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Using Kuler to create color themes

Homepage Although scores of good books on color theory have been written — many even for non-designers — most working professionals just do not have the time to delve deeply into a study of the complexities of using color. The good news is that there are online resources that can help you create harmonious color themes without requiring advance knowledge in color theory. There are a few really good online resources such as ColorSchemer and Colourlovers, but my personal favorite is Kuler. Kuler is a web-based color tool from Adobe that has thousands of community-generated color themes from which you can search, but the best thing about Kuler is that you can easily make your own themes. Once you register with Kuler (it's very quick), you can begin to create your own color themes or palettes and store, view, and retrieve all your saved themes in your personal Mykuler space. There are two ways to create unique color themes: either by selecting a single color on the color wheel as your base color and building off of that, or by importing an image from Flickr or your hard disk and extracting harmonious combinations from the image.

Extract colors from an image
Pzd_cover_photo One of the coolest ways to assemble a unique color theme for a presentation is to create a simple palette by extracting colors from a key image that you think represents the appropriate colors for your talk. You can do something similar to this within your slideware application, of course, but Kuler can do it automatically and give you some additional options for tweaking the colors. After you upload an image, Kuler automatically uses its color extraction tool to generate a theme of five colors from the image. You can then adjust the entire theme by changing what Kuler calls the "mood" of the theme. You can select from Colorful, Bright, Muted, Deep, and Dark moods which are based on the colors extracted from your image. After you decide which mood is the best fit, you can then save it to your account, share it with the community if you like, and even download it as an Adobe Swatch Exchange file. To get the theme into your slideware, you may have to take a screen shot of the theme and then use your slideware's color picker to save the colors into a new theme for your presentation.

Sample: Image from nature
In Wabi Sabi Style, James and Sandra Crowley say "Nature is a master colorist. Anything and everything one could possibly want to learn about creating color schemes, color contrasting, and coordination can be gleaned straight from nature itself." So why not try making a unique color theme from a photo of a nature scene.

Above: I used an image not from a photo but from a video clip taken during a trip to the beach last summer in the USA. The sandy, brownish-grays and blues of a (sunny) summer day in Cannon Beach, Oregon create a simple, refreshing palette.

Above: After I saved the original color theme, I chose the "make changes/view color values" option which presents you with many options for adjusting your theme. Here I select a new base color on the far right.

Above: Then I chose "Monochromatic" which adjusts the four other colors in terms of value and saturation — but the hue stays the same (as you can see in the color wheel). The base color of "gray" had a bit of yellow/brown from the rock.

Haystack.2  Haystack.1
The sample slides use colors from the two themes created in Kuler shown above (plus white for the labels). More black was added to the background color in the second slide to increase contrast with the foreground.

Create theme from a color
Organic Any introduction to color theory includes a discussion on the different rules for combining colors. For most people, however, the terms found in color theory are rather abstract; people just want a way to choose and mix colors that form a harmonious relationship. The Kuler website allows you to select a color of your choice and then apply harmony rules such as Analogous, Monochromatic, Triad, Complementary, Compound, and Shades that are based on some of the basic tried-and-true principles from color theory. All you have to do, then, is select a base color and a color rule to quickly create harmonious themes, or use the Custom rule to select colors individually. You can use one of your own themes — or one of the public themes — to create a new theme starting from the selection of a single color. After you decide on a theme, you may want to adjust the relative value of some of the colors — that is, make them lighter or darker — to make sure you have good contrast.

Above: Using three colors from a theme called "organic" plus white to create this slide. Not crazy about it, but perhaps it could be used in a presentation on organic farming, etc.

Experiment and play with the tool
You can spend hours playing around with Kuler, but this is not wasted time if it helps you see how color harmonies can be created by adjusting hue, value, and saturation. For actual presentation themes, you'll want to keep the number of different hues to a minimum. The mantra is always to use color for a reason and with restraint, but for the purposes of teaching yourself more about how colors can work together, it's OK to go a little wild sometimes. I'm certain many of you already know about Kuler, but for those of you who do not, I hope you enjoy experimenting with it. Kuler has a great community and it's a wonderful online tool.

Salmon.slide2   Salmon.slide
Colors were extracted from the photo of the salmon and rice to create the color theme.

Update: Please checkout the post on my Posterous site concerning a cool plug-in for saving your themes created in Kuler so that they show up in your Mac apps. (Anyone know if there is something as simple and powerful as Mondrianum for the PC?)


Jan Schultink

As usual, a beautiful post.

Kuler is a great tool to find beautiful color schemes. But many presentations can already be improved greatly if people just stick to the corporate color schemes that are "a given".

Look at your corporate colors (if you are working at The Economist, there is no escaping to using red), pick the most neutral shades and tints to design your slides and use the most vibrant colors as a strong accent color.

You can make great presentations within the boundaries of your corporate color scheme. Pick the shades wisely, and use them consistently.


I don't think you emphasised enough how easy and intuitive it is to use. It actually took me longer to work out to pronounce it "color" than it took me to make my first schemes.


Kuler is great, but wouldn't it be even better to be able to import a color scheme from Kooler to PPT? Where do you place the 5 Kuler colors in PPT?


Dear Garr,

first of all thank you for your blog and for your amazing book (I'm waiting impatiently for the new "Presentation zen design"!).

I'm a non-designer and I'm desperately searching for a book on color theory. Can you point me a good one? In an old post you had mentioned "A Field Guide to Digital Color", but I think it's too advanced for me...

I ask you because I read several books you mentioned and I know that I can absolutely trust you!

Thank you very much.

Best regards,


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