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Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application

Lesson 8 of 20

Interaction of Color Practice - Part 2


Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application

Lesson 8 of 20

Interaction of Color Practice - Part 2


Lesson Info

Interaction of Color Practice - Part 2

Okay, so this is good. This is starting to happen. So this is starting to push toward that. And this is pushing toward that. He started long enough and literally you're staring up here in this area, kind of away from the centre dots. How long you stare, the more the effect becomes pronounced, and it's never, ever going to reach the brilliance of this yellow. But it pushes in that direction. It becomes more yellow still, it's really fascinating, right? You have these two colors in the backgrounds, and they have such different effects on the foreground color. I think about the implications of this. If you're a brand manager and you've got a brand color and you're trying to imagine this color and different grounds, what do you do? How do you keep that color consistent? It's a big deal, right? And that may explain why certain brands choose very, very specific colors like red. And they say you can only use this color against white, or you can only use this color against black. They have ver...

y specific rules. The graphic designers I know who aren't in the branding business who are kind of on the outside of it, Um, are often annoyed by this because it's so limiting. But these are the kinds of things you have to think about what is going to happen to your hero color when it no longer looks like your hero color. And it has everything to do with its context. It's background. So that's very typical for brands to try to really control how the colors air used Are you doing with that? Well, now, with these big fields here, I think we should go to Ah, slightly different. Where's the all right here? Let's go to, um, this is one of the ones I did last night. So we see that That's actually one color. We see it covered up here and starts to look different. I want to play with this one of water. Okay, So create this assignment. A Z I think I said earlier has been taught in our schools. Uh, Albert started teaching it, I think, in the forties and then really developed it when he was teaching at Yale in the fifties and created his book in the early sixties. And so it's a continuation of many years, many different experiences, and then since that time has been taught by his students to other people. Ah, and those students continue to teach their students and their students continue to teach their students. So it's more of this continuum of color definitely look different. Yeah, I think if you go perhaps a little bit more purple on this. Since this is yellow and we're looking again at complementary colors, the purple is going to remove itself from this and make it look a little bit more yellow. This actually looks pretty good in terms of thistle, but I think if you were to put a more purple, slightly more purple background, it's even a little closer to that. This is a difficult concept. This is not easy. It's ah, as you can see. But once you arrive at something, I think what we'll do is save those colors. And then perhaps you can use those colors later in a free study. So when you find something you like, just kind of put that one aside and we'll go back to that later and revisit it. It's easy to see the light and dark changes. Colors are gonna look dramatically different in terms of their lightness and darkness. It's definitely more difficult and also more surprising to see what happens when the hue also starts to change slightly. When you see the subtraction of the hue that might work. Having a hard time with red and green? Yeah, red green is tough. They have equal I'd values, so they're not going to have a dramatic effect on the changes of light and dark. It's going to be principally about the hue. So as you subtract green from this and as you subtract read from it, it's going to be very different so we can see how this has actually becoming a little bit greener. Looking more green because you're taking the read out. This one is a little bit tough. I don't really see that. So I would say I think we still need to find something a little bit more neutral. Try changing the red to something a little bit duller. A dollar red. Yes, Sometimes it's a matter of literally looking at this color here and saying, What can I use to make that a little bit better? How you doing on the app? Uh, yeah, I think if you change that ground color a little bit. Now you have to You have the added issue here of looking up there because it looks different over here. So you sort of have to figure out with the correlation in between this and this, it's one thing it's hard enough to do it there and then to try to do it up here is Well, it's tough again when he find a color combination that she likes. Save it. And we're going to use those later in a free study. Now, Richard, a lot of people asking online because they've seen all these wonderful papers that you've been using our streets have been using here in the studio. Do you have, ah, preference for a paper supplier or someone that you actually go to get all this really wonderful stuff? Color rate is available at almost all our stores. Uh, and you can buy it online at all the usual places. Um, including the user will place always has it. You get better prices, obviously if you do that. But it's just colored paper color. Eight color aid and cholerae paper was not developed for this assignment. It was developed for, I think in the forties for textile designers and then was discovered believed by Albers students as it's actually pretty interesting as a way of utilising, you know, color for this particular project is this color rate stuff. But it was first industry supplier for textile designers. Initially, Elber students used color swatches from magazines, books, anything that was printed. They didn't have this kind of a resource, and so they were constantly just finding color swatches and color papers. And there was a lot of sharing because it was just so difficult to find these things. The students would share their colors. It is a question. Yeah, I was wondering, How do you feel about other online tools, such as cooler made by Like Adobe De, which has now become adobe color, used to be called cooler. That's a great tool. It allows you to sample the color in a photograph or any kind of a digital color image, and then very quickly generate palettes. So light and dark pallets, warm and cool pallets and vivid and dull pallets. Essentially, what you were doing this morning with the color grids is something that now is automated through adobe color, formerly cooler and That's a really great out to have to. Nice thing about that, too, is Adobe has their online community. I think I think you can upload your palates and share them and also have access to them on any device. That's a really good device. Really good thing for mobile applications of color. No, pretty good. It seems like if you if you don't know if this is cheating. But if you there is no change, go. Okay, well, then, if you pick kind of in between the colors as they are on the wheel, then it kind of does a lot of the work. Like, um, just just finding the to on the on the edges and then looking for the one on this wheel that was in the middle makes it seem that's the secret. Is finding the middle color right? If we're doing it with colored paper, it's the same exact thing you're finding that mixture color. Same thing with the monochromatic palette. You're finding that middle purple that's in between those two that's going to have that particular effect. So again, color subtraction. There's two different things that are happening. Subtraction of light and dark so the background will subtract itself and either make the color look lighter or