Presentation malpractice takes many forms, one of which is color selection. Color selection is partly a matter of style and partly a matter of function. In Tip 10, Color Matters, we are concerned primarily about function, because unwise color choices can detract from our message and lead to a presentation that is difficult to view.
Here are some guidelines for selecting functional colors:
- Background color. Our choices are either dark or light. Dark, especially shades of gray (no movie reference intended), are more formal and work in any size room. Pure black turns out to be a very intense color that can be wearying to the eye, so a shade or two lighter should be considered when using blacks. Dark backgrounds will also not light up the room. Light backgrounds work best in conference-sized rooms, are more informal, but be aware they will light up the room. Light backgrounds in large venues tend to wash out the text very quickly, so it’s worth becoming familiar with the room before finalizing a color. It is also best to stay away from bright colors like orange, green, yellow, etc. They may work for short clips in the movie theater, but they are hard on audience eyes over the course of a presentation. Gradient backgrounds, meaning backgrounds that gradually change in shade as shown in the photo above, also work well.
- Font color. Contrast is king, and opposites work best. For example, a light-colored font on a dark solid background always works. Steve Jobs’ presentations serve as excellent examples. The same goes for a dark font on a light background, such as good ole’ black on white. What does not work, for example, is a dark red font on a dark gray background, or tennis-ball green font on a white background. Always try to avoid dark on dark or light on light.
- Fonts on images. It’s often quite effective to add words to an image. The key is to find a place on the image where the words can be easily read. The image will need to have a area large enough to hold the words, and be as close to a solid color in that area as possible. The contrast rule applies here as well. If the image has a light area to hold the words, the font color should be dark, and vice versa. If you’re having trouble finding a suitable place for words on a full color image, sometimes converting it to black and white can solve the problem.
- Keep it Simple. One font color is best, and two complementary colors can work OK. More than two is going to make your presentation look like a cheesy internet sales ad, especially on a light background.
- Be Consistent. Background colors should be the same from slide to slide, except perhaps for a special emphasis slide. Keeping the background consistent makes for a polished, professional look. If using more than one font color, use them the same way on every slide. For example, if using black for headlines and blue for text, they should be used that way everywhere.
- Know Your Projector. Despite all of these guidelines, the projector has the final say in what looks best. All projectors are not created equally, and they can have an occasional bad day in the color rendering department. This could be caused by anything from old age to a loose connection. If it all possible, try the projector ahead of time to see how it treats your colors, and how they look from various places in the room.
As good presenters, we recognize that Tip 10, Color Matters, means that selecting colors should not be an afterthought. We must carefully choose colors that attract, rather than distract.
This post is part of the series “The Presenter’s Manifesto”. You can find the beginning of the series here: Presenter’s Manifesto – Prologue