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Color Wheel Basics: How To Choose the Right Color Scheme for your PowerPoint Slides

Color Wheel Basics: How To Choose the Right Color Scheme for your PowerPoint Slides

Anuj Malhotra

Anuj Malhotra

September 10 2015

How many times have you used this circle called a Color Wheel to choose the best colors for your presentation?

Basic Color Wheel


Very rarely or never, unless you are a professional designer of course. The rest of us rely on our judgement to pick slide colors, which sometimes leads to horrible disasters like the slide below (This is a recreation of an actual slide, not made out of some wild imagination. This was the exact color scheme and design of the slide, only random text has been added in place of the presenter’s content):

Bad color scheme


More of such true examples can be shown here, some worse than others, but in our readers’ health interests it is best that we avoid it. In defense of the presenter, choosing colors that look good together is easier said than done. That’s why, a brief knowledge of color harmonies and the color wheel can go a long way in avoiding such embarrassments.


Before we help you put Isaac Newton’s color wheel into action, it’s best that you also know the meaning of some color terminologies that designers loosely throw around in their talks. (This will help you impress the handful of beautiful designers next time you are conversing with them :)


Color Terminologies You Ought to Know


Here are the terms most commonly used to describe the physical properties of a color:


Hue: Hue is the color itself, the name that we give to a color. Red, blue, green for example. So don’t have a confused look if a designer happens to use the word hue in some conversation. There is no difference between the two. On the basis of hue, we divide colors into Warm Colors and Cool Colors. We will get to that once we have finished all the color terminologies.


Value: Value is the lightness or darkness of a color as measured on a gray scale. So, in terms of value, color can be divided into Light Colors and Dark Colors.


Saturation / Intensity: When we talk about intensity, we talk about the purity of a color i.e. its saturation. A completely saturated color is 100% of that color. A 100% yellow is completely saturated but as soon as you add white to it, it looks duller. On the basis of intensity, we divide colors into Dull Colors and Vivid Colors.


Shade: The darker version of a color is called a shade. Different shades of a color can be created by adding varying amounts of black to a color.


Tint: The lighter version of a color is called tint. You add white to a pure hue to create different tints.


Tone: Here you add gray to a color to create different tones of that color.

Shades, Tint and Tone- Understanding colors


Warm Colors Vs Cool Colors


Warm Colors, as the name suggests, remind us of sunlight and heat. Red, yellow and orange are warm colors and look as if they are approaching us. These colors create a very strong, dynamic mood and are perfect for those presentations where you want your audience to feel excited, happy and hungry (Restaurants have been using this trick since ages to lure us and gulp mouthfuls).


Cool Colors, on the other hand, tend to recede from us. Violet, blue and green are cool colors and have a calming effect on us. Tourist ads often show beaches and expanse of blue sky to tempt us to ditch our stressful lives for a while and run to those destinations for peace and relaxation.


Here’s how the two colors are represented on the Color Wheel:

Warm & Cool Colors


Color Models: RGB, CMYK and HSV


RGB Color Model: If you recall your school class, there are three primary colors of light- red, green and blue. RGB color model is an additive color model as red, green and blue are added in various combinations to produce a wide spectrum of colors. Red and green light combine together to create yellow, blue and green add to produce cyan, and red and blue add together to produce magenta. All three colors of light- red, green and blue- mix to create white light. This color model is used in television screens and computer monitors.


For design purposes, we however speak in terms of primary colors of pigment- Cyan (or blue), magenta (or red) and yellow. That brings us to the CMYK model of color.


CMYK Color Model: CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key) is a subtractive color model. That is, they are produced by subtracting from the primary colors of light. When red is subtracted from green and blue, it becomes cyan. When we subtract blue from red and green, we get yellow. And when red and blue are joined and green is subtracted, we get magenta. All three add together to create black or the key color. Here, we differentiate between the primary, secondary and tertiary colors:


  • Primary Colors: Red, yellow and blue are called the primary colors of pigment. These cannot be formed by combining any other colors. These are pure colors and all others are derived from these.
  • Secondary Colors: Orange, Green, and Violet are secondary colors. These are formed by the mixing of two or more primary colors.
  • Tertiary Colors: Red-Orange, Yellow-Orange, Yellow-Green, Blue-Green, Blue-Violet, and Red-Violet are tertiary colors since these are produced by the mixing of two or more secondary colors.

