Digital Color Composition


Cynthia Zhou — Analogous "Wistful"

Jean Wong — Split Complementary "Exhaustion"

Will Behrndt — Complementary "Vivid"

Nick Brown — Monochromatic "Glitchy"

Devin English — Triadic "Candescent"

Duration: 1 week
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Project Brief

Using a Google or Excel spreadsheet, create one dynamic color composition that fills columns A–Z and rows 1–50. You can use any combination of hues, values and saturation to make this composition. You can change the width and depth of each cell or column in the spread sheet. Follow the principles of color shared in lecture. Strive to make your color combinations harmonious and your composition dynamic. Use the color wheel to determine an optimal color palette. You should be able to tell us which palette you are using, and why it works:

Split Complementary
Tetradic/Double Complementary
Warm or Cool

After creating your composition, title it with the color scheme and an emotion (one word only). For example: MONOCHROMATIC / CALM

Learning Objectives

Explore color combinations based on color theory, using software everyone has access to


One spreadsheet, shared with a link posted in Canvas



This one-week assignment introduced color theory to a group of non-design majors (Computer Science, Linguistics, Business, Anthropology to name a few). The course was taught online because of the pandemic. I used spreadsheets because everyone had access to them, and most of students were familiar with the software (vs Adobe). 

A majority of the students had never explored the color wheel and color theory. The lecture introduced the various color combinations and terms such as hue, value, saturation, tints and shades. 

The pitfalls: The one word description didn't mean much. One student's "serene" was another's "despair". Perhaps it was a useful exercise for them to understand that color and mood are related but for critique purposes we didn't spend much time debating the appropriate description. The bigger issue was that at least half the students initially created representational compositions: a wave, a sunset, a school of fish, an alien invasion. I did not anticipate this since most design majors are taught to deal with abstraction fairly early on in their schooling. They course corrected after the critique but it would have been helpful if I had been more explicit about what to avoid. 

If you run this exercise, I recommend you show "successful" and "less successful" compositions at the start so students understand they shouldn't recreate Starry Night in Excel. Be prepared for the "Atari" look though — spreadsheets aren't exactly great for color, but it's an easy way to get a group of non-designers (not Adobe software users) to explore. 

This assignment lasted one week: lecture/project introduction on Wednesday; quick review the following Monday (students loaded screen shots of their files into a shared Google presentation so they could see one another's and comment as needed); due on Wednesday. I don't think they needed more time. 

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