Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application

Lesson 19 of 20

Everyday Found Color 2


Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application

Lesson 19 of 20

Everyday Found Color 2


Lesson Info

Everyday Found Color 2

Found color and this is stuff that's been collected from the studio and we're going to be utilized in this later let's go back to the presentation so that's all phone color and um this is inspired by a really great project that one of my students did many years ago actually no, not many but enough for years they call it many complimentary cupcakes and um basically, uh I gave the assignment to explore complementary colors to my freshman foundation students and the majority of them came in with projects like many of you have done with complementary colors colored grids, different kinds of color combinations reading green blue and orange, yellow and purple, etcetera and exploring these color options in one of the students uh came in with this it was really kind of a beautiful exploration of this idea of complimentary color we call the complimentary cupcakes it's kind of fun. Um the cupcakes themselves on the inside ranged from contrast ing light and dark so using food coloring to colorize...

the actual food product was really beautiful. And so it is very much like contrast of light and dark monochromatic grid kind of excellent this inspired me teo with some friends of mine ah collective of people called the female collective in new york who get together and produced dinner parties based on themes and so I proposed the idea of a color theory dinner party and what I did was give assignments to all of the people who are coming to this party to create food based on color theory concepts. It was really super fun and part of the idea is that we're assembling the food kind of on the spot. So when you start to think about food instantly, you know we think about color in nature. We think about found color and you can go to the super work and you start to see these wonderful rays of color combinations of course the green in the red, which is the great complimentary color concept, the a little bit of purple and some of these leaves along with the yellow of the tomatoes and you find these expressions of color theory in food here we have the secondary color cord so orange, green and purple in these little orders they were served really beautiful experience a drink contrast of light and dark, a little bit of warm and cool yellow, the red the orange that we're looking at a segment of the color wheel tareen again contrast of uh of compliments red and green but also just sort of a warm and cool experience a little bit of purple at the top it's wonderful little desert this is actually an expression of the elders idea of mixing color, finding the color in between and that brings us to the creative life color wheel so these are all things again that were assembled here and you see this beautiful a range of colors and actually really beautiful photography to love the ian focus out of focus nature of this so we start to see these parts and you could recognize these colors on the color wheel if you're doing this project if you ever want to try to construct ah color wheel or a color theory dinner party out of all the colors the hardest color to come up with is blue I think about it how many food products can you think of their blue blueberries closest thing we could kind of come to when we did the color theory dinner party we used blue chips and lou tortillas I believe and it still didn't quite give us the blue that we wanted all the other colors are beautifully represented just naturally with food that's what it looked like the lovely incredible a little bit of sliver of blew up there but it's really beautiful color wheel special thanks to you guys for assembling this mentioned lowers actually are teaching assistant from the online community day and she put this together I mean how inviting does that look apart from any of the beauty of it and the fact that it was such a way all enjoyed and then we were able to come along and pick wherever we wanted from here to create a smoothie well so it was we've got to enjoy it not just visually but also got taste it as well so that laura deserves huge kudos for that was a wonderful idea beautiful piece and also we all got to share and enjoy it yeah it's a great collaborative piece um she cut some of the fruits like for example, the watermelon ship the green, the outside of the was used for the green but the inside was used for like the pink area it's same with the pineapple this super creative and the irregularity of it is so so one of the things I like of course when you're working with food it's a natural product and so you're not so determined to get these perfect geometric pie shapes anymore. But this is a really fun project, as was the color theory dinner party and I highly encourage you to start to think about color as it relates to food and maybe if you're thinking about how to, uh set a plate um perhaps how to think about a dinner party we've got all these holidays coming up this is the ideal situation to start to employ some of yur color theory principles in your food presentations and I know that that cooks and chefs and people who are preparing food do think about this certainly photographers food photographers are always thinking about color theory and how that engages people, how it makes what you end up eating memorable now in my own experience with the color third dinner party we talked about it afterwards and everyone said that yes by all means they were goingto continue to think about color and color theory when they prepare their foods but nothing ultimately stands in the way of how it tastes you know so there's always that balance with fresh fruit like this we don't