Primary, Secondary, Tertiary Colors


HSV Color Model: HSV (hue, saturation and value) is an improvement upon the RGB color model. Improvement in the sense that it is more user-friendly while RGB is meant for machines. You already understand the difference between hue, saturation and value by now. You can vary the saturation and value of colors to create dynamic color schemes.


A variation of this color model is the HSL Color Model. Here, L stands for lightness or luminosity. It’s not the same thing as value. Value is perceived as the "amount of light" which can be any color while Lightness is best understood as the amount of white.


PowerPoint provides both RGB and HSL color models when you are choosing color for shapes or text. You can move the arrow up and down (see the screenshot below) to try variations of a color. When you move the arrow up, it shows the lighter versions of that color, when you move down it shows darker. You can see the difference in the new and current square box. Press the OK button when you have spotted the right color.

How to choose Colors in PowerPoint


Color Harmonies: Most popular techniques to create Color Schemes


Finally, we come down to choosing the best color combinations for our slides. Now that we know the basics, it will be easier for us to appreciate the tremendous variety of color choices that the color wheel offers. These color choices have been proved to be pleasing to the eye. Called color harmonies or color chords, they consist of two or more colors with a fixed relation in the color wheel. So, here they are:


Complementary Color Scheme: This scheme is made up of those colors that are opposite to one another on the color wheel. Just pick any color on the color wheel and trace its exact opposite. So, if you choose orange-yellow, blue-violet would be its complementary color.

How to pick complementary color scheme from color wheel


These two colors produce the maximum contrast and give a very dynamic and vibrant look to your slides. Here’s a slide created using the complementary color scheme:

Complementary color scheme in PowerPoint Slide Design


Note: Pure complementary colors can often look jarring. Too much contrast can hurt the eyes, so it’s better to go for gradients of those colors to soften the look. You can, therefore, use the color wheel below to choose the complementary colors. The above coffee image looks quite jarring while the one below having a tint of orange-yellow and shade of blue-violet creates a beautiful contrast and gives a rich look to your slide:

How to use complementary color scheme more effectively


Split-Complementary Color Scheme: This scheme is a variation of the complementary color scheme. But here instead of choosing the opposite color on the wheel, you pick two colors that lie on the either side of the complement. So, if you choose red-orange, blue, green and red-orange it would together make one split-complementary scheme.

How to pick Split-Complementary color scheme from color wheel


Here’s a slide designed using the scheme. Split-complementary colors have a good contrast but not as high a contrast (which often creates a jarring look) as the complementary scheme.

Split Complementary Color Scheme in PowerPoint Design


Analogous Color Schemes: Analogous colors are placed adjacent to one another on the color wheel. Take any three adjacent colors on the color wheel to try out this scheme. So, if you choose orange-yellow as the dominant color, then yellow and orange would together make up the analogous color scheme.

How to pick Analogous color scheme from Color Wheel


As opposed to a vibrant look produced by the complementary color scheme, the analogous color scheme creates harmony and cohesiveness since there is a unity of shades. For instance in the slide below, we took yellow-green, yellow and green to deliver a powerful “Go Green” message. Notice that instead of bright yellow in the background which would appear vibrating on the screen, a lighter shade was opted for which lends a soothing look and feel to the overall slide.

Analogous Color Scheme in Presentation Design


Triadic Color Scheme: This color scheme is made up of three colors equally spaced on the color wheel. Create an isosceles triangle to choose any 3 colors for your slides. All these contrast beautifully to create a rich look for your slides.

How to pick Triadic Color Scheme from Color Wheel


Look at the richness of the slide created using the triadic scheme. The vibrancy of the red, yellow and blue colors creates a youthful, refreshing look. You can let one of these colors be the dominant color in the slide and use the other two to add richness and color.

Triadic Color Scheme in Slide Design


Tetradic Color Scheme: Two pairs of complementary colors together create this scheme. Draw a rectangular shape across the color wheel to pick the 4 colors. This scheme balances out cool and warm colors.

