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Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application

Lesson 2 of 20

Natural Awareness of Color & Playing


Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application

Lesson 2 of 20

Natural Awareness of Color & Playing


Lesson Info

Natural Awareness of Color & Playing

through observation, we develop a natural awareness of color, and this is something that we all do. We start to see flowers. And these pictures, by the way, were all taken out on the eastern end of Long Island during one of ah, wonderful summers out there. And we start to see these things. Uh, and we can't become accustomed to certain kinds of color combinations. This beautiful reddish orange red orange against the blue sky. One of my favorite color combinations is blue and orange and red orange like this, in particular with the blue sky. And look at how beautiful that is. And with the green coming in the bottom over there with those great flowers, the pedals a very, very light violet or a light purple and with the yellow inside the tomato tomato is really a fantastic representation of a segment of the color wheel. We see orange, red, yellow, yellow, orange, green so literally that's half of the color wheel there in that one tomato. Down here we have some yellow and some green, really ...

beautiful over there, with a jack by this beautiful purple light purple with a little bit of green and yellow in the background. And then, of course, the monarch butterfly, which is our version of the orange. It's so beautiful sitting on that nice orange flower with experience, we learned the names and associations of colors is again something we all do. Fire trucks are red. Grass is green. Barney is purple school bus, banana, big bird water. These things are all very familiar to us. And we all learned these associations and those associations become very important to us in terms of our identification with this color. Okay, this just happens throughout our life. We be in new associate ideas, objects, things with color signs. Target the heart. Willy Wonka. Um, the diversity flag. IBM recycle smiley face develop an awareness of color shape by our day to day experiences. But for us, as designers, as people interested in design, we need to go further. We need to distinguish ourselves. And we do this by looking for knowledge by looking at colors and trying to understand what colors are doing and what colors look good together and why. This is one of these studies we do in my classes. We look at famous works of art and we try to figure out what colors are going on. We develop an eye for color. You guys are gonna be doing things like this today, working with colors so plain and learning. Um, I did a book called Playing With Color, and it is really about this idea of understanding the process of learning through play. And what do we mean by play? Play is really experimentation. It's not knowing what an outcome is going to be. If you think about a game, uh, any kind of a game we might play, We don't know what's going to happen. We just know what the boundaries are, what the rules are, uh, what the expectations might be. But we really don't know the outcome, and that's a good way. To think about art and design is not to really have a sense of where it's going to end up. We have an idea of where it's going. We have ideas about boundaries and perhaps rules. I love this quote. Play is the highest form of research Einstein, and that's really is true. How could you become more invested in a subject matter or in an idea, then by plane with it? By experimenting with it by opening yourself up to all the possibilities. These little square pieces of paper are used to explore color possibilities, color relationships. You guys are going to be working with things that are very similar plays vital to the education of artists and designers of all ages. Typical classroom. You're asking pictures. So what would you describe that kind of artwork on the wall with the words colors? Because we're gonna be covering that. I believe we are going to be covered that those air Tan Grande has for the most part. And, um, we'll come back to this later. Yeah, it's an interesting idea. Some of us I actually never did Can Grams and I was a kid, but some of you may have done 10 grams. Um, but we come back to that when we play. Were experimenting often with a set of boundaries of rules. I'm gonna be talking a lot about this guy, Paul Rand. Some of you may know him. Uh, he's, uh, uh died in the mid nineties. I believe he was one of my teachers in graduate school and introduced me to this whole concept of playing and experimenting and He listed all these ideas, these factors that are part of play but also part of the design process. Motivation, competition, challenge, stimulus, goal, promise, anticipation, interest, curiosity, curiosity, skill observation, analysis, perception, judgment, improvisation, improvisations so important coordination, timing, concentration, abstraction, discretion, discrimination, economy, very important patients. Restraint, exploitation, excitement, enjoyment of discovery, reward and fulfillment. All ideas that are part of play. Also part of work. This wonderful quote. Without play, there would be no Picasso have capitalized his name without play. There is no experimentation. Experimentation is the quest for answers. That's a quote from Paul Rand in an interview with Steve Hiller. Tan Grams. So a tan Graham. How many of you are familiar with Dan Graham's anyone here you are a little bit, I think it's Ah, it's a collection of shapes. It's in a square, broken into exactly, but none of you had little blocks it where maybe, when I show you an example of this, one of the keys is making the most with the least so a tan