darker and also the subtraction of hue. The color will actually take itself out. So if it's a yellow background, that yellow is going to remove itself from whatever colors on top. Now this becomes really critical, obviously, for people who are working with, like painters, um, photographers. So the same color can look very, very different on different grounds, and you can produce really interesting effects that way, if you have a limited range of colors to use three, or if you're trying to create something with limited range color, you can get a greater range of colors, the effect of a greater range of colors with very few colors based on your color choices. Actually, our teaching system. Christine, I'd like to know. Actually, how does this relate to your work as a designer and indeed a letter? Oh, well, yeah. I mean, we're thinking about how I'm thinking about it more of like in a print layout and having my colors that clash clash, and we're talking about colors that clash or having a hero color. And like a magazine layout, for example, I'm Actually, this is This is kind of new to me, like having the subtract like the color, subjection and all. And I'm kind of excited to apply it to a lot of my work in the future because I was like, Oh, I never thought of that of using, like the same color on different backgrounds. And maybe how does that help? Like the interaction and how I can make something more interesting than when we get to the free studies, which I believe some. At some point this afternoon we'll do that. You'll see it in action. You'll see what happens when you start to make a composition and you have the same color in two different spots and two different color backgrounds and see what happens to it. You can get some really interesting effects that way. Now it's It's also, I think, a valid point to say that this is a purely experimental project and that the applications in the real world are, you know, sometimes hypothetical. And so we can just kind of separate ourselves from out for a man and just think about this as a way of becoming more aware of colors becoming more aware of the effects of colors and increasing our confidence in terms of how we use colors in our own work, but also just kind of in our own. Walking around our day to day lives, understanding how we see color. It's kind of what this is about. It's really understanding this idea that color is completely relative to its background no matter what. So I think at this point we should try to do something even harder. And that's make two different colors look alike using the same principle of subtraction. This so essentially, you're trying to do this. You're trying to take two very different colors, not very different colors. It's neutral colors again and working with them in two different backgrounds to try to achieve a likeness. Now you're never going to get it exact. It's not really the point again. It's just trying to figure out a way of tuning your eyes and teaching yourself to see this. So before we get to this point, you're just experimenting, so choose to different grounds, and then again, you're gonna be looking for a middle color, and initially, when you find those middle colors, they're gonna look dramatically different from each other or the same depends on what you find essentially. Then ultimately, you're going to make this kind of ah, jump and put the colors down below. But initially, just gonna look like this. Making two colors looks like one again. It's about subtraction. Just attracting outside, subtracting itself from here. So taking the green out of this, taking the blue green out over here, taking the lightness out, making this look darker, making look different, right? And seeing those colors down there trying to make these two colors look alike. Okay, so you see, the differences here knows of those two colors. Do you want to continue working with paper? Okay, I'm gonna continue to do a little experiment in on the Yeah, here. So you see how dramatically different they are there. And what happens when you apply the colors, they start to look alike. Do you start with the absolutely start there? Yeah. You can start with two colors that are different from each other and then start to work with backgrounds. It's the same principle is just taking a slightly different route to it. So if you think of the last exercise is trying to figure out what's the color in between each of them. What's the way to think about this one where you're getting two different colors and try and get him look the same subtraction. So think about subtracting the light and dark as well as the hue, right? Same exact thing. Um, just your objective is different, but in this case, no subtracting the blue. I started here and I've subtracting the blue from that bottom thing, taking the blue out, taking the darkness out of it, the top trying to take the orange out of it. So I'm trying to neutralize those two colors. Essentially. Okay. Do you do that? You could start with two very light tints of what you might end up with in the end, a light tint of blue light tint of orange and then darker variants of those colors is backgrounds. Okay, I didn't see what happens. I always say, See what happens. You should try the answer because it's all about trial and error. Yeah, right. And remember the quote from Albert, it's all about trial and error. And through this process, you just become more aware of color. Hopefully become more confident. Hopefully, it's not confusing you more. It might be, but initially again, like dribbling a basketball. The more you do this, the more confidence you gain. The better you become working with colors you mentioned there, Christine, the advice you got from your professor we have a question for you, Richard. From s are the guard. I think that's how you say the same. What was the impact of support? Ran's teaching on you. Tremendous. Uh, I wouldn't be sitting here right now if it wasn't for him. Um, Rand was, uh he was was unique and that he was able to design Children's books at the same time that he was designing corporate collateral pieces and identity work for corporations like IBM. So we straddle that world of the ultra capitalist world of corporate graphic design, corporate identity and then the world of Children's book illustration. And the work has a very similar quality. I don't know if you're familiar with that IBM poster where it's every Revis. So there's a picture of an I a picture of a B and then the letter M. I don't know if you have you ever seen that? And it reads IBM. You know, it's it's a Children's idea. The Revis, It's, uh and he was able Teoh, apply that Teoh a corporation like IBM and make it work and make it serious. And that's kind of how he thought about design and certainly what he tried to influence with his students. He was very exacting. We were only allowed to use one typeface or one Sarah from one San Serif, and it was his choice. Usually he determined our color palettes, which were the colors that he already liked or had appropriated from people like Matisse and Miro, all of his heroes. He was very much into this idea of passing along and aesthetic sensibility. He was a true modernist, and that it was all about less is more. It was all about economy of means trying to do more with less. Um, he was a very religious man, so he was very influential and spiritually and that way. Not that you know, I'm particularly religious, but I definitely understood that and value that value that in him and the quality of his work just spoke for itself. He couldn't be ah, have been a better influence, I think, and as a teacher. I love it because, um, here's a guy who grew up in Brooklyn and talk like Erupted in Brooklyn. But he wrote, like he had spent his whole life in an ivory tower, you know, and was able to articulate things in such profound and beautiful ways, and just it was a lovely experience.

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.