really concern ourselves with how it tastes good it's gonna taste create no matter what when you start to cook things obviously if you're trying to maximize the color effect maybe that gets in the way to some degree of the actual taste of the food so there's some kind of a balance there have an interesting concept but you're super fun you might try it yourself today we're going to be trying to create in a collaborative environment with all of us a color we old based on objects that were created her found around the studio so I guess we can all kind of move up here to the table we'll move the chairs back move the water's off sure and perhaps the way to approach this is we can just kind of start the process set this down right here and maybe I'll lead off I'll just make one move and then we can just kind of go and linear order here and we can continue and don't feel like you have to you know sort of adjust your moves if you see something that inspires you and you want to begin to play with it just go for it so the first thing we have mr rand's book here and this is going to be an expression of the blue part of the color wheel we have several other blue elements here we may even think about as we go with this how all of these blues relate to each other so I'm just going to set this down in one corner I think about blue it's often in that part of the color wheel sort of where the yellow pieces are right now so I'm gonna put this over here I'm also going to with you other elements of blue near it again these things are going to shift and as we go this is a very dimensional peace not just mention that you know that's where blum goes in the color wheel but is there a another is in order to the color wheel because they were right side up right you know what I mean like blues o is in the same degree that makes sense like blues always on the right versus down here no actually you can spend it if you want in my head I think of yellow up here right over here and blew over here and it's kind of how I'm visualizing this for the cameras so blues over in this area that's definitely going to inform whatever decision comes next, which is you and I don't feel like you have to go in order. Ok, another question. So the standard cali real seems to be the one that we learned in school with primary colors red, green, blue with it go with paint, but in like computers and so much for computers. Now rgb is there. But even though knowing that every time I encounter color real it's always like the paint color wheel do is they're a different color wheel that goes with rgb. Or do we always do? We even try and simulate this one? Okay, we do not try to simulate this. When in the big difference is we're talking about light projected light versus reflected light. So the regular blue color wheel is the painter's color whale. Traditional painters. Calder will there was invented. Bye, gertie, back here. You know, over a hundred years ago, well before this idea of it's, a digital technology was coming about. But the rgb concept is actually pretty old to, you know, that's informed any kind of ah display, like a vacuum to display the early tvs were made with vacuum tubes. So in actually, if you look at like these old sony trinitron, have you ever using one of the tv sets, the logo had rgb on it. It was a red, blue, green like icon so it's a different kind of a color wheel. But it has to do with projected light and the difference being that it's it's what referred to this additive color as opposed to subtract pillar, subtraction color not in the sense of color subtraction, but subtraction in in terms of as you mix paint together, you lose the identity of the color, it becomes darker and projected light. Rgb as you mix colors together and becomes lighter and lighter and lighter your exact opposite. But if you look at the mixtures of the rgb color wheel has the same basic idea. You have these three colors that make up all the other colors. Just a different color model. Okay, as it is, c m y k and there are a variety of different color models. Rgb is very, very important to us. Obviously I wish it was a color theory song that we could played and they're saying or something, you know what? I'll challenge the online who's watching to actually come up with one of those because I'm sure there's lots of people who we've got lots of singers in our online communities maybe maybe by the end of the course they'll come up with that for the only one I can think of is jimi hendrix is access bulls love, which is one of my favorite, you know got that when I was very young and but he talks about the emotions of colors, but he lists a lot of the colors in there it's kind of interesting that of course there's a singer rainbow that was a very big hit in britain in the sixties rather tacky song, but it lists I think every single color yeah andrew lloyd what's his name's song from joseph oh technical around or I think I have ever, ever invented so that way we could I don't know that let's hear some suggestions from online but your gym is actually begging there's to be no song sorry jim, we're not done actually play them now actually that little pin there has its blue with orange that's gonna be an interesting little teacher how we actually work with that everyone's gravitating toward that end okay, we're going in in the color we don't have to go out or not at all you just start moving things thinking about the color wheel so for the uh protected colors even even though the primary colors are different way still do have the same concepts of the complementary colors right like like even if it's being projected on like a luminous and billboard or something orange still goes with blue yes right so those don't change one of the things we didn't talk about with complimentary color so that's nice so we're actually