Graham is in fact, a square that's been divided into seven pieces, five triangles, a square or diamond shape and a parallelogram, and this is a very old idea. It's been around for thousands of years, perhaps, I think, invented in China. And the idea is to cut these pieces out of paper or do it digitally, and we're gonna be experiencing mention with it both ways, ultimately and moving them around to create different kinds of compositions. And through that process, getting used to this idea of geometric form, those air, the moving parts there. And so we're gonna be working with that, cutting pieces of paper up and moving them around. We start to work with them in ways that they become compositions. Sometimes the compositions are very literal. Sometimes they're symbolic. Sometimes they're abstract. Here's a suggestion of structure or stability is a suggestion of movement In each case, it allows us also to explore color and to think about how color can be used in a geometric composition, as figures and as ground. Very beautiful little doggie. It reminds me of my doggie. No, they're great expression of movement. Here's a tan Graham, a robot created on the computer cigarette lighter person looks like they're on a motorcycle or without the motorcycle, someone skating down there. So the town Graham is a way of creating symbols, and for anyone who is interested in designing symbols or icons, this is a great place to start. It's a great exercise just for learning about simple composition and delivering messages in a very simple way. Grids and Stripes. Again, we're going to be covering these ideas in class. When we work with grids and Stripes, we're gonna be talking about color contrasts. And this is the realm of Johanna Sitton, And one of the things that it brings to us is this idea of the seven color contrast. And here we have five of those seven listed contrast of light and dark, probably the most accessible of all color contrasts. You think about light colors. We think about dark colors. We think about light variants of a color and dark variants of a color. And a variant is just a one particular idea of a color. So light green, dark green, warm and cool. A warm color, meaning that it's positioned on the color wheel in the area of the orange and reds and yellows. Cool opposite side of the color wheel. Blues, purples, some greens. Vivid and dull. That's really saturation. Color can be very strong, Very vivid could be dull. De saturated, complementary colors. We talked about that and proportion this idea that you can use colors in certain proportional relationships where you develop a sense of importance so a color can be something that stands out or blends in. That's what the grids look like. Have you guys ever done anything like this? Put colors together and grids. When you're working with color palettes, it's really interesting to do. This is very simple exercise. You can put together any kind of a grid. This happens to be 36 units six by six and just by cutting out squares with a square punch or by hand if you want to do that. But a square punch is very, very easy, very quickly. And if you have samples of color, which you can get through calorie packs or perhaps even just going to a paint store, you can cut these things out and put them together and very quickly come up with some really interesting ideas is an expression of contrasts, of temperature, of warm and cool. Sometimes people paint their grids with wet media, an expression of light and dark another expression of light and dark, by the way, black and white and graze our colors. We're gonna be talking about those as colors even though we don't necessarily associate these with, say, the pure colors like red and green and blue. These air still expressions of color, contrast of light and dark. Sometimes we make them out of found materials. Another thing we're gonna be talking about in the workshop Isse found objects found materials you hear the colors are cut out of magazines. Little graze ring texture into it. You could create beautiful a raise and compositions just based on contrast of light and dark, with the addition here of contrast, of texture and look at the compositional strategy. We have this dark area and then a lighter area. So we create a gradation from dark to light as we move from this area out. Another example of contrast of light and dark. And here the compositional strategy is also very, very similar to the last one. The latest area in the centre darker around the outside. Contrast of light and dark also great. A very calculated, very strategic design strategy where the great Asian moves from a medium green to a very light green and then progressing up to this corner to the darkest green contrast of light and dark. A painted grid contrast of light and dark with a little bit of warm and cool thrown in. So we see some of the blues I can hear being a very pure blue. But then we have these others over here, which are almost more blue violet into go purple, slightly warmer blue so even blue can have warm and cool variants. Here's a nice expression of color temperature, warm and cool. Now, sometimes with this contrast contrast of warm and cool. We actually since the colors. So when we look at this, we sense warm and cool. Here we see a color system. When you're working on grids, you can be very strategic. You can try to come up with a plan, and the longer we look at this, the more we see how clearly it's devised. The centre green, green, green, red, red, red, blue, right in the center. And as we move out, there's a system a little bit of a clear assistant here, with gradations of warm to cool. We take a lot of our cues from nature. Complementary colors red and green, red and green is perhaps the most evident of all the compliments that we find in nature, although