Great Color Themes – Best Practices

Great color themes in Office are not a random collection of swatches. Each spot in a color theme has a job. Once you learn those functions, great color themes will roll out from your office.

I’m always astounded to hear a Office “professional” who says “I don’t use themes.” I’m amazed because in modern versions of Office it’s impossible to not to use themes. If you haven’t set a theme for your template, then you’re using the default Office theme. Whether you like it or not! Themes are an integral part of Office, so you’d better learn how they work.

I’ve previously covered Font Themes and how to hack them, a necessary skill for macOS creators. Check out XML Hacking: Font Themes and XML Hacking: Font Themes Complete. In this post, I’m covering the inner workings of theming to show you how to create great color themes. I’ve touched on this subject previously in Office Charts: 6 Colors Maximum! For ideas on how to include more than one color theme in a template or presentation, please see XML Hacking: Color Themes

Great Color Themes: The Basics

When you create a color theme in PowerPoint, the color set is added to the theme1.xml file in your presentation and it’s saved on your computer. If you create a second color theme, that theme is also saved to your computer, but it replaces the first one in your deck. When you’re using the user interface, each Slide Master has only 1 theme at a time. So for more color themes, create more slide masters. If the color theme is for a special purpose, like differently-colored charts, the extra slide master might have only 1 slide layout. That’s less confusing for users.

Great Color Themes: Color Slot Functions

Almost every slot in a color theme has a PowerPoint function, a job that it fulfills for the program. If you don’t know what these are, you’ll place the wrong color in the slot and get a result that looks weird in the program interface. Needless to say, this doesn’t help your professional cred with your client.

Here’s the Color Theme editing dialog as seen in PowerPoint 2016 for Mac. In Office for Mac, you can only create color themes in PowerPoint. In Windows versions, you can create them in any Office program, though there is a good reason why you should still use PowerPoint.

Color Theme Editor

The following advice covers standard presentations that have a light background and dark text. If you’re going for the mysterious Mafioso look with a dark background, then reverse the following instructions putting text colors into the light slots and backgrounds into the dark ones. Oddly enough, when PowerPoint imports a theme exported from Word for Excel, it will default to the Mafioso look. This is the good reason why you should always export theme files from PowerPoint, where your choices for background and text are explicit and that information is preserved in the theme.

The first 4 colors are for text and backgrounds. Although all 4 are called Text/Background, that just to accommodate the occasionally light text on a dark ground, as mentioned in the previous paragraph. In reality, Dark 1 is the main text color. If you have black text in the deck, leave this set at black. You should only change this if you have no black text (Please dont’t tell me you’re doing that trendy look of black text that’s dark grey and makes it look like your printer ran out of toner. Eww.)

You may have a secondary text color for headings. That must go in the Dark 2 slot. Not in Light 1! Not in Light 2! All text colors go in the dark slots!

Light 1 is for background colors. Most of the time, this is white, so leave Light 1 set at white. If the design calls for a different background color than white, set it here.

Light 2 is the only slot in the theme that doesn’t have a secondary job. You can make this slot any color! It doesn’t matter! Woo-hoo! Let’s hold off, this is a good spot for an extra color that doesn’t fit elsewhere.

Accent 1 is the default color for inserted SmartArt, Text Boxes and Shapes. Almost all the time, you will make Accent 1 the primary corporate color. For our company, PMS 481C is the code color, so Accent 1 is the RGB equivalent in all our company themes.

If the company has a secondary brand color, Accent 2 is the logical position for it. So what about Accents 3 to 6? You’re thinking “Hey! 4 empty slots! Throw some colors in, we’re done!” Not so fast, junior.

Great Color Themes: Chart Fills

The set of Accent colors have a huge responsibility of their own: chart fills! I’ve created a color sequence to show how these are applied by PowerPoint.

Office programs fill charts using these 6 six colors in sequence. So when you’re designing, it’s best to know what that sequence is. The colors will be used in the same order:

Left to Right for Column Charts
Great Color Themes - Column Chart
Bottom to Top for Bar Charts
Great Color Themes - Bar Chart
First to Last for Line Charts
Great Color Themes - Line Chart
From 0 degrees (top dead center) clockwise for Pie Charts
Great Color Themes - Pie Chart

If there are no additional colors in the design standards, we create a pair of lighter and darker variations of the brand colors for Accents 3 to 6. But don’t just create a pretty series of swatches! Is the chart readable when printed on a black and white laser? Can color-blind people read it? You’re a Designer! You’re supposed to be thinking of these things! The rule of thumb is to alternate darker and lighter colors in a sequence so they can be distinguished from one another even in monochrome. Not sure? Test it!

Of the 12 colors in the theme, only the first 10 are accessible to the user in color picker dialogs. The last 2, Hyperlink and Visited Hyperlink, are applied automatically when the user inserts a hyperlink in the document. I usually use 2 of the theme colors for these, rather than Microsoft’s standard colors. If there’s a blue, that’s a good choice for the hyperlink, it’s a visual cue. The followed hyperlink can be a lighter grey or other tint, if there is one in the palette.

