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Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application

Lesson 11 of 20

Color in Action: Designer Pablo Delcan


Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application

Lesson 11 of 20

Color in Action: Designer Pablo Delcan


Lesson Info

Color in Action: Designer Pablo Delcan

Let's welcome Pablo Delk in Hey can hear his there. You Hey, how's it going? Good. How are you doing? Good. It's strange. I can't really see you guys, but I think we'll make this work. But we can hear you and see you, Pablo. For tablet placing to introduce yourself for the creative live audience. Yeah. My name is Pablo Ville con. I'm a graphic designer in New York City and I run a small design studio. Um, we do a lot of animation, work illustration and, um, book design. You're very welcome to creative life. Thank you for joining us today. Thank you. Bubble. What's that? You've cut apart the earth in the background there. I see what you're mass destruction. That's that's just work in progress. We have two pieces back together at some point. How are things in New York? Everything's nice. It's dark now. It was a nice day until they sitting on this chair. Uh huh. It's good. It's Monday. So it's it's good that it's over. How's how's everything? Were there. I kind of like follow the the clas...

s to be a little bit. Looks looks fantastic. It's the future. Well, you know all this stuff already. So, yeah. Um, so we're here to basically, uh, here you talk a little bit about your use of color and your design work. And, uh uh, we checked in a little bit in terms of what? The things air that we're going to talk about. So, um, uh, I'm gonna bring up the, uh, limits. I'm gonna bring up the Jules Verne covers first. Cool. So can you tell us a little bit about this? Um, I don't know if you can see what we have here, but I've got the, uh, the slipcase with the covers where we see the spines and it looks like there's a color bar on the side. Just tell us a little bit about this project thing. This is, I think, my first book design product. I think this is a student, and the assignment was to select a series of books and and package them or random us as one book series. Um, and I chose Is the jolt burn books? I haven't read them in a long time. And Wells re reading them. I was kind of amazed by the buries sublime way he had of describing things, especially like landscapes and things like that. And I started looking at naturalist painting self landscapes, and I want you cannot invoke this idea through design. And after doing some research, I found the series of naturalist illustrations off people looking into, um, the details and birds and minerals, and I was kind of it was fascinating looking at people looking at these things in such detail. Um, I thought, How can we take these things and create something that IHS fictional thes is a series of books a fictional books come. So the first idea was just having the naturalist drawings and, um, kind of experimenting with the idea of three D movies when you put those glasses on and you have this strange illusions of some colors coming forward, another receding on, and that didn't work. But the process of trying to do that came to this experiment of breaking down seem like a printing and creating, um, abstract patterns that playing with this idea of of the naturalist illustrations and the science of printing. So it was a way to to hit back at the idea of France fiction by distorting or abstracting something as concrete as naturalists. Illustrations. So these shapes are based on natural forms. Yeah, the girl. It's a collection of, for example, we're 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. It's all a collection of naturalised drawings of fish and sea creatures that we can. I'm sorry, but we can't actually see the title. So which one are you talking about? There's one that's predict prominently. Blue. That's probably the one That's the one. About 20,000 leagues under the sea. Does it have a little head of a parrot in it? No, that's probably about when was the one that brings about the birds? Yeah. Okay. And then another one that has There is one that has birds. No, there's one that has fish. Yeah, man had birds and trees. And another one that has met minerals. The minerals one. This is for, ah, journey to the center of the earth. It's all a collection of minerals. Natural. This drawings of minerals that have been digitally extracted to create this this abstraction of or this it was almost like using extraction to vote fiction within science. You were talking about breaking down the CME like a technology or the process. Can you elaborate a little bit on that, because when I look at this, I definitely gets a magenta yellow. And then I'm seeing, um, the black gradation bar, the gray scale bar on the side, and you have a color bar on the other side. So you chose to use those, or you decided to have those bars in there as well as these very organic forms. So you have this heavy geometry. Contrast it with these very kind of psychedelic kinds of forms. Yeah. So what were you expressing? I think when I was trying to do there, it was kind of reinforce this idea of the science of printing and this or kind of like, reinforce this idea off four color printing with these crop marks and these print marks that are never seen in final prints. But I thought