How to pick Tetradic color scheme from Color Wheel


Here’s a slide that uses this scheme to differentiate four rectangular boxes without looking too colorful:

Using Tetradic colors in PowerPoint Slide Design


Monochromatic Color Scheme: This scheme is based on variations of a single color. The variations can be lighter (tint) and darker (shade) versions of that color.

How to pick monochromatic colors from color wheel


This scheme is great when you want to establish a strong mood and use your brand color. It is also great when you want a clean look on your slide. But as a negative and for obvious reasons, the color scheme lacks contrast. The primary color can therefore be paired with neutral color such as black, white or grey to highlight some important element. Just as it is done in the slide below:

Monochromatic Color Scheme creates professional look


Achromatic Color Scheme: An achromatic color scheme is one that is colorless using only blacks, whites, and grays. This creates a sophisticated and classic look but since it is devoid of any color, it looks lifeless and is thus avoided in slide design. This slide looks pretty decent with achromatic scheme:

Achromatic Color Scheme in Graphic Design


With this, we come to an end to colors, color wheel and color harmonies. But actually, there can be no end to this topic. The deeper you go, the more you’ll learn about it. Color is purely subjective but it is too strong a factor to be left to guesses and intuition. Unless you want to create a disaster slide like we showed in the beginning! You don’t want to see that one again and we are pretty sure you do not want to be guilty of creating such a one either.


So, copy the color wheel image, keep it next to you on the slide and then choose the colors wisely.


If you need to create a customized business template for all your company's communication and PowerPoint presentations that has the best color scheme, contact our expert PowerPoint designers that handle such requests for small, medium and large organizations as well as Fortune 500 companies.

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50 thoughts on “Color Wheel Basics: How To Choose the Right Color Scheme for your PowerPoint Slides”
  1. Mohamed Ibrahim
    Excellent .. Can I get the aforementioned article as a PDF file .. It's really a remarkable effort .. Thanks a lot
    1. slideteam
      Thank you Ibrahim for the kind words. And as you told us via direct email, you would not be needing the PDF anymore. Do let us know if you need any other assistance in future. :)
  2. Laura C
    I loved this article. I would like to share it with my Middle School students, it would make them reflect on being great communicators. I would also like to know if there is a PDF so I can upload it in their school's page. Thanks
    1. slideteam
      Thank you Laura, we are glad you wish to share this knowledge with your students. We have sent you the PDF of this article on your email address. Let us know if you need any other assistance from us.
  3. Alberto Alday
    This is a great tool to have, May I requeat for a pdf version of this article. Thanks.
    1. slideteam
      Hello Alberto, yes we will be happy to provide you the PDF version of the same. Kindly do give us credit if you share it on any online platform.
  4. Sherry
    Hi there -- excellent article! May i also receive a pdf version? Thanks!
    1. slideteam
      Sure Sherry, we'll send it over.
      1. Cristine Joy Babon
        Cristine Joy Babon
        Hi. Can I have the PDF file of this?Thank you!
        1. slideteam
          Hi Cristine, these downloads can be reproduced in PDF format in PowerPoint.
      2. Harshita Mankad Varghese
        Harshita Mankad Varghese

        may I request a pdf of your colour palettes details:

        I help people learn good colour combinations for decks.

        Thank You!
        1. slideteam
          Great! Will send you the PDF shortly. :) Stay tuned for more such amazing posts.
  5. Toni
    This is a very useful and practical concept that can help me design awesome presentation slides. May I get the pdf version? Thanks!
    1. slideteam
      Sure Toni!! We will send it over.
  6. TJ
    Is it possible to get the PDF of this? Please and thank you!

