4 Ways to Use Color Like a Pro

Do you remember purchasing school supplies at the beginning of every school year? I can vividly remember the fun of checking items off my list and loading them into my backpack to be organized in my desk or cubby on the first day of school. But there was always one item on the list that made me especially happy. The crayons. There was something almost magical about opening the box and seeing the beautiful array of colors all melted into perfect points. It makes sense that, of all my school supplies, crayons would stick out in my memory.

First, color has an emotional component to it. That’s why you feel completely at home and relaxed in some rooms and unwelcome or anxious in others. Color also helps us to communicate, as with the warnings found in a red stop sign or an orange traffic cone. Color also helps us to display creativity and establish brands. We decorate our homes and dress ourselves using colors that appeal to us. And companies market themselves with distinct palettes.

While we may have outgrown that box of Crayola crayons, many of us encounter the adult equivalent when we open a color box on Photoshop or Canva or PowerPoint. Whether you are designing presentation graphics or your business card, these 4 tips will help you design like a pro.

1. Use Color for the Right Reason

When we were younger, we might have chosen colors simply because we liked them. Or because we thought they looked nice. As grownups using color, we need to think more carefully about why we use color.

Color can be an extremely powerful design tool because it is a preattentive attribute. In other words, it’s something our brain can process extremely quickly without conscious thought. In fact, the Interaction Design Foundation says that “it takes less than 500 milliseconds for the eye and brain to process a preattentive property of any image.” Which means you don’t have to waste valuable talk time or design space to explain your use of color. Use simply have to let it do what it does best: direct our attention.

Design pros use color to guide the user’s eyes and highlight the most important parts of the message. Data visualization expert and author of Storytelling with Data, Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic says, “Resist the urge to use color for the sake of being colorful; instead, leverage color selectively as a strategic tool to highlight the important parts of your visual.” She goes on to say that she generally prefers to use shades of grey with a single bold color.

As with most things in design, when you can begin to articulate why you make certain decisions in your graphics, you are on your way to becoming a pro. When it comes to color, directing attention is the right reason to use it.

2. Limit Your Palette

We know now that color is a powerful tool to direct our attention. But if we use too many, that message gets lost. Our eyes are no longer guided to the most important information if we aren’t sure what to look at first. And if we aren’t careful, we’ll quickly overwhelm and confuse our users.

In order to communicate clearly, limit the number of colors you use in your design. While there is no one rule that works for all design situations, Lindsay Betzendahl of Zen Data recommends using a 3-color palette. She likes to divide color usage according to the 60-30-10 rule. She says, “when considering color, your primary color should dominate 60% of your viz [visualization], 30% should be dedicated to the secondary color, and 10% allocated carefully to an accent color which is the color that will highlight important information in your visual.”

And if you need more contrast than the 3-color palette provides, consider using shades of the colors you already have or introducing grayscale.

3. Design with Accessibility in Mind

Another thing pro designers keep in mind is that some of the people viewing their design won’t be able to see it in full color. Approximately 300 million people worldwide are colorblind. And if we gave them a box of 24 colored pencils, most could only correctly identify about 5 colors. Check out examples of how a person with colorblindness might see different images here.

While there are different types of colorblindness, the most prevalent issue involves green and red. Knaflic says, “In general, you should avoid using shades of red and shades of green together.” But if you do have to use one or both of these colors in your visualization, consider reinforcing the colors with a text label, as well. In place of red and green, many designers choose to substitute an orange-blue variant which is easy to view for most people. If you want to see how your design might look to someone who is colorblind, consider using a free tool like Vischeck or Color Oracle.

4. Understand How Color Meanings Differ with Culture

Finally, if you are designing for a diverse audience, remember that colors don’t have the same meanings in all cultures. David McCandless, who you might recognize from his popular TED Talk, created a beautiful graphic to help us understand how color communicates across cultures.

Using the chart above, you could see that while waving a white flag might communicate “truce” in Western and Asian cultures, a silver flag more appropriately communicates “truce” in Arab or African cultures. Or if you wanted to create a slide deck with a palette that invoked feelings of happiness, yellow, green, white, or red might all be good choices depending on the cultural makeup of your audience. So keep culture diversity in mind when using color psychology in your designs to invoke certain moods or messages.

Wrapping It Up

Design is a language all of us are learning to speak, albeit some more quickly than others. In his TED Talk, David McCandless says, “everyday, all of us now are being blasted by information design. It’s being poured into our eyes through the Web, and we’re all visualizers now; we’re all demanding a visual aspect to our information. There’s something almost quite magical about visual information. It’s effortless, it literally pours in. And if you’re navigating a dense information jungle, coming across a beautiful graphic or a lovely data visualization, it’s a relief, it’s like coming across a clearing in the jungle.”

What I think McCandless might be saying here is that we can’t ever really outgrow that crayon box. We can’t forget the wonder of color. As we learn the power it has, we can better leverage how we use it to add to our messages and to make our presentation graphics more compelling. We just have to remember to use color for the right reason and to limit the palette we use in any given visualization or slide deck. We also have to be aware of how our design might look to someone who is colorblind. And finally, we must keep in mind the different meanings colors have in other cultures. Once we’ve tackled these principles, we’ll be ready to design like pros.

Want more help to take your presentation graphics to the next level? Get in touch with one of our designers now. Or check out our design portfolio to see how we’ve helped clients just like you!

The post 4 Ways to Use Color Like a Pro appeared first on Ethos3 – A Presentation Training and Design Agency.

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