sunsets, blue and orange, a grid based on red and green. So there we have warm and cool variants of red, the cooler variants moving toward purple, the warmer variants moving toward orange. Also green green is a great example of warm and cool here. Yellow, green, light yellow green, more of a standard green and then blue greens so greens can be cool. Greens can also be warm variations of red and green. Also variations of saturation. Don't vivid contrast of temperature. Warm and cool contrasts. A saturation vivid and dull. So we have very vivid yellow, duller, darker, yellow, very vivid purple of lighter dollar purple. So when we talk about saturation vivid and dull, we have to understand that a color can be light and vivid or light and dull or dark and vivid or dark and dull. We were looking at proportion sexually, a theory, uh, that colors used in certain proportional relationships, very specific relationships. In the case of yellow and purple, it's 123 so one part yellow, uh, combined with three parts of purple, will create a sense of balance. Also here, when we look at this composition, equal numbers of red and green squares and more blue and no one color stands out there all kind of equally important. So I zlook at that, and we're not really focusing too much in any one color. Sometimes we used found materials to make these grids. The fish pieces of a lime, a leaf, parts of a coconut skin. A beautiful contrast Ingrid with variations of saturation painted grids made with a very, very thin wash. These are expressions of opposites again, something we're gonna be talking about later in the workshop. These are split complementary colors, a very interesting color set. So usually when we're talking about complementary colors, we're talking about two colors. But we can also have a split, complementary color where we're talking about three colors they perform. A very similar function will be talking about this later as well. Contrast of light and dark contrast of vivid and dough, complementary contrast yellow and purple address of light and dark, vivid and dull. Is there dipped ICS compositions that work together to form a single unit. And I love this idea of using color chips made out of colored paper to create a grid, but then trying to replicate that with found materials and something we're going to be working on later Contrast that saturation. So we look at each one of these colors the primaries red, yellow and blue. And then this down here, this color of cool chromatic gray. Down here in each one, we have light and dark. We have a little bit of vivid and dull. These what it called concertina as full. That panels that work together to tell stories of narratives in a sense, journeys from one side to the other that begin to suggest changes in color. I have a question about that, actually, Richard jumping here. This one's coming, Richard say, in terms of vivid and dull, would you say that muted is the same? A stop It is neutered, diffused? Yep, we love simple answers. By the way, this is all the work of my students. Uh, and it's great to see these examples. We owe our our thanks to them for creating these things. These great examples that tell us about color that teaches about color and in these concertina is We're really talking about transitions in this case, transitions of warm to cool. So these are all very experimental. It's all about play, taking a Siris of color squares, grids, applying them to a cube, hanging it in the woods. Uh, this is very interesting in a friend of mine has a collection of bandannas, and we did this really interesting experiment just by folding them up. And here we have contrast of texture. Also contrasts of warm and cool. Literally all the colors of the color wheel are represented here stripes. So along with grids, we often work with stripes. It's a very different kind of compositional model, but allows us to explore color and get a different way. Warm and cool expressions of opposites. Those are actually the same colors just used differently in different proportions. When it's his expression of warm was an expression of cool. This is interesting. This is actually a series of colors that are expressions of music, something I'm interested in and something I experimented with a lot, and, uh, one of my former students made this project for my book and took drill the color system in which the 12 notes of the musical scale are each assigned a color. And then he took song in this case, A Hard Day's Night and try to create the colors. A syriza strike compositions based on the vocals the bass and I believe drums. No, I'm sorry. Guitar bass and vocals, I think so. Each path of color describes one of those parts of the song. It's an interesting way of coming up with a beautiful work of art, and we look at this and we don't necessarily associate it with a song. Become something else. And so it transcends its original idea, Finally arranging colors on your bookshelf. Using found objects, you can think of books as stripes of color. And so this is something that a lot of people do. It's a fun thing to do with your own books at home. Rather than arranging them by topic, you arrange them by color of the spine, sometimes taking off the jacket. And it's an interesting idea. Some designers actually think that this is a really good system for arranging books. If you think about how books are designed, typically a designer will you guys air had an experience with book design. Um, you might say, Well, I'm gonna choose a particular color for the cover based on the content of the book. And so simply by looking at the cover, you might get a sense of the content of the book. That's a different way of color coding, right? It also just very beautiful and fun.

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.