Color 101: Essential Tips for Choosing Color Palettes

As a designer, color is constantly on my mind. Whether I’m designing my own graphics or creating a brand for a client, I’m mulling over color schemes, creating palettes in Illustrator, scrapping those palettes, and doing them again.

Color is an important part of design, but it's also an important part of life in general. When you’re picking out what to wear every day, you’re making specific choices based on color, whether you think about it or not. Ancient cultures used to believe that certain colors have healing properties and even today, psychologists are finding that certain colors can influence people into acting or reacting in certain ways.

Thinking about color this way reinforces the fact that choosing color for web design and branding is not always an easy task. Learning about color theory and color psychology is helpful when you’re trying to convey a certain message through your design.

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Color psychology:

Different colors affect people in various ways. People inadvertently make assumptions about a brand partially based on what colors are presented. Advertisers and designers take advantage of this to support the message they’re trying to send. Every color choice should be made with the type of project and message in mind:

Blue: Blue is a universal favorite among men and women. It signifies trust, stability, and peace. Blue is also a common corporate color. Large corporations such as GE, Ford, and even Facebook use blue as their primary brand color.

Green: It’s no surprise that green often symbolizes growth, as it’s often seen in nature. Green is also associated with health and wellbeing. Animal Planet, Whole Foods, and John Deere all have green in their logos.

Orange: Orange is seen as a happy, creative color. It also symbolizes confidence. Products like Fanta and companies like Dunkin’ Donuts, Nickelodeon, and Etsy utilize the color orange.

Purple: Purple is a color associated with luxury, royalty, and power. Besides my brand, other companies that use purple include Aussie products, Hallmark, and Yahoo.

Red: Red is a strong, emotional color. It can signal excitement and love. Target, Canon, and Netflix all have red logos (I guess I secretly love the color red because these are all of my favs!).

Yellow: “Happy Happy Happy” (anyone know where that phrase is from?). Yellow is a color that’s warm and optimistic. Ikea, McDonalds, and National Geographic use yellow.


Color theory:

So now that we’ve been over how color makes people feel, it’s time to put them together into palettes. Most brands have multiple colors in their palette, usually consisting of a primary shade and some other supporting colors. You can choose your own custom palette, or you can pick one of these no-fail methods:


Analogous: This is when a palette includes a group of colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. It’s important to make sure there is enough contrast. 


Triad: A triad color scheme is when you use every fourth color on the color wheel.


Monochromatic: Using shades, tints, and tones of the same color, monochromatic color schemes are harmonious and calming.


Complementary: Complementary colors are opposite of each other on the color wheel. While red and green can be wayyy too much (unless it’s Christmas!), these orangey pinks and greens look great together.


Choosing your own palette:

Choosing colors for a project is a fun step in the design process. Really think about what kind of product, company, or service you’re designing for and who their target audience is.

Your client will often come to you with a color or two in mind, but it’s your job to pick the right shade and build a full palette to suit their design needs. Sometimes that’s only two colors, sometimes it’s six. It depends on the brand. T Mobile uses primarily hot pink + gray, while Rusche uses a light tan, darker brown, red, mint green, and more.

Quick Tip: Neutrals are an essential part of every color palette. They provide a solid base to the brightest of colors. Try incorporating white, black, grays, and tans.

Compiling great color palettes takes practice, but with a solid knowledge of color theory and psychology, you’re well on your way! A good resource when you get stuck is Kuler by Adobe.

I love any kind of muted teal and my favorite type of scheme is analogous. What is your favorite color + type of color scheme? Comment below or send me a message. Enjoy the weekend!