Find out how color affects branding, how to use color strategically and what to consider when choosing colors to get winning color strategies. Also learn a bit about color theory, color accessibility and color meaning.
- Brand style guide
- Visual disabilities
- WebAIM contrast checker
- The Paciello Group’s Colour Contrast Analyser
- Interview with Leatrice Eiseman
- Accessible Branding and Design course
- Brand Identity Builder
- Free guide: Understanding and Selling Accessibility
- Design Domination Facebook group
Brand Consistency and Recognition
Color is part of what makes up brand recognition. Consistency is key with the brand color palette.
When you’re working with a client who already has a brand identity—meaning you’re not designing or redesigning one for them—you want to be sure to use their existing brand color palette when selecting colors for their project.
If a client’s brand colors are green and purple, for example, you don’t want to use hot pink and black just because you or the client likes it.
So many times I’ve seen designers go rogue and use completely different colors that are off brand, just ignoring the brand color palette. Sometimes this is the designer’s choosing. Sometimes it’s at the client’s request. Sometimes it’s because the designer didn’t ask and the client didn’t provide a brand style guide.
I once did work for a client whose brand colors were teal and purple. I sent the job to the printer, who told me the job didn’t match the two spot colors they were expecting to use. I wondered how that could be, as I was the only designer they worked with, and I had worked with them for years. I knew their colors.
I discovered that the client had decided to change the job to print in black and reflex blue (a dark but vibrant blue) instead—because it was slightly cheaper. Unreal.
That’s pennywise and pound foolish. I mean, how many people received that piece in the mail and then just tossed it because they didn’t recognize who it was from? How much did that cost them in potential donations?
Now if the client wants to rebrand, but they fear they will lose the recognition they’ve built up over time with their audience, you could consider keeping one of their main colors as is or modifying it (such as changing a cherry red to brick red, for example).
You could potentially replace other brand colors with new ones or modify them.
Number of Colors
When it comes to the number of colors, using too many can be distracting. I recommend sticking with two or three colors for a primary color palette, with a few as a secondary color palette. That’s whether or not it’s a brand identity design or what you’re working on from their color palette in a design, like for their website or for a brochure or something.
I’ve seen where larger companies and corporations use a unique color for each of their individual departments, so that could be something to consider as well.
The Right Lighting
When choosing colors, especially from a swatch book, you want to be sure to view them in the correct lighting. In the back of the Pantone swatch books, there are two different squares that are slightly different colors.
When you’re in the proper lighting, they appear to be the same color. You might want to hold swatch books by a window in natural light.
Color temperature is important to understand when selecting colors strategically. When I say “color temperature,” I am referring to how colors are considered to be warm or cool.
Warm colors are reds, oranges and yellows and sit next to one another on the color wheel. Cooler colors are greens, blues and purples and sit next to each other on the opposite side of the color wheel. However, where a warm and cool color are adjacent on the color wheel, a warmer hue can be cooler and a cooler one warmer.
For example, on one side of the color wheel, purple is next to red. Purple is made up of blue—a cool color—and red—a warm color. Purple in general is a cool color, but adding more red to it makes it warmer.
On the other side of the color wheel, green is next to yellow. Green is made up of blue—a cool color—and yellow—a warm color. Green in general is cooler, but when it has much more yellow than blue, it becomes warmer.
What’s important to understand about this is that warmer colors advance. That means they appear to come toward us when we look at them, and cooler colors recede.
So if you want something to stand out on a page, use a warmer color to attract attention.
You could also select a color that contrasts highly with the color it’s being placed against. On the color wheel, choosing complementary colors (those that are opposite each other on the color wheel) will make those colors appear their most intense. This could be red and green, purple and yellow, or blue and orange.
Colors also have different meanings. They influence how people feel, which is an important aspect to design because it’s all about communication.
Some of these colors may actually have different meanings in other parts of the world. I’m basing these off of the United States.
Red is a color that demands attention (good or bad—think about stop signs and warning labels) and it’s a color that stimulates.
Orange comes across as creative, friendly, happy, youthful and energetic. Apparently, it can also stimulate your appetite, which is useful for restaurants!
Yellow is also a happy and energetic color, suggestive of the sun or citrus. It was used for happy face stickers and now with emojis.
But it can also be used as a cautionary color. Think of a yield sign.
Green is my personal favorite! Some green hues signify freshness, health and nature. That’s because it reminds us of trees, plants and certain foods.
Green can also mean hope and luck.
Lighter, brighter hues can feel energetic. Other hues may remind us of money (in the U.S.) or signify envy.
Blue, such a popular color, is often used by corporations. Think about banks too. Blue is everywhere when it comes to banks. That’s because medium to dark hues of blue can convey trust and responsibility.
They can also say “conservative.”
Medium to lighter hues are relaxing and soothing.
Purple is the color of royalty, elegance, mystery, magic and spirituality.
Brown can convey earthiness, reliability and honesty.
