PowerPoint makes it easy to use bright, vibrant colors in a presentation, which can either be good or very, very bad. Used correctly, color can draw attention to important parts of a slide, elicit a desired emotional response, or reinforce a company's brand identity. But poor color choices can be distracting in ways you might not even be aware of. And any time your audience's attention is focused where it shouldn't be, they're missing your main message.
Some of the most common results of bad color choices in PowerPoint are illegibility, unintentional associations, unclear charts, and the creation of slides that are just plain ugly!
In a recent survey conducted by Dave Paradi, a well-known PowerPoint designer, it was found that one of the top five PowerPoint annoyances was "Slides are hard to see because of color choice." Here's an example of a slide that could be illegible under certain lighting conditions or on some monitors. There is very little contrast between the black text and the grey background, which makes the slide hard to read.
How to avoid it: The easiest combinations to read are light text/dark background and dark text/light background.
Certain colors are associated with celebrations, ceremonies, or emotions so their misuse in a presentation can be subtly distracting.
In the United States, this combination of red and green reminds people of Christmas. The information on the slide has nothing to do with that holiday so this color choice doesn't make any sense.
Colors can be warm (e.g., red, orange, yellow, gold) or cool (e.g., blue, green, turquoise). Warm colors are associated with heat, anger, and excitement, while cool colors evoke cold temperatures and calmness. In the following slide, you can see how the background color contradicts the message of the text.
How to avoid it: Choose colors that support your message drawing from the color palette in your PowerPoint template.
Colors can be used to separate data points on a graph or chart. The convention is that similar data are grouped by color. For instance, in a corporate organizational chart the President could be Color #1, the VPs could be Color #2, and the Managers could be Color #3. That way, a quick glance at the chart tells the viewer what position the person holds within the company.
Alternately, it's confusing if every box is a different color. On the following slide, even though the chart hierarchy communicates people's level within the company, the colors imply that each person has a different function.
How to avoid it: Use color to group like information so that people can quickly make associations.
PowerPoint templates typically include color palettes that go well with the background graphics and that look good when used together. Corporate PowerPoint templates are designed using the corporate palette to support the brand. When presenters decide to use bright colors just for the sake of brightness, the results can be awful:
How to avoid it: Use only the colors within your PowerPoint template's color palette. If you don't have a company template, use the same colors that appear in your company's other marketing materials, such as its website, logo, and brochures.
So how can you tell if you're making poor color choices? When in doubt, stick to the palette provided with the template. And always get one or more people to look at your slides before your presentation so that you can gauge their responses to the colors you've used. Rule of thumb: if your deck looks like a rainbow washed over it, you're probably using too many bright colors! Just because you can doesn't mean you should.
Laura Foley is a graphic designer and creative thinker who helps her clients to effectively communicate their messages. She specializes in Cheating Death by PowerPoint, enabling her clients to transform their PowerPoint decks into an effective marketing tools through workshops, consulting, and redesign services.
Laura M. Foley Design has developed creative marketing tools for many companies, including Procter & Gamble, Juniper Networks, Harvard Business School, Eloqua, Polaris Venture Partners, and Atlas Venture.
A graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Laura has over two decades' experience in creative presentation design, marketing, and copywriting. She lives in Central Massachusetts with her husband and two sons.
Visit her site and blog -- you can also follow her on Twitter.
Categories: guest_post, powerpoint
Thanks for the tips. To test whether two colors have enough contrast, you can use the Color Contrast Calculator at http://www.ColorContrastCalculator.com. It uses two international standard tests of color contrast and helps to make sure that the colors you choose will result in text that is easy for the audience to see.
Thank you Dave, that's a great resource. Another factor to explore is whether the contrast is good enough for color blind viewers -- not only does this help for those who may be color blind, it also increases contrast and helps other viewers. We covered some techniques that may help in our Slides for Color Blind Audiences article.
Dave, that link to the Color Contrast Calculator is a great resource! People don't often consider all of the situations under which a show might be viewed: in a cavernous hall, a brightly-lit boardroom, outside on a tablet, on an LCD screen under fluorescent lights.
I used to do a lot of print design, and explaining color shifts to clients was something I did all the time. At least with PowerPoint you don't have to consider paper type, surface texture, and printing process, three of the variables that can affect color!
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