Choosing color combinations

All important but often elusive: tips on creating your next color palette

Color is a subjective experience, it is a mental sensation, a reaction of our brain. We say that an orange is ‘orange’. But is it really orange? How do we know? We cannot get outside of our eyes or brain to find out, but we do know that when the sun or light disappears; color vanishes. We take colors for granted. It’s only when we are actually drawing or painting that we realize how much value color brings to our daily life.

Color theory in a wrap

cover image of Design of Flight magazineTo learn about color, you first need to understand the structure of color. A color wheel shows us how color is structured. We start with the three primary hues: yellow, red and blue. These are the basic building blocks of color. Next we have the three secondary hues: orange, violet and green. Then follows the third generation or third level: yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green, and yellow-green.

The color wheel (See Figure 1) shows us which colors are opposite to each other on the wheel. Blue is the opposite of orange, red is the opposite of green, yellow-green is the opposite of red-violet. These are called complements. Furthermore, we can divide colors into warm or cold colors. The colors on the bottom right, derived from blue are cold colors, those derived from red are warm colors.

Which color is suitable for which purpose?

Sometimes finding the right color combinations can be really hard, especially if you have to start a project from scratch. If your client already has a logo, a house-style or branding guidelines, you have a starting point. But if it’s your job to design that house-style, the first thing you should do is decide which style the logo should reflect. And with style comes typefaces and colors. Color plays a major part in all this. It symbolizes a certain mood. Does your house-style need cold or warm colors?

Colors reflect a certain personality. They also have several meanings, most of which are closely connected to each other. For example, blue stands for sky, heaven and water. It reflects freedom and peace, but it can also mean cold, protective, authoritative or technical. Red is the color of blood, it reflects courage, romance, but it also means hot, dynamic, vital, commanding or alert. All these symbolic connotations are perfectly visualized by Claudia Cortes in her Color in Motion, a real treat for the eye (the eye has its claims too).

You may not be superstitious or believe that colors have actual meanings, but you ought to consider them. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we consider those meanings when we judge an artwork or design. These generally accepted meanings often play a role in determining whether we like or dislike what we are looking at. Darkness will always suggest danger and mystery.

Colors effect us psychologically regardless of any symbolism, because in some cases they don’t apply; it all depends on the circumstances. For example, black may signify mourning, but a tuxedo is also black and it signifies elegance. We all prefer bright vibrant colors over dull grey, but sometimes grey can be stylish too; it all depends on how we apply it in our design, it depends on the circumstances. But we should also be aware of the fact the meanings of color are different depending on the culture. For example, in most Western cultures, white symbolizes purity and elegance, cleanliness. However, in many Asian countries, white is also a color for death and mourning, and used for funerals. As with any design endeavor, make sure that you don’t only understand the psychological effects of colors but that you also know the nuances of the culture and audience you are designing for! This way you’ll have a better chance of success in achieving the emotional impact you want.

What makes a nice well-balanced color combination?

To define the colors for your project, choose a set of colors that fits with your client’s logo. This color set should be limited. This way, you get a stronger brand or identity. The overall use of too many colors could result in chaotic and unintended effects. It can get your design totally out of balance. In other words, it will loose its style and personality.

fig.1 color wheel illustration - fig. 2 examples of complimentary color schemes that are pleasing to the eye - fig. 3 examples of complimentary color schemes that don't work; they feel out of balance and inharmonious

When you choose your shades, there are a few things you should keep in mind. First, there should be enough contrast, and secondly, it might be advisable to have one complementary color. For instance, if you have a set of three colors, Color One should be in contrast with the Color Two and Color Three. Alternatively, Color One could be a complement of Color Two or Color Three. Using complements is not exactly necessary but it can help you achieve nice results. (See Figure 2) Using contrasting colors is important to achieve an interesting well-balanced design. For example, try to have two light colors and one darker color. Or you can have a light color, medium light color and a dark color.

Too much contrast can result in a restless or even aggressive design. (See Figure 3) It might of course be your intention to achieve this effect, but if so, make sure that the eye has some resting place in your layout. A rest-point is (I believe) necessary to keep it all in balance. You see, besides using the right color combinations, you should also think on how you dose these colors. Try using them in the right proportions. For example, use the lighter color for the bigger areas like the background and the most vibrant color on the items where you want to attract the attention to, like the logo or title. The middle colors can be used for the text and other items.

Using one complementary color can even increase the ultimate effect, but there’s a bit of a catch to this method. You have to be sure to apply them in a subtle way. If you excagerate and get it out of proportion things will get too overwhelming (See Figure 5). If colors are wrong applied or don’t go nicely together, they can make your design rather unharmonious. It’s up you to find out what is suitable or not, after all, colors are a subjective experience. One might like the combination while another doesn’t. So what makes you have ‘good taste’ in colors? Tastes differ, we all have different meanings of what is attractive and what isn’t. Yet still, the world would be unbearable if there wasn’t some general agreement. Luckily, by following these simple guidelines, you’ll have a better chance of achieving the optimal result. If you get stuck, you might find Adam Polselli’s Get The Look a nice source of inspiration on the latest color trends and styles.

fig. 4 examples of color schemes that use the right amount of contrast - fig. 5 examples of color schemes that are too high-contrast  - fig. 6 examples of color schemes that are too low-contrast

Color inspiration

It’s been said before, but bears repeating: inspiration can come from anywhere. Always keep your eyes open for color combinations that you like. Examine photographs, pay attention to the vibrant colors of nature, and most importantly, keep experimenting!

fig. 7 color extracted/derived from the photo

More color resources at my link list.

Since Design in Flight isn’t available anymore, I thought I publish the article I’ve written about color combinations for the magazine in April 2005. Many of you probably missed that one and I thought it couldn’t hurt to publish this on my blog here for you to read and hopefully to learn as well.

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