going in a different direction here now is so is we don't come in but as we move from blue to purple that means that that red is going to be somewhere over here and yellow is going to end up over here someplace well let's just keep going in that direction but yes s o have you ever been in a room that's filled with white red light just sacrament of the red light and then immediately gone out into another space that's just white light and your eyes somehow see green screen yeah so that's what happens in our heads when we see red we're activating I guess the receptors in our eyes that generate that color says the suggestion of the color and the more we're we're sensing that color the more saturation we have of that color in our heads r I start to get tired and get over sort of saturated with that one the color and so our brain brings in the opposite which is green the compliment and it tries to flood our eyes with that so that's why we'll see green same thing happens with purple and yellow to lesser effect and blue and orange to a lesser effect but it's actually been measured is kind of interesting my next okay, so we're here with the red were moving in this direction I'm just make some space I'm gonna push things this way a little bit oh, I'm sorry thank you but we're gonna have tio it's a little bit of a distorted kind of color wheel e okay yes have any other color wheel questions while we're focusing our attention on this is the is the color riel the way that it's set up is it is it that's right? We did say this was it wasn't someone's decision t put blue on the other side of orange or are there other like different directions that it could have gone? And now we're just kind of used to it? Or is it kind of just fundamental fact of nature that they are in the orders that there if we think about those relationships of colors right so oranges in the middle of yellow and red and red isn't, uh well read occupies a space that's connect did the purple so and then we have blue so that order is really determined by the concept of color mixtures so one color leads to another leads to another leads to another and you can actually see this progression of colors you move around the color wheel the opposite thing is kind of to some degree coincidental now the fact that complementary colors are opposite each other it's it's a beautiful concept, right? It enables us to see these of relationships that perhaps we wouldn't necessarily understand physically, we be aware of it because of that effect that happens when we're saturated with the red light and then all of a sudden we see something else or the idea of after image, which is kind of an interesting thing and evolve scene after images I'm sure you stare at something and then you look away you'll see a little impression of that image sometimes with a little bit of a coloration if you're looking at a color to see an after image of a color, these air physiological events that happen in our lives and that definitely is part of the reason that we're informed bythe so the greens and the rids we're still talking about something over here. Thank you. This one just a few pieces left here. I guess someone has to bring yoda into the equation. That's nice. I like this idea of bringing those pencils into the piece. So yesterday we talked about adobe cooler it's now adobe color so that basically gives you a color wheel and then you can kind of pick do you want? What kind of relationship would you like to find and then it'll let you drag around and then kind of pick those colors and so I assume if you pick complimentary and you know you put it on blue then it will just give you oranges the other one I think so but there's ah my question is it seems like there's there's other things going on in terms of tent in terms of hugh saturation do you know do you know what is going on there in terms of what makes colors go together is just trying to match them up or is there some formula I haven't studied it enough and work with it enough yet to really figure that out? I'm sure there is there some kind of logic obviously it's it's driven by programming and so they're really thinking in very objectified ways my sense of it I can't wait to really start exploring that though I think it's gonna be a really useful tool and I love the idea of sharing pallets teo and having palace that are available kind of ah to other people um and going maybe being the brows three pallets yeah it's been really I was looking at it after of course yesterday and it's so interesting how just with a couple colors you can put so much personality and something like someone would say something like, you know, birthday and they'll have some brightly colored blue and maybe like pink or something like that are you know a dinner party or money and it's just a couple colors but you get so much personality with just the colors and no design and all really just just the colors this going yeah because it was associations are so strong that's something we always are going to be dealing with colors those associations how can you get away from that right on dh if you remember back to the very beginning of the workshop when I showed all those different words that are things that I just associate barney with purple you know bananas with yellow fire trucks with red something we all experience to some degree so I think it's kind of important to embrace that you know that concept of association but then always say okay, well what next what else can we possibly do with this all right this is kind of looking like a pretty nice color wheel what do we have in the middle yeah this is uh maybe we can eliminate a few things if we need you that are quite fitting in we don't have to use everything well just just curious I mean brown is a color and so it would it would fit on the color wheel