it for a long time.

Key takeaways

  • Don't go for a very bright background colour.
  • Stick to a light colour or choose a dark colour. Light grey background colour works very well for presentations. It is better than pure white. You may choose a brighter colour for leaflets (when there is less text to read)

#5 How do I highlight using colours?

Now that we have decided to use not more than 3 to 4 colours, one of these colours will be used to highlight something important in your design. What has been highlighted in this Coke ad?
'Less than 100 calories' and 'same great taste'. The colour used is the same Coke red. In fact you would have already noticed that there are 2 main colours in this ad; red and grey. The headline on the top is red and so is the can. Coke is strengthening its association with the colour red. 
This ad uses grey as its background colour. The headline is highlighted with a dark grey (almost black) colour. The sub-headline has been highlighted with orange. The orange colour has been picked from the house in the image above. It is not an accident but carefully planned by the designer. The blue icons derive their colour from the brand logo (top right).
This ad is interesting. You have one photograph which covers the entire design area (canvas). The logo is white and so is the headline at the bottom. The highlight colour is blue and it is your call to action. If you do not highlight it, it might not even be noticed by many readers. The logo and text have been placed carefully so that parts of the image act as background by offering sufficient colour contrast (difference).
The designer has used red to highlight the fact that a sale is going on. Red is a very common colour used to highlight.

Key takeaways

  • You have created a palette of 3-4 colours. Pick one bright colour which is very different from others. Use it to highlight.
  • Always use bright colours for highlight. Red is the most popular colour as it attracts attention. That's why most brands use RED to promote 'sale' or 'offers'.

Putting it all together

Let us now view two ads keeping in mind what we have just learnt. Take a look at some ads and observe the following:

  • How many colours have been used?
  • How has the designer created colour harmony?
  • Do the colours go well together?
  • What is the background colour?
  • Which colour has been used to highlight?
This ad has 4 colours; black, grey, golden and white. Premium brands usually stick to black and grey colours. Gold signifies premium too. Gold, grey and black go well together. The font colour is white, and when written over black it is very easy to read.
This ads has a very nice feel. We have a photograph with lots of bright colours. Blue here is the main colour. The sky is blue, the logo is blue, lots of balloons are blue and the headline 'NEW ARRIVALS' is blue too. So much of blue has created a sense of harmony. Notice that all the blues are not the same. Dark blue over light blue looks good. Try this style (deep over light) in your design and re-create this feel.

Most important takeaway

Before designing any presentation or marketing collateral, create a palette of 3-4 colours. Have one or two bright colours and one light and one dark colour. Stick to this palette and your design will wow your audience. Choose the colours which connect with your topic. If you are making a marketing collateral, you will have to play with brand colours.

In the next post, we will learn about another aspect of design. If you have any questions, ask me in the comments section or email to vivek [at] jazz factory [dot] in.

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