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Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application

Lesson 17 of 20

Learning from the Masters


Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application

Lesson 17 of 20

Learning from the Masters


Lesson Info

Learning from the Masters

So this is a great expression drawing with scissors and you will have scissors. Here is, of course, you have pencils to what do you think of that phrase? Drawing with scissors. What comes to mind when you think of that? Shapes? Yeah, cutting out shapes and it's It's a way of thinking about lines, right, except with a very different kind of tool. Yeah, and the outcome tends to be a little bit different just because of how the scissors is employed. It's a very different kind of a process, so it typically lends itself to irregularity, um, accidents, serendipity, things that you wouldn't necessarily try to do. You find yourself doing just because it's Ah, scissors, and it's very, very awkward in some way. Some people are really good with them. Uh, I tend to be good with certain kinds of things with scissors, but it definitely has a very specific uh uh usage and feel when you're using it as a tool for drawing. Now this phrase running with scissors is Matisse's own phrase for what he made in...

his later life. I've mentioned this show that's at MoMA in New York that came to MoMA from the Tate in London, and it's a show of the work that on remedies. Well, how many of you are Are you familiar with Andre munchies? A little bit. Um, you've probably seen his work, even if the name doesn't really necessarily ring a bell. And this is even if you're a home. Certainly, if you're a home, you could do a Google search for Matisse. And if you add the word cutouts C u T o u T s. That's actually what he called his later work. He was a painter for most of his life. Um, and then later on, he became basically Ah, he was He was ill, and he couldn't really get up out of a chair anymore. And so he couldn't stand it Any salon paint, and so that compelled him to do things with art in a different way. And that's when he started using this idea of drawing with scissors. Uh, the work still employed a lot of his ideas about color and form and subject matter, but it was all rendered in this way that was very, very different than working with paint. Um, and again, if you do a Google search or if you just go to the Museum of Modern Art site the moment dot com site dot org's. Sorry, um, you'll see his work. Matisse. She's cut outs, inspiration for students and working designers. Now this looks an awful lot like one of Matisse's cutouts, but it's not. It's actually the work of one of my students, and it was actually made, Um, not too long ago. Last Friday, it was made on the spot in class, and, uh, scale isn't necessarily clear here, but right down here you can see electrical plug. So this piece is about eight feet tall, and that is actually what Matisse brings to us as well. Is this incredible scale looking at cut paper? You guys today have been working with cut paper on a very small scale. A lot of it has to do with immediacy and sort of what we have to work with here. But he's worked at this scale often. Not all of his cutouts air are this size, but the most magnificent ones the ones that came sort of later in his life are these huge pieces. So I took my students in New York to see the show, and they made a serious projects that were informed by me. Jesus work. And what I asked the students to do was express something with cut paper at a monumental size that they loved. And so this is an expression of what it is to be a woman and what it is to be a mother and down here, an expression of pain suffering here, an expression of emotional anguish over here, an expression of feeling depressed and then appear, an expression of motherhood or comfort. And then this beautiful form right in the middle. So here we have an expression of perhaps the womb. But it's also a figure that encompasses everything. Everything is wrapping around this figure. So you remember the idea of figure and ground looking out powerful. That white shape is in the center, so that's an essential part of Matisse's work. And hopefully it'll become an essential part of your work. We've been talking about this all along, has a very important part of design. I gave the the example of the FedEx logo. Well, this is the same exact thing, using both figure and ground to tell your stories. Color here is very limited, and in the work I'm going to show you. The colors are very, very limited. I asked the students specifically. It only work with one color to keep things very, very economical. Later on, when you do the project that is sort of going to be informed by this, you can work with multiple colors, or you can work with one color, a hero color of some kind. This student shows blue, and we talked about how blue is often a symbolic color of, um, security and balance serenity. Perhaps I also love the use of line to distinguish these shapes. What what the students kind of look like when they're working. You can see the scale of the work here. So in this case is a Siris of objects rendered in a very symbolic way, not unlike the Tan grams. I don't like some of the forms you guys were working with earlier, semi abstract, semi representational. But everything here is it's pretty clearly understood. A lamp, a woman, a