Great Color Themes: Recognizing Trouble

Before shipping the deck, here are a few quick tests you should be performing to show any color theme problems:

Insert SmartArt: Is the text readable?
Smart Art Problem
Insert a chart: Does the preview look right?
Chart Preview Problem

If either of these look odd, you probably have a color theme problem. If the text or background of either the chart preview or SmartArt don’t match the background of the deck, you’ve probably inserted a dark color into the Light1 slot

Insert a table: Do the auto-generated variations contain many useless combinations?
Table Colors Problem

Most of the autogenerated table combinations in this example are hideous and unworkable, sure sign of a bad color theme. You may also see a table style preview that looks different from the actual table. If the table preview shows a different color for table text (it will just show colored lines, not actual text), then the colors in Light2 and Dark2 have to be switched. Another problem indicator is if it appears you are selecting one color in the picker, but the actual color applied is different.

Insert a chart in Excel: Does the chart background match the worksheet background?
Excel Insert Chart Problem

If you see any of the above symptoms, take the time to fix them and do it right. Your client will notice these glitches and you won’t be able to ‘splain them away.

The general method to fix these issues is to put the theme in correct order, then go through the entire deck starting with the Slide Masters, correcting the colors back to the designed appearance. This effort isn’t too bad if it’s a single template or theme you’re correcting. Groups of finished presentations are a different matter that need a more automated approach. Next time, I’ll be writing about how to repair presentations with a bad color theme, using XML Hacking.

1:19 pm

9 thoughts on “Great Color Themes – Best Practices

  1. Hi John,

    This is a very helpful article.

    I am making a color theme and I have a problem. I have done my best to make sure the colors follow your best practices, but, while I can specify the 12 theme colors, I can’t control the 5 by 10 grid of lighter and darker variants that PowerPoint seems to automatically generate. My problem is that some of those automatically generated colors have saturation values that are much too high for some of the darker colors I am using.

    So my question is: is there a way to change or manually specify what the “lighter” and “darker” colors are that are created from my color scheme?

    Thank you!

  2. Thank you for sharing this info – most of which I knew from 20+ years of creating PPT templates. However, today I ran into a new problem. I am following the rules of the first 4 colors in the palette (lights & darks), however, the border color on pie charts is black. The client wants it white. If I swap the black and white slots, now the text in all charts is white – which obviously doesn’t work on a white background. I’ve spend hours today troubleshooting different combinations of the first 4 colors, making sure the background color of the slide is “white” or “automatic” thinking it may be trying to contrast to the background color. It’s really annoying that we can’t dictate the color of the text in charts and tables except to make custom chart templates – which are way too advanced for my client. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. thank you!

    • Sorry, I can’t duplicate that result. By default, when a pie chart is inserted into a standard Microsoft new blank presentation, the border color of a pie chart is Automatic and renders as white, not black. So you have some other problem in your template, though I can’t tell what that might be without seeing it. Switching the positions of white and black in the color theme is not the way to solve this.

      I haven’t run into a problem with chart templates being too complex for anyone, but our practice is to include instructions to the client covering all features they may not be familiar with. We also program automatic chart formatting add-ins for clients who want the ultimate in convenience.

  3. This guide is incredible, thank you for this detailed rundown. Is there a way to make the default chart text color to pure black – like that of ‘Text/Background – Dark 1’? My company theme requires all our employees to change every chart text to pure black and PowerPoint will always make it 33% lighter than the actual black desired. Thanks!

    • That’s not a color theme problem, but an issue with Microsoft’s default formatting of charts. The way around it is to use chart templates. Create a sample chart and set the text to black. Then right-click on the chart and choose Save as Template.

      The next time you create the same type of chart, choose Insert>Chart and click on the Templates icon in the left-hand pane of the Insert Cart dialog. Select your template and click on OK. The new chart will have the text set to black.

      • Thank you for such a quick reply! That makes sense, I replicated your method above and it is working. I will definitely be subscribing and sharing your website.

        Is there any way for the templates to be automatically applied to charts being copied in from excel? For example, when I paste in a column chart from excel (with default excel formatting) into a company-stylized PowerPoint, it automatically merges the colors and text to my company’s standard (but with the gray text, not the black text). Can I somehow force PowerPoint to default to using my newly defined Templates for each type of chart? That would be an absolute game changer!

        Also, FYI we use the Empower suite of custom PP tools in case that is of any help or hinderance to a possible solution.

        • Once you create a chart template, that template can be used to create a chart in Word, Excel or PowerPoint. If the chart template is used to create the chart in Excel, that chart will have black text and the black text will persist when the chart is copied to PowerPoint.
          At Brandwares, we’ve written VBA add-ins for Excel, Word and PowerPoint to create charts using a set of preformatted chart templates. These add-ins replace the standard Insert Chart command with custom programming, so all new charts automatically use the custom formatting.

Leave a Reply

*Required fields. Your email address will not be published.

Posting XML? To enter XML code, please replace all less than signs "<" with "&lt;" and greater than signs ">" with "&gt;". Otherwise, Wordpress will strip them out and you will see only a blank area where your code would have appeared.