    P.S. These are all wonderful, easy-to-follow tutorials. I hope you all continue to provide these excellent resources.
    1. slideteam
      Hey, sure we will send you the PDF of the same. And we'll surely continue providing more such resources. :)
  7. Dan Ulysses
    This the clearest and easiest to understand tutorials on color theory I have come across, and of course beautifully presented. I would love a pdf of it to share with my colleagues to save the embarrassment of ugly presentations. Keep up the great work!
    1. slideteam
      Yes Dan, we will send you over the PDF. Glad you liked it so much. :)
  8. Budi Prakoso
    Definitely be using the color schemes as you guys put it here! Awesome. Oh, and of course, with proper credit to you guys.
    Thanks a bunch!
    1. slideteam
      Thank you Budi! Glad you loved the color schemes. :)
  9. Leonard L
    Great article and it explained many things. Some of the colour concepts I have used but didn’t really know why but just worked. Now I understand the colour wheel more. Is it possible to share a pdf copy of the article, would be helpful for me to share with the team. Thanks
    1. slideteam
      Hi Leonard, glad we could shed more light on this concept for you. Yes, we will send you the PDF version. :)
  10. Nerio
    Is it possible to get the PDF of this? Please and thank you!
    1. slideteam
      Surely, Nerio. You are most welcome.
  11. Wendy Talbott-Broccone
    Wendy Talbott-Broccone
    As so many others have asked before me, can you provide me with a PDF of this article? I am working with subject matter experts who wish to develop their design skills and knowledge. This would be a great add to our collection of materials to support this development.
    Good for us instructional designers too!
    1. slideteam
      Surely Wendy! We would be happy to help. :)
  12. Sree Vaidyanathan
    Sree Vaidyanathan
    can I get pdf version of this
    1. slideteam
      All right Sree, we will email the same to you. Welcome.
  13. Ronny Schomacker
    Ronny Schomacker
    The problem of color wheel and harmony is often the color wheel itself. There are many color wheels around but only a few match the preferences for the harmony theorie. The harmony theorie is based on the subtractive pigment based color wheel of Johannes Itten (Bauhaus). You can find a similar digital (additive reproduced) one, if you search for RYB Color Wheel in the internet. This color wheel is different from others since there is no Cyan or Magenta available. This mixture of theory and differnt color wheels also happend with the mix of color wheel you provide in this article. Another point are the contrasts. The example with the coffee cup in Orange-Black is not an obvious complementary contrast it is more or less a contrast in brightness. There are more than complementary contrasts available for creating attention and harmony (I know already 7). An underestimated but interesting aspect is the quantitative contrast observed by Goethe and for example used by Van Gogh "Starry Night over the Rhone".
    1. slideteam
      Thank you Ronny for providing these additional insights. Exploring Johannes Itten's color wheel will surely be an interesting reading for us and our readers.
  14. Anu John
    This is really helpful and I can see why a few presentations I have seen stand out. Can I please get a pdf version.

    1. slideteam
      Surely Anu. We will send over the PDF copy.
  15. Jeff Summers
    Jeff Summers
    Outstanding article. Would it be possible to get a PDF version of this?
    1. slideteam
      Thank you Jeff. Glad you found the article helpful. We will send you the PDF copy.
  16. Hubert
    Could you please share with me pdf file?

    1. slideteam
      Sure, Hubert!
  17. Tony

    Great educationel article. If it is possible i would like a PDF version as well.
    Thanks in advance
    1. slideteam
      Sure Tony! Glad you found the article useful.
  18. Joel Robles
    Great article. I learnt so much.
    Could you please share with me pdf file?
    1. slideteam
      Yes Joel, we'll share the PDF file with you. Glad you found it useful.
  19. Jeff
    nice article - can you send me a PDF version?
    1. slideteam
      Sure, Jeff!
  20. Kim
    I would love a PDF version of this post. Thanks!
    1. slideteam
      We will send that. :)
  21. Yomi
    Thank you for this piece. Very straight forward and explanatory.
    1. slideteam
      Thank you so much. :)
  22. Lichin Shih
    Great article. Could you please share PDF version with me ? And can I use some pictures in this post for my college students ?
    1. slideteam
      Good to hear that you liked this post. I have shared the PDF version with you and you can use the pictures from this post provided you give us the credit. Thanks :)
  23. Tanesha
    I enjoyed this article. It was detailed and informative, but easy to understand. May I please also receive a pdf of the article? Thank you!
    1. slideteam
      Thanks for the appreciation :) I will send you the PDF soon, till then keep reading our blog posts.
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