10 Color Tips from Graphic Designers

by Kelly Kordes Anton

InDesign power users spend a lot of time discussing how to make colors that reproduce accurately and consistently. But before you create a color, you need to know what color to create in the first place. Unless you’re confined to black and white or your clients’ brand colors, you need to create color palettes for new clients and projects. So, where do you start?

“When it comes to color, many designers—​and especially clients—​view its application as a purely decorative process without any thought given to what they’re trying to communicate, how the use of color relates to their product or service, or how it will affect their target audience,” says Hugh Enockson of Enockson Design. “Granted, some are very talented ‘decorators’ who have the ability to select appropriate colors that ‘magically’ work for the job at hand. However, I think this is the exception, not the rule.”

Think about your own process—​are you a decorator or a communicator with your color?—​and then see if you can find inspiration for carefully crafting color palettes here.

1. Start with Personal Preferences

When you start off with a new client or kick off a new project, first find out what colors the client likes and has in mind, recommends Eric Shropshire of Creative Quadrant. “Color is so subjective,” says Matt Bargell of NORDEN41. “Some people hate blue, so even if it’s the right color for the project, you might not be able to use it.”

“When you hear ‘I don’t like that color,’ it’s an emotional reaction based on memories,” says Enockson. Bargell agrees that logos, in particular, need to start with what the client likes and wants. However, he notes, “It comes down to taste. I chose a ‘scrub green’ for a medical records company, but they like pink and we used that.”

Color preferences are often developed during childhood due to positive associations, such as a favorite shirt or stuffed animal, school spirit colors, even foods and room décor. According to a survey by global marketing firms Cheskin, MSI-ITM, and CMCD Visual Symbols Library, Americans favor blue by a whopping 42 percent. Which color do they least like? White—​but don’t let that discourage you from using white space to rest the eyes in your designs. Men and women prefer different colors, so keep that in mind when working with clients. Both sexes like blue and green, while men prefer black and women like purple. Color preferences also change with age, with preferences for purple increasing and green decreasing. Meanwhile, the dislike of orange increases with age.

While you certainly don’t need to limit your work to a client’s favorite colors, you are likely to find it easier to work with them if you at least avoid colors they hate.

2. Consider the Industry

“If your client is a vampire, the logo will probably be red,” jokes Bargell about color expectations. Graphic designers in Colorado have been busy creating logos for legal medical and recreational marijuana stores, and so far they haven’t strayed from the obvious green. “You pick colors related to the industry,” says Shropshire. “Blue equals service. Green equals medicine.” Steve Gray of NORDEN41 adds, “You’d be crazy to make an oatmeal box mint green. Warm colors like orange, maroon, and beige equal organic food.” (Figure 1)

Figure 1: Enockson Design’s coffee ad doesn’t stray far from the color of coffee.

While no hard-and-fast rules exist, certain colors do pair well with certain industries—and those color combinations are no accident. Quick: what color is the IBM logo? Yes, Big Blue uses blue to indicate strength and stability. High-tech companies in general favor blues, as do insurance companies and heath care providers. Red makes people hungry, so it’s popular in the food and beverage industries. Real estate and pet care companies favor cozy warm oranges and browns (Figure 2). You see a lot of black, brown, and beige for traditional professions such as money managers, attorneys, and architects. If you’re not sure where to start with an industry, skim StockLayouts.com for ideas.

Figure 2: Creative Quadrant used subdued brown hues for this logo to communicate the upscale, prestigious nature of the neighborhood.

3. Create a Vibe

Color creates a vibe, whether it’s stable and reliable, fast and nimble, open and friendly, energetic and bold, or quiet and confident. “The brand goals should drive the selection,” says Enockson. We all know the color of a power tie, right? (In case it’s been a while since you’ve seen a political debate, it’s red.) Red also means passion, danger, and excitement.

We started with red, so let’s look at the vibes in “Roy G. Biv” order—​red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Orange is a happy and playful color. Its close relation, yellow, is also cheery but offers a hint of warning, like a yellow light. Green equals growth, along with a natural, healthy outlook (Figure 3). You get a stable, peaceful, loyal vibe off blue and even more off the darker indigo. Finally, purple shades such as violet are colors of wisdom and royalty that also scream fun (Barney, anyone?).

Figure 3: Straightline Design’s cover for a green building magazine wouldn’t make sense without a green header.

4. Look to Trends

While logos demand careful color selection that will stand the test of time, campaign or event graphics can use trendier colors. Bargell recommends Googling phrases such as “hot colors in 2014” for of-the-moment inspiration from the fashion, film, art, and music industries. He emphasizes, however, that it’s important to pay attention to trends without ignoring reality.

Color trends are influenced by what is happening around us, whether it’s in politics, society, sports, music, or technology. For example, in World War II, wearing khaki became fashionable. The optimistic 1950s brought bright colors, while the tumultuous 1960s introduced tie-dye. Today, international influences are promoting richer color palettes. Pantone’s color of the year for 2013 was the rich Emerald Green, and 2014’s color is the bright Radiant Orchid. Many organizations study and forecast color trends, but Pantone’s Color Institute is at the forefront, creating a chicken-and-egg scenario. Does a color becom
e popular because Pantone says it will be? Or does a color start to become popular before it’s recognized by Pantone? Whether you love or hate trendy colors, the important thing to remember is that the colors you select should complement your message (Figures 4 and 5).

Figure 4: Creative Quadrant’s catalog layout features black and gold type to complement the metallic accessories popular for the fall of 2013.

Figure 5: Another Creative Quadrant catalog layout featured a bright green color for spring.

