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Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application

Lesson 15 of 20

Expression of Color & Opposites - Part 1


Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application

Lesson 15 of 20

Expression of Color & Opposites - Part 1


Lesson Info

Expression of Color & Opposites - Part 1

color expression. Ah, we're building up. I don't know if you've noticed we're moving from theory into practice. That's the point of today's work on. So we started with 10 grams and leave collages where you deal with geometric shapes and organic shapes. And now we gave you an assignment and, ah, a little while after I go through, a few slides here will ask you to go around and talk a little bit about your concepts for this idea of expressing two different things with color and shape, and you'll be able to use the colored pieces of paper that we have here, the color raid, even the tan graham shapes and even the leaves if you want to. If you find that they're useful for expressing your two opposites, so I like to use this is an example of a color expression. It's the LGBT flag, Um, which has six colors, and it is indeed a powerful symbol, and it's very simple and very easy to remember. And initially when that flag was designed, it had eight colors, and they were tied to this very specific...

meaning. So pink sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight green for nature. Of course, Arch was blue, green, harmony blue and spirit, purple or violet. And it's been simplified since. And now we have the flag that is six colors, three primaries, the three secondaries arranged in this spectrum just like the rainbow. And in that way it's this great symbol of diversity and pride of identity. And I actually love this. It's so simple. Every year in the summer we see these flags all around New York City and here, obviously also, and when they're flying and floral e and the colors work together in this really kind of beautiful way, and we go from a very geometric kind of construction, just stripes and just something that's very organic. So the flag itself is this great expression of geometric and organic form. The Seasons project thes are some projects that my students have done, uh, using color to express personal relationships to the four Seasons and kind of going back to you the very first exercises you did earlier in the workshop, using colored grids to express ideas here. Really thinking about color is an expressive element, so it's very easy, and actually this assignment goes back to Youhana Sitton again, and he had his students work with colored rids to express their relationships to the seasons. And most of us can think about colors relating to seasons. Maybe it has to do with holidays. Maybe it has to do with feelings. I've had students work on this project, and in some cases the results are completely monochromatic because they might be about moods. Sometimes the shapes are organic. Because of the four seasons, there tend to be always four compositions sometimes collage elements coming into play, and you see a little bit of transparency here. This is actual transparency because the piece was made with pieces of tissue paper, contrast of shape, large planes, in contrast, a line elements. And here we get into very expressive kinds of forms where the form itself becomes expressive. And so it's a combination of form and color that's expressing these ideas, special shapes and especially colors. So that's what I want you to think about today. How do you use shape, end color to express ideas and you guys are working on expressions of opposites, so we're going to have a dipstick structure, a two part structure, two compositions that work is one like this is a great expression of cool or frigid. Very, very crystalline kind of shapes and then warm, like a lava lamp. Melting shapes. We also see transparency. I love this piece. This is all just manipulated paper, little folds, curled up pieces of paper expressing separation and togetherness. Expressions of opposites. So that's your assignment. Um, we're going to kind of go around, start with Christine. Actually, you're gonna be working on the computer. Everyone else will be working with cut paper and perhaps leaves. But what is your concept for today? Actually saw it is the hot and cold. Yeah. Yeah. That gave me a really good idea. Um, this is Yeah. It's like, Oh, I could do that, but hot and cold and any particular idea related to hot and cold. Um, I remember I was talking about it earlier. I was thinking about the symbols that we used to, you know, to say hot or cold, like, um, fire. Or like a snowflake. I was like, How important? Like, how do people see color versus the symbols? Like if I made blue fire and a red snowflake, would that like people vehicle. Wait a minute. Or would they be like, No, I know that reddest hot and room is cold. And I just wanted to play with that idea. I love that idea of even expressing opposites within the opposites. Yeah, so, yeah. Expressing fire with blue. Is it possible? Yeah. So that's a very playful, very experimental approach. This is a perfect opportunity for you to try that out. Yeah, there's no we don't have any set agenda here. You know, when I think about play and experimentation, success and