Choosing Colors for Your Presentation Slides

What are the best background and text colors for a PowerPoint presentation?

The best colors for slides have high contrast so they are easily seen. Dark backgrounds should have light text and bright accent colors. Light backgrounds should have dark text and bold accent colors. This way the audience can read the text and see the graphs or shapes on each slide.

The choice of colors for presentation slides is one of the important decisions that must be made at the start of the process of developing your slides. Most organizations today dictate a template with corporate colors that must be used for all presentations outside the organization as part of a branding initiative. In that case, you have no choice in the colors. But many internal presentations and in many other organizations you can choose your slide colors. So how do you choose? Here are some ideas to keep in mind when choosing colors for your next set of presentation slides.

Webster’s defines contrast as “To set in opposition, or over against, in order to show the differences between”. One of the most common mistakes in selecting colors for presentation slides is to not have enough contrast between the colors chosen for the background and the text or graphics. If you want the audience to see the text or graphics on the screen, they must be in a color that has a high contrast with the background color. This makes the text or graphic appear to float above the background instead of blending into it. In general, this will lead to selecting one of two color schemes – a dark background with light text and graphics or a light background with dark text and graphics. The further apart the colors are the more contrast they will have and the easier it will be for audiences to see the text or graphic you are using.  To ensure that the colors you have selected have enough contrast, use the online Color Contrast Calculator to test the colors using the two international standard tests for color contrast.

Using a corporate template
If you work for a corporate or non-corporate organization, it is likely that you have a mandated template to use that defines the branding, fonts, colors, etc. (follow the steps in this article to use your organization’s PowerPoint template to create a new presentation). Why do you need to know about color choice when the organization’s branding staff have already made these decisions? It is important to know how to select colors because when you create diagrams, graphs, or other visuals, you may have to select colors so that explanatory text can be seen on top of a shape or part of a graph. To make sure that the graphs you create in Excel follow the same colors your organization has set in the PowerPoint template, follow the steps in this article and video. Not all the decisions about color choice can be defined within a template, so you need to apply these guidelines using the colors defined in your organization’s template.

Emotional Meaning of Colors
Studies have shown that different colors evoke different general feelings in many people. This can be important when selecting colors for your presentation slides since you will want to avoid colors that will negatively impact the message you are delivering. Here are some common interpretations for colors.




General Feelings Evoked

Black Heavy, mournful, highly technical, formal, death
Brown Earth, simplicity, outdoors
Blue Peace, tranquility, trust, confidence, security
Purple Royalty, wisdom, spirituality, mystery
Green Nature, environment, health, reptiles, insects
Gray Conservative, practical, reliability, security, staid
Red Passion, excitement, love, intensity, heat, aggression
Orange Warmth, expansive, flamboyant
Yellow Optimism, happiness, idealism, imagination
White Purity, reverence, cleanliness, simplicity

Given these general interpretations, you would want to steer away from using too much of colors such as black, orange, gray, red and brown, since they can either be too passive or too aggressive.

Color Combinations to Avoid
Some colors should not be used together for a variety of reasons, so here are some combinations to avoid:
Red & Green – these two colors clash with each other and are very hard to read. Also, people who have color deficiency will have trouble figuring out what you are trying to say on the slide (use the tool in this article to check colors for color deficiency).
Orange & Blue – another pair that causes a disturbing effect on readers as the colors seem to vibrate against one another
Red & Blue – these two colors just do not have enough contrast to be seen well when used together. This combination also seems to suffer a further loss of contrast when projected on a screen.

Color Combination Suggestions
The two color schemes that I suggest you use in presentation slides are either a dark background with light text and graphics or a light background with dark text and graphics. Here are the specific colors that I suggest for each color scheme.

Dark Background with Light Text and Graphics
Background – a dark blue (navy shade) or dark purple
Text and Graphics – white or yellow
Accent Colors – red, lime green, camel orange, light blue
The dark blue or dark purple background gives good emotional feelings as the predominant color on the screen and the yellow and white text and graphics have good contrast with the background. The accent colors should be used to highlight a word or portion of a graphic, not overused or they will become annoying.

