Lean Presentation Design & the Importance of Color

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In a good presentation, the audience needs to understand the message of the presentation with the least effort possible. While being a compelling speaker and being able to tap into the audience’s emotions are key, you cannot overlook the necessity of design, and specifically, color. For that, you need a designer who is capable of working within specific boundaries or restrictions, which I like to call “user needs.”

It’s important to understand that a designer is very different from an artist.

An image of an artist's palette


– Designer: Creates according to the user’s needs, maximizing the effectiveness of the communication.

– Artist: Creates following their own needs and their own desires, in a way that is independent from the audience.

As Garr Reynolds, author of Presentation Zen, explains, a designer creates solutions that improve people’s quality of life. In the case of a presentation, a designer must minimize the effort required by an audience to understand the speaker. Artists create art that may also convey a message, but may do so in an abstract way.

Therefore, you shouldn’t be looking for the most beautiful slides, but for the most effective slides. For a presentation, you need a designer, not an artist. Or, you can create a compelling presentation yourself by harnessing the power of lean design and color.

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A badly created presentation has two negative effects:

  1. It takes more cognitive effort and time for the audience to process the information.
  2. You waste your own time trying to find graphics and other quick fixes to make the presentation more visually appealing when you could have saved time by adhering to good design in the first place.

The concept of lean presentation design is based on my own years of practical experience creating hundreds of presentations, current trends in presentation design, and UX design techniques from the digital world. In my book Lean Presentation Design, I explain the theory and principal techniques of it. The aim of lean design is to reduce the time needed to create an effective presentation.

In this article, we’ll take a look at one of the most important aspects of lean design: the choice of color.


Color, if used correctly, is without a doubt one of the most important tools that we can use within a presentation. It evokes emotions, and therefore sets the tone for your presentation. The wrong choice of color can lead the audience to experience a disconnect between the message and what they see—for example, imagine seeing neon colors at a luxury spa that offers tranquil getaways.

If you’ve ever thought of turning the text on a slide red just because it stands out more, let’s clear things up a bit. If you’re going to understand color as a design principle, we must first take a look at the color wheel.

In color theory, a hue is a “pure” color. It’s a single wavelength of light within the visible spectrum. However, you can add white to that hue to create a lighter “tint” or add black to create a darker “shade.” (You can also add black and white, or gray, to create a “tone.”) Color wheels can look a bit different from one to the next, but the fundamental principle—and use—remains the same.

An image of a color wheel


A color wheel is one of the easiest tools to help you learn which color combinations work together, and which you should avoid. (Note that white and black never fit into the color wheel in their own right.)

Certain color combinations are naturally pleasing to the eye, while others should not be used together. Properly chosen color is an effective way to guide your audience through the presentation clearly.

There are three basic color combinations that will always serve you well:

  • Monochromatic
  • Analogous
  • Complementary

Let’s explore these different color schemes and see how each one has a different effect but is consistent and pleasing to the eye.


Literally meaning “one color,” a monochromatic color palette is simple, elegant, and very professional. It’s not a single color, but rather several colors all within the same color family, such as blue. This is definitely one of my favorite combinations because it prevents you from having too much color noise. I recommend using this color combination if you’re new to presentation design.

An example of a slide with monochromatic colors


Analogous color palettes are a great way to introduce a more varied range of colors with minimal risk. They rely on hues that are very close to each other on the color wheel (such as blue and green), and therefore, the result is harmonious.

In the following example, I incorporated a sea green color in addition to a brighter blue. Incorporating white into the mix also increases the contrast. This slide makes it very easy to process the information and get the point quickly.

An example of a slide with an analogous color palette


Complementary colors have opposite positions on the color wheel: Blue and orange, red and green, purple and yellow. These colors are so different that, if not chosen correctly, they can clash. However, done correctly, this combination allows the creation of fantastic contrasts and can make the content really dynamic.

An example of a slide with a complementary color palette


This color combination is very powerful, but to leverage its full potential, you need to understand how to balance these dissimilar colors. For this reason, I recommended leaving complementary color palettes to the experts.

Save yourself time (and a headache) by picking one of these three color palettes, instead of picking and choosing individual colors. You’ll find the design process goes more quickly, but more importantly, you’ll find that your audience will respond better to your presentation and be able to grasp your message more easily.

How to Choose a Color Palette in Just a Few Minutes

With color-picking tools such as Adobe Color, you can automate the color selection process. Adobe Color is a free tool available online.

For example, let’s imagine that we’re working for Facebook, and therefore need the blue to match the company’s brand color. Given that we’re working on a presentation to project on a screen, we should make sure to choose RGB (printers use CMYK). The RGB code for the Facebook blue is as follows:

Facebook logo and RGB code for its colors


Let’s plug that RGB value into Adobe Color. Then we can select the desired type of color scheme (monochromatic, analogous, or contrasting) and the program will pick the colors with a single click.


A monochromatic color palette



An analogous color palette



A complementary color palette


Using the Color Palette in PowerPoint

Once you’ve selected your color palette through Adobe Color, you can import it into PowerPoint. My advice is to use the quickest and most intuitive way for you. Here’s one method that always works.

  1. Print screen from the color palette in Adobe Color and copy-paste it into PowerPoint as an image.
    A screenshot from PowerPoint
  2. Create the color swatch choosing the colors from the palette with the eyedropper tool.
    A screenshot of the eyedropper tool in PowerPoint
  3. Choosing from the “recent” color palette, apply which colors you want to the various elements of your slides: background, shapes, text, etc.

With this method, you can skip the hassle of experimenting with colors, and easily insert your color palette into PowerPoint.


Presentations are a fundamental part of an effective communication strategy. They often determine whether a project, a pitch, or an idea will be successful. To create effective presentations, you must be able to know how to convey your ideas clearly and succinctly. A clear design with an attractive color palette is crucial to that goal.

Take the time to learn more about design, especially lean design and color theory. Don’t forget to take advantage of the tools that are readily available to you. You’ll save yourself time, and make sure your audience can understand your message clearly, so they can pass it on and share your idea with the world.

For more on delivering impactful presentations, read “Creating Presentations with the Power to Change the World.”

This story was submitted by freelancer Maurizio La Cava and does not constitute the views or opinions of Upwork.

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Maurizio La Cava


A marketer and digital entrepreneur, Maurizio La Cava is CEO and founder of MLC Presentation Design. A top rated freelancer on Upwork.com, he's a speaker… more