failure, you know, we don't like to use that word success and failure. But how do you learn? Unless you actually fall down a few times. You have to do that, right? Yeah. So I mean, concept. Did anyone else have the same idea of hot and cold? No. Okay. I want to play with the idea of private versus public. Nice. Be kind of interesting toe. I don't I will have to figure out, I guess. How will express it, But thinking about ideas around like a public figure. You see them maybe in the press or newspapers. But then, like their home or their living room is obviously very private or in our lives. The idea of there are things that I know and I talked about with my friends. There might be different things you put on a blogger on Twitter on liners like that. Uh, how do you think color plays into that? Uh, let's figure that out. I was thinking that my initial thoughts were publicar. It's a little bit more cacophonous. There's a lot of different colors, or maybe shades hues going on, whereas private just might be you. And maybe your significant others may be only one color. It could also be lots of different things going on. Like earlier you were talking about so much contrast that there's almost no contrast, whereas the in private it could be something where there's maybe only only one thing that's this different between the piece. So I'll have to play and figure it out. We'll see. I love that concept. It's really interesting and so much a part of our lives right now because you're right, you know, private in public. I guess it's always been kind of part of people's lives. Maybe, if maybe not if you live in the woods, who no one's easy, right? But if if you're especially for someone like you who's dealing with interactive design, so you have this thing is a very, very private that happens. And yet what's on it? Sometimes it's very, very public. It's a great concept. Um, I'm gonna do spring and fall going off of this season's okay. So for me, I think to immediate things that come to mind are just gonna be colors, obviously, and then emotion for me. Do you have any shapes in mind? Uh, not yet. So feel free to explore different things and don't necessarily think so much about symbols. Maybe the shapes themselves are expressive. Geometric versus organic is a good place to start. And since you're dealing with fall, you might consider using leaves or leaf shapes even. And maybe that's too predictable. But maybe there's something to go without. Okay, shame and honor. Wow. So first thing that comes to mind shapes for the shame would be like in just black and white stripes, like the jail would imprisons us. And then, um, honor might be fired. You know what burns through that? What? You know what's gonna burn brightly after that? So that's very interesting. It's, uh yeah, it's very almost. You're taking it on a similar sort of a metaphorical Teoh, um, similar to what we talked about during the break, because this has been a constant tug of war for me. The left brain vs the right brain and eso we doctor, what? Get it or no more order versus art on and the threat. A lot of this my my brain is going. What's the business visit effective? Like Who's the target audience that has to do with this right? This is about design and play, so I don't very often. And, um, I think originally I was thinking about doing completely different ideas, but it's about the integrated brain, so I dont know exactly where I'm gonna go. Part of our conversation was about the importance of play in professional activity. No, you know, I brought up the example of the musician who's paid to play or an athlete who's paid to play, and yet that's work for them, right? And it's the same thing for artists and designers were paid to play a sense, and if we don't play, then we're kind of cheating our clients, you know, the people who were doing work for creating service war out of a big portion of what they could get from someone, right? We need to play in order to find ourselves in the work in order to put ourselves into work in order to become passionate about work. It's a great concept, and very personal is what you're you're dealing with this as we work here. Nice. Um, I was thinking about man versus machine. Um, does I'm really into technology, but I'm also very passionate about human connection in human relationships. So so humanistic versus kind of, ah, technological or an industrial component is showing like the love hate relationship. Yeah, I think that's a great concept. No, it's It's certainly something that's the That's driven a lot of creative art and films and stories and books is Sunday of how we as humans integrate into this industrialized and technological world. You know, it's it's the stuff of science fiction. It's constantly something that we're dealing with. You know, um, I'm sure interface designers and project centers are always thinking about that as well. How do you take something that's very mechanical and integrated into the human life in typography is a designer. You're interested in type, and we have humanistic typefaces, typefaces that are very much based on, uh, the impression of a hand like a drawn letter. Like Gary Mont has this very sort of hand drawn quality versus a future which is very geometric. Yes, Even with simple things like typography, you can begin