ring, a book as flying a bunny, some nature a tree leaves coming off of a tree vase, hat cup shoe. This is actually a representation of sewing and is the most abstract element within this cluster. For me, it's supposed to be a needle and thread. And, of course, how do you abstract at this scale a needle and thread? This is the students attempted doing that. It's a beautiful use of shape, very simple. The spaces in between are very considered and great expression of contrast of size, Another key principle of design. This was a collaborative project, so students work together to hang the pieces, this person's expression of something they love with tennis and the color was informed by her first tennis racket. I love this piece. It's everyone's gonna working together, and there it is. Does that remind you of What's the first thing you think of when you look at it to me like a like a skyscraper in like a monorail or something like that? Monorail. Anyone else? Skyscrapers well, looking down from the top, bargained for Yeah, so it was, in fact, a roller coaster. So you're very close with the monorail thing, and the skyscraper thing is also part of that, because when you're on a roller coaster, Europe High and your down low and there is this idea of great velocity, great speed. But look out. The black and the white play together to tell the story. Mrs Gray. Just sort of as a building process. Can anyone see what that is? That images? Yes, something that this guy loves. Is it something related to the ocean? I'll pose? So snowboarding. Yeah, so you can see it. The head arms. There's the board. There's snow kind of coming off of it. So it's very abstract up here. The He was actually talking about how he loves the snowboard at night. And so these representations of the light that's coming up of the big lights that tend to illuminate the course the slope. It's a beautiful shapes. This is about the holiday of, I guess, the Christmas holiday people coming together until home. And I love these little things, which are all representations of snowflakes, different kinds, so simple sparkle and spin. The Children's book and it's some Paul Rand did with his wife in 1957. I have a copy of that. I think it's somewhere I'll dig it up later, but I have a few things that we can kind of look at these air the end sheets, and right away we get this sense of playfulness and color, and here we see the shapes. We see the emphasis on both figure and ground as we move through. This sparkling spin is about words, and it's a Children's book. It's meant to teach Children how to use words, what words are all about collage all about using cut paper. Now he's also drawing on pieces, which you can feel free to do also with today. I love this piece, the jester. Look at that. I how similar this is to those snowflakes that my student worked on in this. This I love a pair becomes a bunny, and this is the shape that was cut out of that. So Matisse does this a lot to where he'll take a shape that he's cut away from something and then use the background also in the piece, or maybe exclusively in the piece. So that's a little bit of being open minded to what you have in front of you. You might be cutting out of shape and then recognize that what you've cut out the background is actually the useful part. This is getting to where you guys are gonna be working. So your assignment now for the next hour or so is to create a composition that is an expression of anti war, an anti war poster, in a sense, but you're not going to be working out poster size. You're gonna be working. Small says Paul rans, Anti war peace. He actually called a desk mass death mask done in 1968. So, in response to the Vietnam War, did the beautiful use of color Black, white, green, blue, Very, very simple Cut paper shapes. You can see how this shape is really just cut away from this and how that black shape actually goes behind the white shapes so that these holes are cut out of the white shape we see straight through it. There's a little bit more of that black shape over here. And look at this. How beautiful this is. The skull is holding the olive branch right in its teeth. It's a gorgeous piece. I actually have this poster at home, and I love looking at it. It inspires me every day and not in a negative way. I don't look at it with sort of a sense of Oh, it's foreboding or anything like that. I'm also a big fan of the cross of a skull and crossbones imagery, and so I tend to collect that stuff. But this I find really, really very inspiring. Think about the idea of visual hierarchy. Where do you look first? What's the most important part of this? What would you say? Also the white? Yeah. So the green and the white are really playing off of each other. But that green branch in particular really is important, right? You would think that the white would be really almost more important, but we tend to focus more on the green. Perhaps because it's more of a positive form. Yeah, emotionally positive. Okay, So what do you guys think? Antiwar poster. Working with cut paper. Now you've got some pencils in front of you. They're colored pencils and some pieces of paper. So my recommendation is to start sketching on this and you can use your notebooks as well as you prefer to do that. Come up with some very quick ideas, maybe spend 10 minutes, maybe 15 minutes, just sketching out some very quick ideas. If you'd like to use words, you