there was something very beautiful about them, and they kind of in some way they contrasts nicely with this. These very organic forms, huh? So that's a good kind of second into the next project, which is a series of book covers for Jeff Vandermeer. Can you talk about those? It's funny, cause that's that seriously of books were commissioned to meet after an art director saw the jewels burn covers and he was like, Please try to do something that's along this line and immediately I reacted, trying to not do something that I have done in the past. Um, and I think by not making them pattern like and making them a little bit more iconic, it was a way to react against that. But, um, part of this series that it's it's the Southern reach trilogy by death Vandermeer and these books were the Spanish fish in There were the Spanish translations, and it's similar to tell, Osborne said, that it's also science fiction, and it's the whole trilogies based on this. This area in the world that that's been somehow locked against people because everyone that comes in, comes out disease or and then dies a little bit later or something. So this side, the idea off this border that distorts the reality, and there's am I gonna explain the whole book? But at some point there's like rabbits that dumped through it, and they kind of mutate into these things. So it's it's kind of illustrating this. The transition from one place to another science fictional place, and you decided to use a black background here, in contrast to the white you used on the Jules Verne. Can you talk about that? Um, that was I think that was marketing. They are beginning. I was I I showed these with a page background, so it kind of looked it evoked more this idea of naturalist illustrations on off white paper. But they thought that these books should be presented, um, in a mord genre efficient way. So that it it kind of a long on more to a darker, darker audience. I guess it definitely comes off that way. It's spooky. Yeah, exactly. And the covers look as if they're at least in this display, their their trip to excite by side. So they look like certain images and colors move from one cover to the next to the next. Yes. So what? One of the issues with this that they wanted to avoid was to have each book look two months its own and not, uh, not be relevant to the Siri's itself. So they they the art director of my collaborating with on this, um, wanted everything to if you put the three books together, side by side, the all connect. So this was all designed as one image and then kind of displaced apart. So they pizza at the room cover, but yeah, even in the 1st 1 is a little bit of that blue. It was about kind of unifying everything in a subtle way, so that once you saw the next book, you would immediately kind of link it to when you have already seen and the choices of the colors where they based on the natural forms that you were attempting to represent. So you have green and then this sort of, ah, a brown color for the rabbit. And then the, uh, the owl looks like he's blue and yeah, yeah, So for for that what happened? Waas For the 1st 2 it was as if to both naturalist illustrations that I re appropriated. I didn't draw any of that. Um, and the 3rd 1 looked at some point too much like the second when it still had that brown color. We have to alter it a little bit. So look this. Think that it enough but itself and not too much to the 2nd 1 So It was more brownish before. And then we made of Blue Owl. Which the existing I love the use of just the black. Actually, I like the black a lot. And, umm where did, uh, the typography at the top is very simple and elegant. Did they Did they Were you compelled to do that? Or was that your choice? Um, yes, I think the the image I wanted the admits to Oh, enough. And I compete with any overwrought typographic execution. Um, so I thought something like, very this classic up flush, Lex. Um, Corner would kind of do the job and let that image speak for itself and not I gotta compete with it. Do these designs also wrap to the spine? Like the Verne covers? Yeah. Yeah, they are up to the spine and to the front flat. Yeah. Yeah. Is there a box? I don't think there's a box yet. My box at some point, I think they just came out with the 3rd 1 Hasn't come out yet. Like anything it's printed. Um, so maybe after really? I don't know. Yeah, publishers go. They probably released 1st 3 and then will come up with a box set. I also like the proportion of the rectangle. It's very unusual. Yeah, very long. So the next thing I think we're showing is the New York Times cover the book review. Yeah, and and the students have just been working with the illusion of transparency. So this is perfect for some transparency in the other pieces as well, but really prominent here. So the way we learn, Yes. Oh, so for this one, and this was almost an experiment for myself, and I kind of didn't see the execution of it until it was our everywhere, which is it was kind of scary, and I would have maybe edit some things. It was a fellow just experimenting how colors overlap. And, um, I just to do this the business of book reviews special about education. And it's titled The Way We Learn. And, um when when Nicholas Blackman and I were working on this two months like we're talking about education just for Children, we want to have something that was a little bit more universal about