somewhere is just a is it a darker or a shaded version of orange? Is that what's going on? So um from color mixing we know that brown is a neutral color that exists between two compliments and I know from experience that brown exists between the compliments of blue and orange particularly that kind of brown in particular so another way to envision the color wheel is as a sphere so rather than just a flat shape is a three dimensional object and this idea goes back three hundred years there's this idea that you can visualize colors a sphere so think about the north pole is being the very, very lightest tints of a color and the most saturated the most pure colors around the equator and the darkest variants of those colors are south pole right? So you have this entire array kind of like it is color star light full saturation too dark all the way around now go inside, right. So that's where we get the mixtures the very center core of the sphere is great because that's the mixture of all these colors together especially the compliments that are opposite each other if you think about a spirit's not three dimensional might have purple over here in yellow over here as they come together they mix orange over here. All right, blue over here come together they mix and as they spread out the center is is dull and non vivid as possible as neutral as possible as we move out the colors progressively more and more saturated, more pure even to the polls this way so that brown is somewhere inside the core right it's inside this the earth or inside the spears some places not on the outside because it's the mixture color and it's not an expression of light or dark it's an expression of mixture that's inside a three dimensional model is kind of interesting let's just say if I may, how does this exercise apply to working with designers this? Yes we're just thinking about color we're putting together in different ways where I want to go with this next to sort of see well ok, now we have common objects we have we have this color wheel made out of food we have these colors now made out of objects so we can extend this principle to, for example, other kinds of colored relationships uh may be doing the same thing with contrast of light and dark with a range of colors, maybe a monochromatic range. We kind of see a little bit of that like there's various blues over there but let's say we're putting together, um a group of pieces of furniture in your house and how are you arranging these things right? You're making relationships this is a very rational relationship. It makes sense one color leads to the next to the next to the next phoenix says he was sort of move around and we have all the colors that we understand related to each other right here so it's another way of becoming aware of colors and found objects may be thinking about associating colors together when you're assembling objects in your house in your day to day life so when I was trying to come up with names for the segment you know found color was one of them but I was also saying everyday color kinds of things we use every day and how we put together colors on an everyday basis and this is sort of what that isthe finding ways to put together a ranges of colors of things so let's just say you are faced with a still life and you're trying to put together some objects that are different kinds of colors how do you arrange them what are the decisions that go this is one way of arranging them a sequence of colors similar to the color wheel may not be all the colors of the color wheel but you can start to think about those relationships in response to the color wheel you almost finished here I think we are thiss definitely belongs in the south we know that were brown's away here a little bit of green nice okay feel free to just kind of reaching at this point I feel like we have to go in order anymore that beautiful blue green this is nyssa one representation of blue green uh it's getting better feel free to eliminate things that we don't feel like necessarily belong for you all right are we finished looks pretty good to me my simple little collaborative piece very nice I'm doing a particular shout out actually to our production designer melissa because she found all the objects and she's got a great eye she also designed the table today and everything so thanks melissa this looks really wonderful student have done a great job putting this together now that's just to finalize it one last time since I started with blue over here um we got a white piece of paper here we could do a little drawing on it you feel so compelled we can do this now kind of sign our names were an initial with one of the colors perhaps just to interrogate that little experience into it we'll make a drawing of your pet or your boyfriend or girlfriend or something you love the smiley face nice nice addition very good we're not getting that purple in screen unfortunately so we need to like couldn't bring that down somehow maybe cholera inside the waiters but it's visible like right in here I'm going to start art directing that's good yeah oh this is nice. I like that is that a number two or a spiral? What is that up there? The purple thing ah a nice nice nice nice I like a little drop shadow era, huh? To someone I add a little bit of a red thing right here in syria looks good. I think we're done. Yeah, this is a really fun experiment, I think, to find. And again, you know, if you're at home, because something to think about when you're arranging objects, maybe the color wheels, one model, maybe some other kind of a cull, a principal contrast of light and dark, warm and cool. Other ways of working with materials. He looked at the materials, and you get inspired by it, and you do something with it.

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.