to express this idea of human versus the machine. What about color? Um, well, I when I think of machinery, I think of like grays and silvers and really blocky type shapes might be kind of interesting to try to do this project using one Hugh, try to find colors within a hue that are very expressive of, say, that contrast of humanistic versus technological or humanistic versus industrial. Maybe I'm just throwing these ideas out there. It's certainly none of you need to you know, my ideas and run with them. But if if it can be helpful, I mean, we're gonna be We've got a little bit of time here. So there's time to experiment. Yeah. So, thinking about like for love like connection and harmony and then for hate contrast and conflict and distance. There's a thin line between love and hate. Yeah. And have you thought about color relative of that? So, for hate, I was thinking a lot of strong contrasts, um, in in light and dark and in in hues, um, and then for love, trying to make a shape That's maybe all one Hugh, or maybe to Hughes that work together where the edges, or maybe softer on the transitions between the colors, sort of blend a little bit more cause it's more connected. So conflict versus harmony. Yeah, that's an interesting way to think about that. Because harmony can also be about contrast. Yeah, two opposites, somehow working together versus two opposites. I'm out working apart. Yeah. Okay. Very good. So you guys are making dip ticks. So be very clear on that idea that you're making to compositions that work together. So I would say, start with maybe two pieces of paper as grounds and maybe put them side by side, and you might find yourself working on one and then the other. Or you might find yourself working on them simultaneously and making adjustments, and so we're not Since we're not gluing anything down right away, they are glue sticks on the table here, which you can glue down. If you want to make something permanent, feel free to do that. Sometimes it helps to glue one thing in place. Just so you have some kind of commitment to the peace. This assignment is something that I employ a lot at all the levels of my teaching. Um, I love it because it it really engages us to think about concepts in very distinct ways. Opposites, even if you have an assignment as a designer, and your assignment is to promote or, uh, some, uh, transmit a particular idea, sometimes it's a good idea to think about the opposite of that idea and see what would you do to express the opposite? It might actually inform what you would do to express the idea itself. And keep in mind, too, that if it's if it's possible, But if you need anything, I can certainly get up in. But you can maybe also get up and move around if you need to. And it's a little bit. Embrace your starting out with two different colored backgrounds right off the bat here. Yeah, I'm thinking this would be the private one because I think of when I think of private, I think of, you know, not as many spotlights on you. Um and so it seemed like a place to start. Yeah. Also kind of a nice expression. A very simple expression of night and day. Yeah, the night tends to be a private time for most of us. The day tends to be a public time from who's the most? You're talking about some of your inspirations. And you talked about some of them. Today. I'd like to know more about your inspiration for all of the work that you've done and where it's come from. What gave you the passion for teaching? Uh, interesting. It's another good story. How re sharing. Okay? Abuse would love to hear it. Yeah, um, so I I was always good at art. I think most designers and artists are like me. Um, we were not necessarily compelled but encouraged to to make art when we were kids and continuing to be encouraged. And I had the kind of the great advantage of growing up in a in a family of musicians and of my parents were in the floral trade. They grew flowers. They had a ah, greenhouse as well as a cut flower business. And they made floral arrangements for pretty much all the weddings and the funerals and the homecomings. And the high school prom's in our tiny little town of Breckenridge, Minnesota, population 5000. Something or other like that. You know, Um so for me, I was always surrounded by color and by form, and these materials are always available to me. Got me into a lot of trouble to because, you know, it wasn't a good idea of me to go into the ribbons and the glitters and the kinds of things that Styrofoam I love burning Styrofoam. I don't know what it was. It was about that I just go in there and start to make weird kind of sculptural shape by burning Styrofoam, playing with ribbons, colors and and, of course, these raw materials that my parents needed to use in their business. And so they didn't necessarily appreciate me using that. But they didn't say no either. It was kind of nice. It was a very encouraged same thing with music. It was always whatever you need. So, um, that was initial. And so when I got to high school. The question was, Well, you're good at art. So what do you do with that? You know, right away is like, how are you going to turn this into a professional life, Going to turn this into a kind of an activity? And I immediately thought about my parents as Flores. And I certainly consider that