education. So the idea of the the classic questions of why what? Who, where, Um, it seemed interesting to me and they seem to all kind of have something to do with each other. So this idea of obscuring and making them hard to read and having them still be a very nuclear driven design work, it's still very there's, there's the composition is very much all centered and spinning in different directions. Eso the words themselves don't compete with each other. Although you could say maybe by some colors, having more contrast with background probably see them look better. So it looks like a color wheel set the primaries and the secondaries. Yeah, a little bounce. Yeah. Um, yeah, it was, I think my first reaction This was too put color for the for the simple fact of finding things read on their own if you really tried hard enough. But I still wanted to keep kind of, uh, hard to read approach to this so that you have to first, to the immigrant experience that emits, as in a very formal way and then kind of looking to find meaning. And did you use the color wheel is part of an expression of Children's education. I don't think I was thinking of that at the time. I think maybe subconsciously in some way there was something of that came in. Um, I definitely I thought that there was something about education and color that and are No. It's an obscure way they have. They have to be with each other. It's a good way to kind of show variety. And even when you're I mean, there's so many things that from Children's toys when they're growing out, I thought there was a little bit of that in there and then from I don't know, highlighters in textbooks and things like that, I thought it had some relevance in the color choices. The last piece we want to show is Thea Modern love. Can we take a look at that part of it? So, um, I don't think we're gonna hear the sound on this right? So you can talk over this Pablo and just kind of tell us. And as it runs so it's a beautiful range of blues, and these great shapes does this This on an animation of a collaborative with Brian Ray was artist in California and were commissioned by The New York Times to create a animation for their modern love column, and we way we started off with just wanting to do something with cut paper because we have never done that before and enemy cut paper scene easy enough to do since we had a very tight that line. Um, and we started this cutting paper and I start experimenting with the camera, and that's something I discovered just overlaying white pieces of paper on the like box and for tracking them, read this very interesting effect. And also like with the settings of the camera itself, there was so much control of that color that we could interpret the light by altering the white balance or the shutter speed. We could have, like more brightness to less brightness, though amount of paper that we used to overlap. So it's all it's all made with white paper and different kinds. There's a little bit of tracing paper for some elements, but it's predominately all like this toilet paper. That's very impressive. I I really thought that this was all generated somehow in the computer and and somehow made to look like cut paper. Oh, no, that was That was all that was all paper. I love the effect of the light in the dark and the changing temperature. You know how the blue gets warmer in certain areas, They almost goes toward a blue violet. Yeah, yeah, in there is some of it that was done in post production, of course, and in terms of maybe doing some color correction or even like adding some, um, altering the speed of things. But most of the whole thing was was creating on the lightbox and the transparency effects again are that's paper, actually, his physical transfer translucency coming through the light bucks. So paper on paper. Yeah, it's gorgeous. I love these shapes. Yeah, Yeah, brains work. It's very beautiful. Beautiful. Yeah, it's gorgeous. So the setting was basically just a light box and then a camera just above it. And, um, I was just sitting behind the camera, taking pictures and moving things. I think there's maybe 12 photographs for every second. I mean, I think it's like a three minute video or something. So it was It was, ah, hideous process. But there was so many so many surprises along the way of just experimenting with light and paper. Isn't animation always tedious? Yes, it always is. So, um, what are you working on now. Um, right now, I just finished two animations for a source E. And I actually just finished them like, two days ago. And I've been kind of sitting looking out the window for three days. Um, not really waiting, just like really enjoying not doing anything. Eventually, something will come along and yeah, but right now it's pretty slow. We're working on a brand new product for a coffee shop. That's but that's also like, kind of a slow project. It's it's kind of that time were like it's things slow down and then they pop up again. Coming in from online audience, if you wouldn't mind, Is that that's that work for you? Yeah, Sami's interest is saying public when you design a book cover, Must you be intimately familiar with the book? And also the author as the designer? Is it important for you to like the author and appreciate the book? I think it is always important to no, with the book is about, and if you can read it all the better. I don't think liking a book