5. Think About the Emotional Reaction

Steve Gray focuses on his emotional reactions when selecting colors. “If a glance at a design says ‘Christmas’ to me, I’m probably using too much red and green,” says Gray. When presenting to clients, he works to communicate that emotional reaction so they understand the color selection—​even if they’re not favorite colors.

Emotional reactions to color are formed in part by cultural and personal experiences. While reactions vary among genders, ages, and cultures, people generally have the same reactions to colors:

Red: Exciting, passionate, dangerous

Pink: Sweet, young, energetic

Orange: Friendly, tangy, pleasing

Yellow: Energetic, warm, cheerful, cautious

Gold: Stable, elegant

Green: Alive, friendly, organic

Dark blue: Peaceful, stable, logical, trustworthy

Light blue: Healthy, cool, young

Purple: Elegant, mysterious, regal

Black: Sophisticated, strong, somber

Gray: Cool, mature

Brown: Earthy, wholesome, stable

Beige: Durable, Natural

White: Pure, simple, honest

6. Complement Your Message

Color should be an integral part of a design—​not an afterthought. “The elements of design—​images, motion, scale, texture, light, style, typography, and color—​are all thought of simultaneously as they relate to the branding and communication goals,” says Enockson. “All of these elements as well as color should support a strong concept.”

The key here is to identify the message. If you’re working on a logo, work with the client to understand the key values of the company. For a campaign, figure out the message. Whether it’s visit my restaurant, buy my phone, use less water, or stop smoking, the colors you choose can help promote that message—​or take away from it. As mentioned, red makes people hungry, so it’s a great color for a restaurant coupon. Green is a color of birth and renewal, which is not a great choice for a funeral home brochure. You want to be sure the emotional reactions evoked by the color work with the message (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Creative Quadrant’s logo for an image and color science consultant needed to look edgy and modern, and the selected color had to match, as closely as possible, in CMYK and RGB.

7. Don’t Offend

If a product or service is available around the globe, remember the cultural considerations of color. “A former company I worked for used purple as the predominant color for an amusement park campaign. Everyone hated it because purple was generally associated with Christ’s passion in Europe at the time,” says Enockson.

Many colors bear cultural, political, and religious connotations that designers should heed. Few colors are considered outright offensive; usually, it’s just a matter of misusing a color. For example, using green for a Republican party brochure is not going to fly. In Islam, green is a holy color, so you probably don’t want to use it in a restaurant campaign. You can’t be expected to know every issue with every color, so work with your client or your clever friend Google to identify any taboo colors for the audience.

8. Stick to the Tried and True

“Choose opposites or adjacents on the color wheel, combine a saturated color with a lower contrast color, or use a cool plus a warm,” says Bargell, who prefers a minimal color palette. Giesen emphasizes using opposites on the color wheel as well, particularly when a client’s logo color really doesn’t work for a job.

Color schemes that use colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel are known as complementary. Complementary color combinations include red and green, purple and yellow, and blue and orange. The contrast creates a vibrant look that draws attention (Figure 7). Color schemes employing colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel are called analogous. Generally, analogous color schemes involve three colors in which one is dominant—​for example, red, orange, and yellow. Analogous color schemes occur in nature and are harmonious to the eyes.

Figure 7: Matt Bargell of NORDEN41 used color opposites to produce this packaging. You can also see Tip 8 in action as the beige takes on a gold look without the expense of metallic ink and the cobalt blue fades to a purple.

9. Get the Most Bang for Your Buck

Punch up two-color jobs with wise color selection. “You can use tints, transparency, and overlapping effects to stretch a two-color job,” says Tim Giesen of Straightline Design. “For example, a dark blue can tint to baby blue and gray.” InDesign provides many tools for stretching a color, including tints, gradients, and mixed ink swatches. The Swatches panel menu provides access to all these tools.

10. Don’t Forget Production Issues

What good is a color palette if it won’t reproduce? While you probably know better than to plan a gold foil for an ebook cover, spend some time thinking of as many possible color situations as you can. “Consider all the applications—​embroidering the logo on shirts and hats, for example—​and make sure the colors are available. Find out if
the logo needs to work in black and white in addition to colors,” says Enockson. Nonprofit organizations, in particular, may reserve color letterhead for special projects and print normal communications in black and white (Figure 8).

Figure 8: Enockson Design’s color palette for a shopping district took into account printing its signage as well.

Still need color inspiration? Head over to Adobe Kuler to browse color palettes from thousands of other Adobe Creative Suite users. As you check out the colors, keep Hugh Enockson’s advice in mind: “Color is a powerful tool to evoke emotion, excite, entertain, engage, and—​I can’t think of another “e” word—​influence.”


Kelly Kordes Anton works for Creative Quadrant. She writes regularly for filethis.com and growthegame.com.


Posted on: May 21, 2014

Mike Rankin

Mike is the Editor in Chief of InDesignSecrets.com, InDesign Magazine, and CreativePro.com. He is also the author of several lynda.com video training series, including Font Management Essential Training, InDesign FX, and InDesign CC: Interactive Document Fundamentals.

4 Comments on 10 Color Tips from Graphic Designers

  1. Great article. Thanks for posting. I will be sharing with all my clients and new prospects.

    Mike J.

  2. Typography is one of the most important elements of any graphic design. In order to create a visually pleasing graphics, consider using contrast between text blocks and surrounding empty space in your typography. You really can also create excellent visuals using contrast between one font and the other.

  3. Thanks for sharing the tip about associating a color to the brand. I’ve seen many times a brand fail to become popular because it just didn’t seem to fit with other similar products due to a faulty logo. It’s important to keep that in mind, thanks again!

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