When you’re at the grocery store or shopping online, what catches your eye? What brands and visuals tend to stand out (I’m looking at you, Pop-Tarts)? What colors do you notice first? Even if you don’t consider yourself to be naturally creative or artistic, you undoubtedly understand what grabs your attention.
For designers, trying to choose an effective color scheme can be a daunting task. The stakes are often high. It’s a long-term commitment, and you want to get it right. You want your name and message to be noticed and, more importantly, you want it to be understood. So with all of the color options and combinations available, how do you choose a palette that works for you? Here are a few questions to help you along the way:
What brand parameters, if any, are currently in place?
If the project requires that you work within a branding or style guide, this is your starting point. You’ll want to begin by using any predefined colors and build from there. For example, if you are working with a client and they have an existing logo and color palette, start with those and find complementary colors with the goal being to create continuity between the brand and your work.
Note: If the company or brand you're working with already has a style guide, they probably also have competitors. It's a good idea to avoid color schemes that appear in a competitor's visual presence, so do your research and know the market.
What is the overall message and tone of the piece?
Whether you’re working with a client or on your own, this is a good time to make some notes. Think of some words that describe the message you want to communicate and jot them down.
Note: If you’re working with an existing brand, you’ll want to use words that describe the message they want to communicate. It’s important to remove your personal tastes as a designer from the equation.
Think about how color affects your mood. What colors do you attribute to certain emotions? For example, when you think of the color blue, what comes to mind? You will likely attach a different emotion depending on the hue, tint, tone, or shade of blue. A deep blue may communicate somberness, while a light blue might create feelings of peace and trust. It’s important to understand how different colors are perceived from an emotional standpoint. The last thing you want to do is create a design intended to be fun or inviting and accidentally use colors that evoke anxiety or sadness.
How does color context impact the design?
Color context refers to how we perceive colors and the way in which they interact with another. How we perceive a color is dependent upon the context in which we see it, so think about the design in terms of contrast, juxtaposition, and environment. If you’re designing a billboard meant to grab the attention of passers-by, you wouldn’t want to choose a low contrast combination such as navy and black. Conversely, if you’re designing a financial report, you wouldn’t choose to add a border of red and orange flames (I mean, maybe you would but I wouldn’t advise it). Understanding how the design is meant to be viewed is a critical part of choosing an appropriate color scheme.
If choosing a color palette still feels ultra complicated, here are a few logical rules to guide you:
Analogous color schemes are created by pairing one color with the two colors directly next to it on the color wheel. This combination often produces a more muted color palette, so it would not be a good choice if you’re looking to develop a high contrast design.
Monochromatic color schemes are exactly that: monochromatic. This combination is created using tints and shades of one hue. As with analogous color schemes, these lack contrast and are not ideal for grabbing a viewer’s attention, but they often produce a clean, minimalistic, and polished palette.
Triadic color schemes are created by combining three colors that are equally spaced around the color wheel. This scheme offers high contrast, but it can seem overwhelming if all of the colors are the same tone. Try to choose one dominant color and vary the other two colors in tint.
Complementary color schemes are created by pairing two colors directly across from each other on the color wheel. This combination also offers high contrast, so like the triadic color option, it’s good to vary the secondary color in tint.
Split complementary color schemes are comprised of one dominant color and two colors directly adjacent to the dominant color’s complement. This option provides high contrast and high interest, but varying the tint of each color will likely create a more visually appealing palette.
Lastly, here are some tools to help you get started:
Adobe Color (previously Adobe Kuler) is a free online tool that allows you to create and adjust color schemes. It also features hundreds of pre-made color schemes to help you quickly find an option to suit your needs.
Illustrator Color Guide (found in Adobe Illustrator) is likely to be the go-to for any semi-experienced designer. It’s a great tool because it allows you to choose one color, and it will automatically generate a five-color palette for you. Similar to Adobe Color, it also provides a number of preset palettes to help you get started.
Note: I often pull photos into Illustrator and use them as a starting point. Simply place an image in the application, then select the Eyedropper Tool to choose an initial color. Color Guide will provide several preset options with a scale of tints and shades.
Preset Color Guides is a great option for Microsoft users. All of the Office products come with preset color schemes, and you can manipulate them to find the right combination for your design.