The Ultimate Guide to Color Theory in Presentation Design: What Colors Mean and How This Impacts Your Audience

How does the color red make you feel? 

Depending on the tone and application, red can convey an air of romance, a sense of anger or the spirit of revolution. 

Now how about blue?

Cool blues could make you think of the ocean open, offering up a feeling of calm. Darker blues, however, portray authority — you may be reminded of your university’s emblem.

And chances are, it’s not just you who thinks this way. In fact, not only do colors represent emotion and carry significant symbolism, but these associations will be shared by a vast majority of the population. 

So, when it comes to presentation design, the color palette you use will have the same semiotic meaning to most, if not all, of your audience.

That’s why you need to pick presentation colors wisely. Here’s how…

First things first: a quick dip into the psychology of color 

Back in the 1940s, a study by Faber Birren provided radical insight into human emotional reaction to color. 

Birren’s findings proved that colors trigger a genuine psychological impact in a viewer — for example, reds and oranges stimulate the autonomic nervous system, while blues, purples and greens will cause this system to relax. 

We see this all the time in the natural world. Have you ever wondered why Black Widow spiders carry red spots on their backs (warning: toxicity)? Or why you find yourself in an overall better mood when the sun is shining in a clear blue sky?

But, of course, designers use these psychological stimulations as well.

Take McDonald’s, for example. The hugely popular fast food chain uses a combination of red and yellow in their brand identity… and that’s no happy accident! These colors together have actually been shown to stimulate human hunger response.

So whilst you don’t need to conduct your own research into color theory, you do need to have a basic understanding of how the colors you use in your presentation will make your audience feel.

If you’re producing a presentation for a company or brand who already has an established color palette, then you can simply skip ahead to choosing a template that features your colors. The color theory work has already been done!

However, if you’re not working within a defined template and need to choose colors for your presentation, how do you find the perfect combination of shades to support your presentation content in a cohesive way? 

Let’s break down some of the most frequently used colors, and explain the visual and emotional associations they tend to inspire…

The psychological meaning behind your favorite colors — what’s right for your presentation?

Blue sky with clouds


Blue is one of the most well-used colors in the world, but it’s also one of the most complicated. 

While it is considered a ‘cold’ color, blue is often perceived as soothing by our psyche. Birren believed this link may have something to do with our relation to nature (the calming sky or sea) and blue is also known to provoke trust, confidence, and assurance, which makes it a popular choice for companies in their branding (think logos for Facebook, NASA or Bank of America). 

However, blue can also represent sadness (hence the term feeling blue) and bring a somber feel to a presentation. This juxtaposition of meaning makes blue a good choice for a variety of presentations when considered carefully.

If the topic of your presentation is meant to build trust or confidence, to calm your audience or to deliver important — perhaps serious — news, then blue may be the color for you. After all, in a survey exploring color word connections, blue was most commonly chosen to represent trust, security and reliability.

Remember, the shade of blue you use makes a difference as well: light blue lands more gently, where dark navy feels weighty and significant.

Examples of blue presentation templates

Free professional and corporate presentation - Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme
Free business Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme

Green leaves


Green, like blue, is defined as a ‘cool’ color, which means it has a calming and serene effect. 

Fun fact: that’s why a lot of doctors and nurses wear green scrubs, to be a calming presence for patients!

But the semiotic communication of green doesn’t stop there. This hue is often associated with nature, but it can also stand for growth or wealth, or be associated with a feeling of ‘envy’ (hence the term green with envy). 

So if you’re going to use green as the main color in your presentation, it’s important to make sure it can’t be misconstrued. For example, if your presentation were to deal with the profits made by companies from the destruction of rainforests, green could be a confusing choice in portraying your argument. But if your presentation is about the benefits of outdoor yoga in mental health, green would be a ‘natural’ choice! 

As with blue, green has a lot of shades that can help to either lighten the mood/message or portray it more seriously. A lime green would be fun for a startup, where a hunter green carries a bit more substance, for example. 