as an option for me to go into their business. Uh, but I would tell people in high school I'll teach. I'll teach art. Um, I really liked my high school art teacher. He was a ceramicist. Um, I studied ceramics with him and I ended up going to the art school that he studied at. And as soon as I got in art school, I started to think, I'm not gonna be a teacher. It's much more fun going to be in on the other side of things, then decided that I didn't really want to practice Professional photography didn't appeal to me. Eso I got a job in an interior design company and there they were dealing with color in my task there, since I basically just had a b a in art was to put together the presentation boards. Anyone who's an interior design knows what a presentation board is like. A mood board. You have carpet samples and wall color samples arranged in a composition that began to tell a story. There was a bit of a narrative that was really fun for me. And then along came this opportunity to get involved in Architectural Sign, Ege and, uh, same company. There I was, and I found myself working on a series of signs for Children's Hospital in ST Paul, Minnesota. Uh, and it was my first riel, serious, uh, experience with typography and using typography in a very serious way. What could be more serious than finding your way through a hospital and being directed? This was really interesting for me is using my skills as an artist to communicate messages that compelled me to start to think about graduate school because I hadn't had that much training. I had taken a few graphic design classes, but my focus was really photography. And once I started thinking about graduate school and it was like that idea came back, well, why would you go to graduate school? You got an M f a degree. You're now qualified to teach. And so teaching became a bigger option for me. I knew I could do professional graphic design, but also said, Well, maybe this idea of teaching and the more I experience I had in graduate school with teachers like Paul Rand and Bradbury Thompson and Herbert Matter. These guys were so great and so interesting and just looked like they're reliving these perfect lives, teaching and working simultaneously, by the way, as an art teacher, the expectation is that you are a working designer. It's never about just doing the teaching. You always have to bring in something from the outside, but that idea of teaching. So as soon as I got out of graduate school, my first task was to find a teaching job, and that's kind of how I ended up in this place. And then it was like, OK, what do I teach? So I immediately started thinking about finding ways of teaching what I had been taught in graduate school, using those assignments. The tan Graham, these ideas, the color studies using the Albert's color experiments in Britain and those were my starting points is thinking about the kinds of experiments that I did as a graduate student and how doe eyed Now deliver those lessons to an undergraduate audience. And initially, I was teaching typography. Uh, it seemed to be something that a lot of people wanted to know something about. I happen to be very good at it. Um, it's something I didn't really understand. When I was growing up, my father had grown up in, um well, he had had studied printing and had become a bit of a typographer himself and was a lettering artist. And so even though he ran a greenhouse and he and my mother did all of this work with flowers and arrangements and those kinds of things, he was also the guy who painted the signs for the greenhouse. And I would watch him do these lettering and became very engaged with that. So I knew that typography was something I could do was a teacher. I always integrated that into it. Uh, that became part of the ideas of the lessons. But coming up with these, you know, what do you teach many, many, many long nights just racking my brain and being very, very concerned about the ideas that I was teaching the students. And was I actually passing on something of value? And how do I do this myself? How do I make hold? I not just teach the lessons that have been taught to me verbatim, but maybe make it more personal on that was a big challenge for me initially is how to take these kind of very, I don't know very well known kinds of lessons that I had been taught in graduate school by these very famous teachers and make them personal. And that's been more or less my life. You know, ever since I took a bit of a break from teaching, uh, and went after graduate school kind of straight into teaching. But then, after a while of teaching, I think after about eight years I took a break from it, went out and did just professional practice, actually worked for a bank and design annual reports, got involved in Web design for the very first time, not really informed what I did when I came back to teaching. But teaching is ah, it really is itself a learning experience. What I love about teaching and anyone who loves art school. By the way, if you are in art school now. You want to stay in art school, become a teacher, you'll be in art school the rest of your life. And that environment is so great and something I just love. And even to this day, I really don't want to do anything else.

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.