can do that. You may be cut letters out of paper or tear them out. You can employ any of the skills that you've learned so far in this assignment, you can employ any of the paper samples that we have. Um, you can even use the colored pencils, if you like to. I would think that maybe sticking with paper for now and definitely we're gonna want to glue these things down. So think about making compositions that perhaps are more simple than complex, so you can actually do things down, but definitely spend some time conceptualizing it. Try to come up with some ideas that are really expressive of anti war and colors that are expressive of anti war. Okay, Okay. Any questions? Good work. Thinking about how they're going to approach this. I'd like to ask you a little bit about Paul Rand, because I know in your bio somebody's inspired your enormously and you've worked with. So tell us about your connection with him and how he's inspired you through your career. Well, first of all, I would say there's a wonderful our archive of his work at Paul, hyphen rand dot com or dot org's I think it's dot com, and if you go there, the site has actually been updated and you can see all of his work there and right at the top. There is a disclaimer. I think that says, if you are looking for Rand Paul, this is not the site, but it's kind of funny. The connection was of I barely knew anything about him before I went to graduate school, I had seen a few, uh, articles. Actually, there was a, ah, champion paper and old paper company. I know if they're still around or not. I don't think they are. But they had done Ah, little booklet about Paul Rand. It was very interesting to me and had a few pieces of his work in there. So then when I went to graduate school and I found out that he was going to be one of my teachers, it just It blew my mind that this guy was actually going to be here and I had our I also knew that he had designed the IBM logo, and I was kind of inspired by that as well. I didn't know that he was someone who was doing Children's book illustration. At that time. I really thought of him or is A Is a corporate designer is a commercial designer. I didn't know anything about this kind of, Ah, use of cut paper. This book, by the ways, is also we'll take a look at that Slater sort of as we go. Um, the first assignment that we did with him in graduate school was a layout, a page layout of one of his essays called Design and Play Instinct. And right away you know that that idea of play became apparent. To me that is part of his work. And that's actually the assignment that turned me on to the Tan Graham because it was part of that essay. And that s a design of a play. Instinct is also included at that website. And if you were to Google design of the play instinct, you come up with the full text to be able to read about that as well. Um, he was influential in terms of form dealing with simplified forms, this idea of reduction, uh, trying to reduce the composition down to his few pieces as necessary to take away and take away until you can't take away anymore. Very influential in terms of color, not color theory, just use of color. He loves these kinds of saturated colors and way. Just look at some of these. Peace is in the book here. Didn't this book I got on eBay? And by the way, if you if you want to look at some of the stuff that's collectible, you can go to eBay and some of these things are really expensive. But sometimes you get kind of lucky. This has actually got this great inscription over here, it says to Jeff, with Love on David's first birthday, 5 25 59 beautiful sparkle and Spin. Then there's that piece. So what Paul Rand really epitomized for me was the connection between art and design. And he really explained very clearly the distinction between graphic design and advertising design. That graphic design was in most cases, more about providing information and that advertising design, in most cases is about persuading people to take action. And that distinction was really never fully explained to me until that he talks about that and one of his books, My favorite Book of His, which is called the designers art, and he emphasized that in order to be a good designer, you have to be an artist first, and you have to employ the skills of an artist. And so his influences are Matisse and Miro and many of the early modernist painters, Leisure and Picasso. Those are the people he talked about when he was talking about his own influences, and the influences is that his students should have, not necessarily other designers. We all tend to do that, but to be influenced by other kinds of things painters, photographers, filmmakers, people outside the room of design, bringing those kinds of ideas into our own work. And that, to me was really encouraging as a photographer. And it enabled me to see this bridge between art to what it is to be an artist, which I felt like I had always been to some degree and then to be a designer where there's always a problem to be solved. You're working in the service of a client. I usually have a very defined kind of set of expectations, as opposed to being an artist where you're defining your own expectations. You're defining your own boundaries in your own rules. I saw that bridge very clearly when he began to speak about it. Very influential, also very influential in terms of how he taught you never really told us necessarily to