Guide on the Side – Learning About Color

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:

  • Experiment with it (the Green Eggs and Ham approach –“Try it Sam-I-Am, you’ll like it”).

  • Read books on color theory to for background knowledge and nomenclature.

  • Take a class in color sensitivity.

  • Study paintings whose subject is color in museums and galleries.nbsp; You may not like or understand a lot of what you see but you will “educate” your eye and learn the impact of color on you.

  • Forget about mixing pigments, selecting light filters or choosing non-dithering Web safe colors, unless you want to paint, produce films or design Web pages.

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:

  • Color as pigment as in painting.
  • Color as light as in rainbows, prisms and theater lighting.
  • Color as a function of the human eye/brain as in optics and perception physiology.
  • Color as an element of communication as in interior decorating and advertising.

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:

  • Color is the most relative medium in art. It is illusive and can change before your eyes depending your distance from it and the ambient light.

  • Color will change depending on its proximity to other colors, its placement, size, shape, texture, and the time of day.

  • People often disagree about color. Ask a group to identify the red commonly used in Stop signs from an array of six red hues and you are likely to get as many different responses as there are people in the group. Then take the group outside to look at a Stop sign and discover that just about everyone was wrong in their selection. (Almost everyone’s color memory is weak.) Yet the same people will generally agree that red, even when surrounded by many other colors, attracts the eye and communicates energy.

  • A single color can be made to look like two separate colors by surrounding it with other colors. The reverse is also possible. Two separate colors can be made to look like one by surrounding them with certain colors. In textiles, combining many colors changes their individual impact to a single collective impact as in oriental rugs, flowered draperies, and plaid shirts.

  • Music can be notated so that musicians who have never heard a composition can reproduce it as the composer intended. Color is not capable of being notated so another artist can duplicate the work unseen, although individual colors can be identified and reproduced by a scheme of proportions of primary colors mixed with white or black.

  • Our school systems do not emphasize “seeing” or experiencing color beyond the earliest years. Consequently, working with color evokes “child’s play,” often inhibiting adults from experimenting and having a good time with it.

  • Color theorists and people who work with color (artists, decorators, graphic designers, web designers) use different words, or the same words to mean different things, to describe colors. “Hue,” “tone,” “shade,” “value,” “intensity,” “saturation,” and “chroma” are some of the words which may have different meanings.

  • There are color tests that purport to epitomize a person’s personality but I question their validity because my own behavior in selecting colors varies depending on the purpose. For instance, the color I chose for the kitchen walls will be different than for the living room walls. Both of these will be different from what I select for my clothes. The color I chose for my shoes is different than my car choice. For reading, I prefer black on white. If I am asked to select color preferences, I need to know the context. With that caveat, try the well-known Luscher test and see what you think.

  • Film recorders, printers, video equipments and computer monitors interpret colors and show them differently. There may be a vast difference between the colors you see on your computer screen and what you receive via your output device. If color accuracy is critical to your project, you may need a color correction cookie (

Tips on Using Color

  • Approach color as a palette combining several colors.
    Select a palette that supports your presentation. (festive, somber, exciting, relaxing) If you are not sure, ask others for confirmation or refer to a Designer’s Guide to Color in the bibliography.

  • Keep your palette simple.
    Don’t use too many colors or many shades of one color.
    Too many bright colors can be distracting.

  • Anything with text in it must pass the legibility test. “Is it easy to read?”
    Aim for high contrast between the color of the text and the background.
    To select colors for people with partial sight or color deficiencies see Lighthouse International’s Color Wheel.

  • Select a consistent color scheme for format elements throughout a slide presentation.
    The audience can recognize the titles and headers by constant color.

  • Consider the ambient light as well as the pigment.
    Light colors reflect more illumination than dark ones. Too much brightness may cause glare and fatigue eyes. Under dim lights color disappears. Dark colors disappear faster than lighter shades and tints.

  • Obtain or make a color wheel and use it.
    To find one search for “color wheel” in AltaVista/images or Google/images for options to print one. Sometimes EBay has inexpensive laminated ones. Select one which identifies the warm and cool colors.

  • Collect colored paper cut from old magazines, catalogs and brochures to try out ideas and combinations.
    Collect brochures and ads that resonant with you.

  • Learn the 14 basic color building blocks.
    Primaries (yellow, blue, red).
    Secondaries (orange, green, violet).
    Tertiaries (yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, red-violet, red-orange, yellow-range).
    Black and white (technically not colors but commonly used as colors and functionally required to create tints, shades, tones and earth colors).

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.

Posted in: Guide on the Side, Presentation Skills