Guide on the Side - Learning About Color

By Marie Wallace, Published on October 1, 2001
Previous Articles by Marie Wallace

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O'Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries' highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute's programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms "Life in Progress," which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art.  She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her "free" time to various non-profit and civic activities.


Non-artists often feel insecure about working with color, failing to appreciate a lifetime of experience which began with baby toys and continued through life in nature, art, the media, clothes, and furnishings. Last month I encouraged readers to use color in presentations and training to reinforce content, focus attention, and energize the learning environment.  Where can we learn more about color? I am not an artist nor a color expert but I can suggest several paths to gain confidence:

Let me share some personal stories. Learning means making mistakes. My interest in color began when I started designing my clothes. It took me a long time to learn that the colors that looked great on my red-headed friend (who I wanted to look like) did not look good on me at all. While I figured out that color in clothes is relative to personal coloring and people instinctively avoid wearing colors that do not look good on them, my friend was receiving some great custom-made garments from me because I could see that what I made for myself looked great on her and awful on me. She finally asked the obvious "Why don't you pick fabric that looks good on you?"

For years I read about color and often was confused until I realized that there are distinctive and sometimes overlapping approaches to the study of color:

I learned the most from a class in color sensitivity based on Josef Albers The Interaction of Color (bibliography). Albers' philosophy is to discover color principles via exercises or experiments using colored paper. Paper is an easy and inexpensive way to try combinations, reject them, try again and again until magically something looks right. Albers' idea is to learn principles from making mistakes and corrections.

Here are some of my discoveries about color derived from years of doing and reading:

Tips on Using Color

There are many excellent books and articles on color. A few of my favorites are below. The best place to find books is in:

Art bookstores.

Stores selling supplies for artists and graphic designers.

Art section of major bookstores.

Surprisingly, the library is not the best place to start. The collection is too large and dispersed and the best books are either stolen or part of the non-circulating collection.


Color and Human Response: Aspects of Light and Color Bearing on the Reactions of Living Things and the Welfare of Human Beings, by Farber Birren, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1978.

Creative Color, by Faber Birren, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1961.

Designer's Guide to Color 3, Chronicle Books, 1986.

Designer's Guide to Color 4, Chronicle Books, 1990.

Designer's Guide to Color 5, Chronicle Books, 1991.

These Designer's Guides use color chips instead of text to show how colors communicate emotions and moods such as exotic, tranquil, chic, elegant.

The Elements of Color, by Johannes Itten, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1970.

"Exploring Color" in The Presentation Design Book, by Margaret Y. Rabb, Ventana Press, 1993.

"Graphic Tips for Presentations", by Lana K. Johnson et al.

The Interaction of Color, rev. ed. by Josef Albers, Yale University Press, 1971.

"Learn to Choose Colors that Reinforce your Message", by Jennifer Rotondo in Presentations Magazine, April 2001, p. 28 (not available in the online version of Presentations).

Pantone Guide to Communicating with Color, by Leatrice Eiseman, GrafixPress, 2000.

Point, Click & Wow" A Guide to Brilliant Laptop Presentations, by Claudyne Wilder (2nd edition to be published soon).

The Psychology of Presentation Visuals, by Jan Hanke.