is all that necessary. I think it's a desire interview need to be able to step back and really address things for what they are and almost like the more you like a book, the harder it is to design a cover for it. Because you're so personally involved in the process that whatever you do, it's never gonna be good enough for what you're setting yourself up for. So I think it's just, um, really taking some distance from the work and making sure that you're addressing the book for what? Today's a lot not putting. I know it's a tricky question. I feel like them the covers that I'm most happy with our four books that I liked. So maybe I think it isn't important to fill full failed at the end of your designing something for a book that you don't like. It's kind of, but you're probably just doing it for the money. Otherwise, you're just doing it for getting the book that face that it deserves, or do you think and it should have. So I think yes, it's it's important you like the book that you're designing better than not liking it. Do you always read the book from cover to cover before you start work? Um, most of the time. Yes, a lot of times they don't get me manuscript, and I have to read either a little plot summary a bit. Other times it It's like a very dense history book. I can read a little bit of it, kind of assume. What? What the thing is about for, I think for fiction and for novels, I think it's good to read the whole thing. Fantastic. Pablo. I know everyone online and here in the studio as well. I really enjoyed your Do you have questions here? I'm sorry. I was just wondering how to go about approaching a book cover. Like, what are things that you want to make sure that you include in order to get the book. I mean, I would think that the goal is to get the book off the shelf. So, like, what type of things do you Yeah, I What's your process when you when you go through design herbal cover? Um, I think first of all, is just making a list of things that the book of oaks, whether it's references to objects or references to places, Um and then from there, you kind of this story designing and really. I mean, there's, I think the process could either go very easy and what's you just all right. You go to the bookstore, you can see very different kinds of book covers. There's the ones that are more marketable or the ones that look a very specific way. And I think normally when you're designing a book like that, you were told to kind of address that issue. Can you tell us how many covers you've had killed? I think I have killed many more covers than I've had proved. I mean, I think I think I don't think I've ever made a cover that's gonna prove the first round. I think it's always been second or third rounds that have made it lately. I've been having covers that are always killed and are never approved, which is a bummer. But I mean often times you see the book cover just going down the wrong way, and you have to just stop. But in terms of process, I think I think with book covers, it's still one of those things that graphic designers and really put themselves into, and it's almost like the one of the more artistic forms of graphic design And what you're creating a little RPG's that is going to represent something else. What problem? This has been really fantastic to have you as a guest. Unfortunately, Well, one thing we can never fix on Creativelive is that we've run out of time so very, very quickly. How can people find you online? You're gonna go to my website, which is not working right now, but it will be working eventually. It's silicon. That CEO was one for Pablo. Thank you so much for being with us today. I know already have really enjoyed it. And good luck with all of your future projects is great to have you here. Thanks. Thanks, man. Well, Richard, any final thoughts from session one today? I hope everyone has fun, and definitely I hope you learned something. I think that's a big part of this, but, you know, always approaching color in the context of play. I think that's really important. And tomorrow we're gonna be back, and we're going to be applying some of the ideas. Most of the ideas we talked about today to some, uh, really designs were working with 10 grams. We're gonna be working with leaves with some organic forms of color expression. And I actually have an assignment for you guys. Roughly. It's the expression of opposites, so I'd like you all to choose two opposite ideas. It could be emotions. Emotions is a good place to start, so it could be, um, happiness and sadness. Oh, are something, maybe a little bit more personal about it, and you're gonna find ways to express these two ideas. These two opposite ideas. Using very simple colors and more elaborate colors, colors and forms, simple shapes and creating a dip tick. Ah, composition. That is two pieces that inform each other and using color to expresses emotions or whatever these ideas are. These opposites. So tonight, if you would think about what it is, you like to express these two opposites and maybe make some sketches, maybe make some of this about what colors you might think are good ways to express these ideas. These opposites you worked with colors today that clearly have opposite attractions. Complementary colors are mutually attractive and repulsive to each other. They attract or repulse. You'll find ways to do this, but that's kind of your assignment