Examples of green presentation templates

Free Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme with professional dynamic design
Free Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme with green squares pattern

Red cherries


Red is the flashy, fiery king of the warm colors, and is often used as the primary color for quick attention. When you think of well-known brands like RedBull and Virgin, both companies feature red logos — communicating confidence, excitement, and power (think Virgin’s skydiving CEO and Red Bull’s well-known partnership with Professional Bull Riding). These two organizations have also built a strong reputation based on being fast — RedBull as an energy drink, Virgin as an airline, broadband provider, cell network etc. — and in the same study on word associations, red was most often cited as representing speed.

But red, when applied carefully, can also show establishment and longevity, e.g. Kellogg’s who have been feeding households for well over 100 years! Here, red signals a ‘seal of approval’.

Essentially, red is a color that provokes energy — whether good (like love, passion, and strength) or bad (like fear, warning, and danger). 

If you’re looking for a presentation that has a powerful and demanding presence, red could be a good primary color choice for you. But, proceed with caution: red is a super powerful color, and too much of it could end up over-shadowing your presentation message.

Examples of red presentation templates

Free Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme with dynamic waves
Free Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme with warm triangles pattern

Yellow flowers


As with several of the colors above, we borrow our perception of yellow from nature. The sun, sunflowers, summer and golden plains — yellow occupies the place in our brain reserved for joy, optimism and fun

If you want your presentation to have a warm, happy and upbeat feel, try making yellow your focus color, just make sure you choose an appropriate background color to make it pop (which we’ll talk about further down in this article).

Examples of yellow presentation templates

Free creative Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme with scribbles
Free minimal Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme with yellow accent

White bed sheet


Out of all the the colors, white is possibly the most used in terms of making comparisons. Black and white, white as snow, little white lie — all idioms that convey white as being simple, pure, harmless, or uncomplicated. 

White is also associated with innocence or cleanliness and, overall, the feelings associated with white tend to be positive. 

However, there is a dark side to white — associated with loneliness or barrenness. Keep those two contradictions in mind when applying white to your presentation. 

Examples of white presentation templates

Free Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme with white business background
Free simple Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme

Black stone


Black is a very bold and complex color. While it represents many things, black is most often associated with sophistication (a little black dress, a black tie affair) or power. In the survey exploring color word associations, black was the overwhelming first choice to signify ‘high quality’. 

Thing is: when it comes to presentation design, black is a very dominating color and should be used sparingly.

A black background for your presentation could be a bit overwhelming to your audience, and may elicit a feeling of doom or fear. Instead, use black to add power to statements in your presentation or to draw attention to something important. 

Just like that little black dress or a well-fitted tux, black in your presentation can be rather eye-catching and authoritative!

Examples of black presentation templates

Free Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme elegant and minimal
Free Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme with simple design in black and white

Purple sparkles


The way we perceive purple may be due in part to nature, but also to its place in human history. 

Purple is often referred to as a regal color. This stems from the reserved use of purple linens for royalty in the third century, because the dye that made purple was very expensive to make.

Fast forward to today, and purple is still symbolic of luxury and status — think Hallmark or Cadbury. But purple can also stir up feelings of mystery or spirituality, and has a feminine quality to some.

Interestingly, if we return to the study on color word connections, purple was most frequently chosen to symbolize courage. However, this wasn’t an overwhelming majority, with only 29% of respondents choosing purple, 28% choosing red and 22% choosing blue. 

Examples of purple presentation templates

Free Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme simple with color background
Free modern and bold Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme

Orange fallen leaves


Remember earlier when we said that the McDonald’s logo is designed to make you hungry? Well orange is proven to stimulate your hunger response too, as it’s the color combination of parent colors red and yellow.

Orange is also perceived as a friendly color, so it’s only advisable to use orange if your presentation is going to be upbeat and informal — orange was the top choice to represent ‘fun’ in the color word connection study. Therefore, if you choose to apply orange in a serious or somber presentation, you risk distracting from your main message. 

Examples of orange presentation templates

Free modern and simple presentation - Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme
Free professional and lively Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme

Pink ballons


In some cultures, pink is seen as a feminine color, due to its association with softness, caring and nurturing. But pink can also represent playfulness, and can be a good alternative to red if red seems too powerful or overbearing in your presentation. 