se out, Um do things, you know, This way or that way he would. He would set boundaries for us, use these colors, use this typeface. But then he would let go and allow us to experiment. And then, of course, when we came back and showed him the work, he would tear it apart and more or less kind of redesign it in the way that he would redesign it. And from that I learned that a one way of of being a student and one way to learn about design is to try to put your mind to hide. You put your head in the headspace of that person, that designer, that teacher, and to try to think like they think. Which is what I did ultimately. And it's always worked for me, you know, I go back and read his books. I will be inspired by it. It encourages me to try to think the way he thinks No, I would never, ever be able to do that, of course, ever at that level. But I try and it inspires me and inform us my work and enables me to sort of continue to be enthusiastic about design. Work is still very much in use today. IBM, absolute ABC, Westinghouse ups as well. I think there they're all still very much in use. UPS says No longer around. Sadly, huh? Ups the original logo, If you look it up. The original Paul Rand Ups logo is a present. It's a little boxes, has a bow tie, and the story goes that that was inspired by his daughter looked like a present, something that's being delivered. That logo was redesigned, I believe, about 10 years ago to be more of Ah, like a Web icon. It has the dimensionality and a little bit of a drop shadow and, um, and not to take anything from away from the designers who made that. But a lot of people were really saddened by the disappearance of that logo, and I think it compelled a few people to try toe, create some kind of a graveyard for good logos. You know, a place where you can go to look at these things and to honor them in their own way. But you're absolutely right. He also designed the Enron logo. Kind of interesting. The logo for Steve Jobs company after apple in between apple, apple and apple. Uh, the computer company. Was it next? Next? Computers? Nearly nineties. It only lasted for, like, three or four years. That sounds like the right night. Yeah, um, he designed a proposed local for Ford. He decided a lot of things that never really got off the ground, either. No one things I read in his Barkley, That which I found very interesting was when he was working. He liked to work very much in isolation. He didn't work with the team even though he could. But when he was actually coming up with concepts, he just like to work entirely intensely and focus. He had one assistant that his whole life, Uh, a guy whose name I still don't know, Um, and worked out of his house for most parked and went in Connecticut, I believe. Um, all right. He actually invited the students there occasionally to come to Critz, But I always got that sense of into and that Elvis all has been very inspiring for me. Uh, remember once being accused of being this one of my teachers accuse me of being a graphic design cowboy, and I thought immediately, Well, it's because I'm from the Midwest, you know, Maybe it's just that, but no, it's about independence, about being someone who works on their own. And I really engaged in sort of embraced that concept. And even to this day, I'm I'm much more comfortable working on my own. Now, obviously, is his logo workers is extremely famous, but as you've already explained, he also did a lot of posters. What do you think inspired him? And why did you choose today to do the antiwar messaging in this particular exercise? I like the relationship of this work to McCheese, and since Matisse's On My Mind and something that is something, it's it's a very accessible, medium cut paper. I wanted to do an assignment with cut paper today, in addition to everything else, because we're working with papers and we have all these beautiful papers and I knew we'd have to a lot of leftovers, which is perfect, because when you do cut paper compositions, you don't go out and buy a bunch of paper. You just kind of use what's in front of you. And sometimes it's magazines like Randa's in this book where you might just take a page out of, ah newspaper or magazine and cut that up and use it in different ways. He was very much into this idea of improvisation. Now, whatever is in front of you, you just kind of pull in peace and bring together on not being so consumed with sort of the hunting part of it, but really sort of passionate involved with the materials around you. But yes, a follow up to the things we did this morning with the tan grams and the leaf compositions and the expression of opposites. I thought this would be an ideal place to go, and we are involved at this point. In a lot of conflicts around the world is something we're all thinking about constantly, not just the wars, the actual pill, political wars and cultural wars. But, you know, the other kinds of wars there were involved with, you know, this whole thing with the terrible Ebola thing that's kind of a war in itself, right? it's Ah, it's a war of thinking. It's, Ah, war against fear. So I thought this would be kind of an interesting opportunity. It's also very now it's, ah, very emotional for a lot of some of us might know people who are involved as soldiers in the war, and so we have a very personal stake in these kinds of issues.

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.