Class Description


  • Effectively select and apply color to enhance your design projects
  • Utilize color theory language to justify your design decisions
  • Expand beyond preconceptions and your comfort zone in working with color


Our response to color comes from the place in our brain where trust, loyalty, behavior, and decision occur – every successful project relies on a designer making smart choices about color.

In Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application, Richard Mehl will give you a foundational understanding of color theory principles and demonstrate how to apply them. Richard has studied alongside design legends Paul Rand, Bradbury Thompson and Herbert Matter; in this class he’ll share insights gleaned from 12 years of teaching and writing about color in design.

Richard takes an accessible approach to the serious study of color theory for designers. You’ll be exposed to a relevant series of ideas and skills by exploring a range of analog and digital projects.

  • Color terminology and meaning
  • How to view color in context
  • Contrast grids and color illusion
  • Tips for creating a harmonious color palette

In Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application you’ll develop a new awareness and sensitivity to color that will bolster your confidence in your personal and professional design work.


This class is for designers and color aficionados of all levels working across various media, ranging from floral design to user experience design. It is also an appropriate refresher in color theory for experienced designers.


Richard Mehl has taught two-dimensional design, color theory and typography at the School of Visual Arts for over 12 years. His students have gone on to become successful, award-winning designers and art directors for prestigious design studios, including Bloomberg, New York Magazine, Pentagram, The Guardian, The New York Times and Sagmeister & Walsh. Mehl received an MFA in graphic design from Yale School of Art, where he studied with graphic design legends Paul Rand, Bradbury Thompson and Herbert Matter, design educators Alvin Eisenman and Inge Druckrey, type designer Matthew Carter, and information design expert Edward Tufte. He is the author of Playing with Color: 50 Graphic Experiments for Exploring Color Design Principles (©2013 Rockport Publishers). Mehl lives with his family – wife Alicia and Sheldon the Pug – and carries on a graphic design practice in Chelsea, New York.


  1. Why Study Color?

    Most designers have an intuitive understanding of color drawing from cultural associations, experimentation, and experience; why study color specifically when intuition alone can guide your color choices? Why is color the most relative medium in art and what consequences does this have for design? What is the role of trial and error in working with color? Richard addresses the implications of studying basic color theory.

  2. Natural Awareness of Color & Playing

    We all associate certain colors with specific ideas or objects; this is the foundation of color symbolism. How do you move beyond day-to-day awareness and a basic understanding of what looks “good” together? How do you develop a well-trained “eye” for color? Richard introduces the concept of learning through play and exploring geometric composition.

  3. Colors and Their Relationships

    How did we arrive at the modern day color wheel? Richard reviews the evolution of traditional color theory, from cave paintings to Sir Isaac Newton to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Expand your vocabulary beyond primary colors and secondary colors, as Richard touches on concepts he will expand upon in following lessons.

  4. Color Contrast of the Color Wheel

    What types of contrast can we explore through color? Richard introduces a color grid activity and discusses the properties of different colors. He demonstrates how to create color harmony through the use of “color chords” and pairing complementary and split complementary colors.

  5. Hands On Color Grids

    Watch as live students experiment, assembling their color grids highlighting various contrasts. Richard clarifies common confusions and dives deeper into color theory. How do you use relationships of proportion to create balance, stability, and order in your work? Why do we see certain color combinations in branding? How are designers like hunters and farmers?

  6. Color Illusion in Practice

    Richard introduces the concept of color illusion, demonstrating how colors interact based on their surroundings. How can you trick the eye? What consideration should you give to a background when working with different hues?

  7. Interaction of Color Practice - Part 1

    How do you make one color look like two? Join Richard’s students in manipulating the eye and experimenting with color subtraction. Richard gives tips for working with complementary colors.

  8. Interaction of Color Practice - Part 2

    How do you make two different colors look alike? Learn how to guide your audience’s perception with informed color choices. Richard discusses the implications of color illusion in graphic design.

  9. Illusion of Transparency

    Learn how to create the illusion of color transparency through the manipulation of analogous colors. Practice playing with warm colors and cool colors in a trial and error process to enhance your color awareness.