Word of warning though: pink is not often thought of as a ‘serious’ color, so if your presentation is one of a more serious nature, you might want to pass on pink! 

Examples of pink presentation templates

Free Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme with sketchy borders
Free elegant and feminine Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme

Magenta feathers


Magenta (also known as fuchsia) certainly makes a statement! This brilliant pink/purple mixes warmth and cold for a beautiful eye-catching color that looks great when paired with dark backgrounds. 

When it comes to symbolic meaning, magenta combines a lot of the positive qualities found in red, pink, and purple — it’s often associated with harmony and self-confidence.

Magenta is a passionate and strong color, so if your presentation requires that type of energy, give magenta a second look. 

Examples of magenta presentation templates

Free modern and bold presentation - Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme
Free professional and simple presentation - Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme

Brown wood


The king of earthy colors, brown is warm, honest, wholesome. Brown will stir up a sense of trust in your audience, and make them feel at ease. 

Brown also reigns supreme when you are looking for a nature-based template or a template that doesn’t demand all the attention and can let your content shine.

Examples of brown presentation templates

Free classy Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme
Free Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme with historical style

Want to use more than one color in your presentation? You certainly can, but the trick is to be complementary

If you’re keeping things simple for your presentation, then we suggest you pick one focus color and run with it! 

But, if you’re feeling confident and want to incorporate two or more colors in your presentation design, then you need to get familiar with complementary colors.

By definition, complementary colors are pairs of colors which, when combined or mixed, cancel each other out (lose hue) by producing a grayscale color like white or black. Of course, this doesn’t mean that your audience sees these colors together in grayscale, but that the colors work so well in unison they almost come together to form one entity. 

Complementary colors

Follow these four steps when building and applying your color scheme:

  1. Refer to a complementary color wheel to check how well your chosen color palette works together. This is particularly useful if you’re a beginner in presentation design — sometimes colors that you imagine will work well together are not so complementary at all!
  2. Keep your color combinations simple. As we explored above, color has meaning and many of those meanings are vastly different. Each additional color adds or takes away from your message, so it’s vital you make sure the colors in your palette aren’t conflicting in message. We’d suggest using no more than 3 colors in your presentation.
  3. Even with two or three colors, the balance shouldn’t be evenly split. Instead, remember to have a dominant focus color which you apply more frequently throughout — the rest of your color palette should act to complement the first. Not only does this create a sophisticated color pairing, it also gives the audience a break to focus on the opposite color(s).
  4. Some color combinations should be avoided altogether. These combinations don’t have enough contrast between them and seem to vibrate against one another which is distracting and displeasing to the eye:
    • Red and green: despite being omnipresent around the holiday season, these two actually communicate very different messages when it comes to color psychology. Using them in your presentation risks leaving your audience confused.
    • Red and blue: these two very powerful colors steal the show from one-another and the mixture of hot and cold is unsettling.
    • Orange and blue: these two colors clash with each other and are very hard to read as they seem to vibrate against one another. (Sorry University of Florida fans!) 
How to pick the best colors for your presentation PDF Guide

Download our PDF guide on how to pick colors to have it always at hand.

Examples of presentation templates that use complementary colors

Free professional presentation for startups - Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme
Free colorful Powerpoint template or Google Slides theme

Okay that’s it — now you know how to choose and apply your presentation’s color palette with confidence

Now that you have a good understanding of what each color means — and how your audience will respond — you can start to design!

Remember, consider how you want your audience to feel. Should your presentation take a serious, somber tone? Or can it be upbeat, peppy and informal? Are you looking to entertain or inform? To shock with grim statistics, or encourage people to donate to a worthy cause?

Then select a primary color, or complementary color scheme, to support this mission.

Be sure to also consider icons, fonts, and photos available to help get your point across. 

And if you need ready-made color palettes that work, check these 12 great color combo ideas for presentations (and a few examples of how they can be used in slides).

Looking for more presentation inspiration?

At SlidesCarnival, we have a huge library of presentation templates that are completely free to download, edit, and customize. Browse the collection to find great design ideas that are sure to boost your presentations.

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