Medium to dark browns can be used to convey rustic or richness.
But brown could also say “dull.”
Black can be seen as elegant, sophisticated, strong, or sad, evil or intimidating.
White symbolizes purity but can also come across as very stark and even cold and unfriendly.
Pastels, which light hues of a color, give off a soft, soothing or romantic feeling when used together.
Pairing them with a darker hue makes them feel less so and provides good contrast both in hue and in the visual effect.
Bright hues such as pink, orange and turquoise can signify energetic, happiness, playfulness, trendy, attention or festivity, especially when more than one of them are used together.
You can pair bright hues with darker ones to lessen that effect.
A combination of darker hues can come across as authoritative, rich, overpowering or heavy.
Understanding Color Meanings
Understanding color meanings is important because colors influence, like I said. So you want to find out from the client how they are looking to be perceived, how they want to come across in the marketplace.
Are they looking to be taken more seriously? If their color palette is warm and very bright, maybe you swap out one of those colors for a more conservative color, maybe a darker one.
Or maybe their color palette is too diverse, like a circus, with too many different hues and needs to be condensed.
Do they come across as too impersonal and want to appear friendlier? You’d want to consider warmer, softer or brighter hues.
Do they come across as outdated and want to be seen as more cutting edge? Consider a high-contrast color combination such as a bright and a dark color.
Color meanings can vary greatly among cultures, so researching any potential cultural sensitivities to certain colors is really important, especially if your client is trying to reach a specific group of people or has a business presence in another country.
For example, in the United States, white is associated with weddings, purity, elegance and cleanliness. But in Asian countries, it represents death and mourning.
Industry is also a factor when choosing color. So consider the industry that the client is in and how the client wants to be perceived.
Choosing a color that many others are using might make them look like belong in that industry, but choosing one or more completely different colors will help them stand out. That would be effective, especially if they want to be seen as a disruptor in their industry.
To see what I mean, go look up financial websites—banking, investing, etc.
Look at educational sites. Look at real estate agent sites. Many of them use similar colors within their industry.
Now here’s an example of an unexpected color in an industry. You might know the bank ING.
They use blue, a conservative color and a common color used in the banking industry, and orange, which is a very unexpected color in that industry. They even leveraged the uniqueness of the orange by naming their savings account after it—the Orange Savings. That orange makes it more memorable to people.
You also want to consider the demographics of the client’s audience, such as gender and age and education level.
Fun, bright colors work for a teenaged female audience, but darker colors might work better for an older male audience.
An audience of high-level professionals might prefer more subdued or more conservative hues.
Colors combinations with higher contrast better serve senior citizens and people of all ages who have a visual or cognitive disability.
There are about 2.2 billion people in the world with a visual disability. Visual disabilities that would be affected by color include:
- Color blindness (which affects 8% of males and 0.5% of females); and
- Low vision, which could be from macular degeneration, cataract, diabetic retinopathy or glaucoma.
Individuals with cognitive, learning and neurological disabilities are also helped by sufficient contrast but also when color is used to reinforce, not convey, meaning.
Some of those disabilities include:
- Down syndrome,
- Multiple sclerosis,
- Traumatic brain injury,
- Attention deficit disorder (ADD),
- Dyslexia and
- Seizure disorders.
There are a lot of free tools that will check the contrast ratio of a color combination and tell you whether it’s sufficient or not. I like the WebAIM contrast checker and The Paciello Group’s Colour Contrast Analyser.
This is important to consider for all audiences, but even more so for clients who serve an older population or anyone with a visual disability (other than blindness, of course). That’s not only to serve them better but because it’s costly to fix this later, when the accessibility of the color palette is an afterthought.
I often need to modify a client’s color palette (one that I didn’t create) or I might have to redesign some parts of a brochure or publication when I remediate InDesign files to be accessible.
The client’s not usually thrilled about that, even though I do my best to maintain their brand integrity as closely as possible in the process.
Their original designer didn’t bring up this topic and now design work is being redone. It’s very costly.
If you want to learn more about color, definitely check out my interview with Leatrice Eiseman of the Eiseman Center for Color Information & Training and the Pantone Color Institute in episode 23.
If you’re interested in enhancing your branding expertise, I have an Accessible Branding course. It will help set you apart from other designers who aren’t bringing up accessibility, which is the majority of them.
It will help you be seen as the hero to your clients because you’ll be saving them a costly color palette overhaul later when they want to have an accessible brochure or website or whatever later on.
You’ll be helping them reach more people, and they will be seen in a more favorable light by their audience, which is great for branding and for business.
Also check out my Brand Identity Builder, which will give you a process for brand identity design and also enhance your branding expertise, especially if you’re just beginning with this.
If you want to find out more about accessibility, grab my free guide on understanding and selling accessibility.
If this has helped you, I would be delighted if you left me a review. I’m trying to get more reviews. I’m trying to reach more designers. So I’d really appreciate that.
Share this with another designer that you know.