  10. Hands On Free Study Experiment

    Apply your color theory learnings thus far in a free study experiment, combining color concepts and focussing on the process of exploration. Richard’s students in the CreativeLive studio share how color theory applies to their roles and design experiences.

  11. Color in Action: Designer Pablo Delcan

    Meet Pablo Delcan, independent graphic design studio owner, and learn how he has applied color theory knowledge to his work across various media, including book covers, illustrations, and animations. Pablo shares his approach and thought process behind design decisions, as well as advice on designing for clients.

  1. Color in Design: Tangrams

    Less is more: the simplicity of tangrams offer endless exploration of color and its expressions. Richard shares examples of tangram compositions exploring stability, balance, movement, symbolism, and visual contrast.

  2. Hands On: Tangrams

    Join Richard’s live students and explore with tangrams; work to create multiple contrasts and experiment with a limited color scheme. Richard discusses the figure and ground relationship and gives advice on working with tints and shades. He clarifies the vocabulary of tertiary colors: is it blue-green or green-blue?

  3. Hands On: Leaf Composition

    Explore color relationships with organic shapes in this lesson, as Richard leads you in an activity creating compositions with pressed leaves. Students explore creating visual hierarchy with high contrast and Richard gives tips for working with leaves.

  4. Expression of Color & Opposites - Part 1

    How can you use form and color to express ideas? In this lesson, Richard introduces the next activity: expressing opposing concepts as a diptych, or two compositions working as one. Bring theory to practice and explore the true expressive power of color.

  5. Expression of Color & Opposites - Part 2

    Part of developing a trained “eye” for color is repeated play - creating without the pressure of a message or deadline. Watch as live students’ original ideas shift and they justify the decisions they’ve made while creating their diptychs. Richard shares this starting point with his work: does he start with form or color in design?

  6. Learning from the Masters

    Delve into what Matisse called “drawing with scissors” as Richard prefaces the next activity exploring expressions of color. Richard shares his students’ past work investigating the relationship between figure and ground with paper cut-outs. How do you work with a limited or monochromatic color scheme? What is the distinction between graphic design and advertising?

  7. Hands On: Cut Paper Illusion

    Watch as Richard’s students work in real-time applying color theory concepts, their pieces evolving with feedback. Richard gives invaluable tips for sourcing ideas, best practices, working with cliches, and moving beyond predictable compositions.

  8. Everyday Found Color 2

    In this lesson, Richard’s live class dives into a collaborative color wheel piece. Where can we find color in everyday objects and even in what we eat? Richard pushes you to embrace and think beyond traditional color associations. He introduces the model of the “color sphere” to expand our understanding of hues, tints, and shades, and discusses color systems, additive color, and subtractive color.

  9. Colors in Nature with Rachel Gregg

    Look at floral design in a completely new way, as Richard invites Rachel Gregg, floral designer and CreativeLive team member to share how color theory concepts apply to creating floral arrangements. Rachel shares designs based on palettes and her experience designing for varied clientele. Richard closes the session with takeaways.



The course was great. Richard was a very good teacher, appreciating the students’ work and helping them expand and improve on it. I learned from that alone. I feel more confident in choosing colors, and hope to bring a greater sense of fun to my design work. Thanks again.


How wonderful to have such an experienced, thoughtful teacher, who takes educating others so seriously. The depth and breadth of his teaching skill is matched by his knowledge of the subject. I studied art in school, own some of the color books he recommends, and learned far more than I thought possible. And he does it all in such a kind, affirming, supportive way. What a calm guide. How lucky are we to have access to a class with him!

Joe Loffredo

I was concerned that I wouldn't like watching everyone work, but I found that it was the best part! It allowed you to see Richard's lessons being put into action by the various students, each of which is talented in their own right. And Richard is great. Knowledgeable, intelligent, and supportive, he's got the attributes a great teacher should have. I'm a painter, not a designer, but the class really helped me a lot. When I go back to the canvas, it will be with a much deeper understanding of color, and how colors interact with each other.