Light Background with Dark Text and Graphics
Background – warm beige
Text and Graphics – dark blue, black, dark purple
Accent Colors – dark green, burgundy
The beige background combines the emotional impact of brown and white without gaining too much of the negative effect of these colors such as boring and staid. The dark text and graphic colors provide enough contrast to make the item stand out on the screen. The accent colors again are for emphasis and should not be overused.

Background Graphics or Patterns
Many presenters want to make their slides more visually appealing by having a graphic or pattern as the background of the slide. This should be used with caution. Many times, the graphic or pattern has areas where the background color changes shade from dark to light or from light to dark. This means that the background is not actually one uniform shade and it makes picking a contrasting text and graphic color very difficult. I have seen slides where the text is visible on the first few words of a line but then disappear into the background for the rest of the line because of a change in the background. If you want to use a graphic or pattern, I suggest that it be very subtle, so there is very little difference between the lightest shade and the darkest shade in the background. One effect for graphics or logos is to use an embossing effect where the graphic looks like it is slightly raised in the background but the effect is very subtle and does not cause large changes in background color shade.

Getting the best image when connecting to a projector or screen for your presentation
When you have carefully selected colors for your slides, you want them to look good when projected to the audience. The best connection is achieved when using a digital connection to the projector or screen if it is available. How you connect will depend on what ports your laptop has. Here are the most common options and the equipment I recommend using in each case.

Laptop has a full-size HDMI port
If your laptop has a regular HDMI port, you can plug an HDMI cable in and you are ready to go. If the projector does not have an HDMI cable, but has a VGA cable instead, use this HDMI to VGA adapter. I have used it with a very long high-quality VGA cable and it worked perfectly. If the HDMI cable to the projector is not long enough to reach your laptop, you can use an HDMI extension cord and F-to-F HDMI adapter to connect the extension cord to the projector cable.

Laptop has a mini-DisplayPort port
To connect your laptop to a projector cable you will need an adapter. I recommend one that gives you multiple output options, like this one that offers an HDMI, VGA, and DVI outputs. This is the one I use at my desk and when travelling. If you need to extend the projector connection, use the HDMI cable and adapter listed above.

Laptop has a USB-C port
Newer laptops are moving to just offering a multi-function USB-C port instead of a port that is just for video output. If your laptop has this type of port, you will need an adapter that offers video outputs and a charging port if your laptop only offers charging through the USB-C port. The USB-C adapter/hub market is still developing and the one that looks best to me is this one from Anker, a company I have found reliable for adapters. Since this adapter (& most USB-C adapters) only offer an HDMI port, if you need to connect to a VGA projector cable or the HDMI cable is not long enough, use the links above to connect your laptop to the projector or screen.

By carefully selecting the colors for your next slide presentation, you can increase the impact your message will have on your audience.

Are you selecting colors and fonts to design a PowerPoint template? If so, you will want to get the book Building PowerPoint Templates Step by step with the experts. Read more and order here.

Are you looking for a customized workshop where your staff can learn to create PowerPoint presentations that have a clear message, focused content, and effective visuals?  Click here to learn more about my customized in-house workshops for executive presentations. If you are an individual who wants to learn these skills at your own pace, check out my guided self-study course.

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By Dave Paradi

Dave Paradi has over twenty-two years of experience delivering customized training workshops to help business professionals improve their presentations. He has written ten books and over 600 articles on the topic of effective presentations and his ideas have appeared in publications around the world. His focus is on helping corporate professionals visually communicate the messages in their data so they don't overwhelm and confuse executives. Dave is one of fewer than ten people in North America recognized by Microsoft with the Most Valuable Professional Award for his contributions to the Excel, PowerPoint, and Teams communities. His articles and videos on virtual presenting have been viewed over 4.8 million times and liked over 17,000 times on YouTube.